School reform - still crucial

EDUCATION Secretary William J. Bennett has again cracked the whip for school reform with his new report, ``American Education: Making It Work.'' He surveys educational progress since publication of the stirring 1983 paper, ``A Nation at Risk,'' and says, in essence, we've got a long way to go. His reminder is well taken. Education reform was a big story a few years ago as politicians, school administrators, teachers, and parents sought ways to respond to the dire picture painted by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced ``Nation at Risk.'' It has since tended to recede from view.

Reform of the 100,000 or so public schools in the United States is, after all, a massive, slow process - not the stuff of daily headlines. It is, however, very much the stuff of equal opportunity, civic spirit, self-sufficiency, and other values most Americans hold dear.

And thanks to Mr. Bennett, the headlines have returned for a time. His point, and it's a good one, is to reaffirm the direction of reform. In doing this, the secretary doesn't note shortfalls alone. He acknowledges improvement in test scores, more time spent on math and English, and a 40 percent increase in state spending on education over the past five years. But the emphasis is unmistakably on public education's shortcomings.

Again, he sounds the drum for a rigorous core curriculum - stripped of frivolous electives. No one can argue, surely, with the need for a strong grounding in English, math, science, and history. Such basic subject matter serves both students' potential to make a living and their ability to function as citizens - to make informed decisions and express themselves clearly.

``Back to basics,'' however, should never become a straitjacket. Biology can be taught through field trips and experiments, or through textbook drudgery. History can mean reenactment of key debates, or memorization of dates.

Good teachers find ways to engage imagination and intellect. They should never have the feeling that someone else is specifying the details of their teaching - only an outline of what needs to be taught. As a concept, core curriculum sets a direction; it doesn't, or shouldn't, imply classroom rigidity.

What about the reach of reform? Secretary Bennett underscores the continued poor showing of many inner-city schools. Again, the need here is for maximum room to explore ways of reaching kids, combined with the toughness required to overhaul schools, if necessary. New Jersey has a new law allowing deficient school districts to be declared ``bankrupt,'' clearing the way for major restructuring and, hopefully, improvement. That's an extreme approach, but in many cities the problem is extreme.

If efforts to improve education are to succeed, teachers must be collaborators in reform, not the scapegoats of reformers. Secretary Bennett's typically blunt emphasis on the need to work even harder should not obscure the good job already being done by thousands of committed teachers. Their numbers have to grow.

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