Despite a general concensus that United States public schools need major reform, most Americans see the problems as everywhere but in their own backyard. They tell pollsters year after year that their own neighborhood schools and their own children are doing all right. Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education and now head of the Educational Excellence Network, points to results of a recent global survey of math and science performance among 13-year-olds.
``It didn't surprise me that American kids were at the bottom of the world in math performance,'' he says. ``What did surprise me was their answer to one of the background questions: `Do you think you're good at math?' Guess whose kids led the world thinking they were good at math while trailing the world in being good at math?''
In Dr. Finn's view, the president and governors meeting in today's education summit would do the nation a service by ``beaming out'' the message to the American public that the problems in education are ``not just somebody else's, `they're yours, Joe and Sally.' There's kind of a discontinuity between the national perception of a problem and the awareness that it means that I, and my kids, and their school, have to do things differently.''
The Monitor asked seven leaders in education, ranging from policymakers and academics to teachers and administrators, what one change could most improve public school performance. Three, including Dr. Finn, put agreement on national educational goals and ways to measure them at the top of their list.
``We need a clear sense of what is a minimally adequate, educated American,'' says Finn.
``I think we're very close to agreement on what the goals should be,'' says Richard Mills, Vermont's Commissioner of Education. ``A national agenda is just floating right there.''
``The challenge now is to find a balance between local control and national results,'' says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ``We need to give a lot of freedom to local schools to creatively pursue the goals set.'' No one advocated a national curriculum or standardized test.
And none of the educators argued that a national strategy for education reform is the whole answer. More changes are needed if student performance is to improve.
Students must work harder
Part of the unwillingness to demand more of today's students stems from the assumption that if standards are raised for everyone, the disadvantaged minority student will suffer, says Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Consequently little is usually demanded of students in either group. The result of such small expectations, she says, follows students into the job world where it often shows up in low productivity.
Parents should do more, says Dr. Ravitch. ``They need to act as parents, to say `I want you to accomplish something,' and to set limits on their kids' activities and TV-watching.''
Teachers must demand more
Patrick Welsh, author of ``Tales out of School'' and a teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., says youngsters who don't measure up are often passed along from grade to grade: ``Korean kids will tell you that in their country education is a privilege and you don't mess around with it. In the American system of universal education, nobody pays the price. If a teacher steps in, in cities where there's a mix of kids, it's going to be low-income black kids who are penalized. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and the [National] Urban League will start screaming and no principal wants that. Teachers know the kids will just play the system. ... We don't value education enough.''
Mr. Welsh also argues that more poor teachers need to be weeded out and that better teaching is needed: ``We need people who think smarter and who aren't just into rote memory and controlling kids.''
Having time to watch one another teach would help many good teachers become better ones and to feel less isolated, he says.
More money, spent more fairly
``Improving the schools is going to cost money - people have to come to terms with that,'' says Claire Sheff, superintendent of schools in Hull, Mass. Speaking from the perspective of one who has witnessed repeated voter rejection of school levies and a new state budget crunch, she says a better and fairer way of financing schools must be found - and that the federal government should lead the way.
``Look at Bush saying he wants to be the `education president' and then look at how he funds things,'' she says. ``If he can bail out the savings and loans, why isn't he doing the same for schools? It's all talk and no action.'' Classroom `reality check' for reforms
Bernard Gifford, vice president of education at Apple Computer, Inc., and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, uses the analogy of a funnel. At the top are all the national academic groups, each acting independently, pouring in curriculum ideas that they think teachers should teach. ``The problem is that the experts never get together and that they're always adding things. I've never seen any group of scholars recommend that anything be eliminated. ... Teachers either become confused or cynical.''
Dr. Gifford has a specific suggestion for the Bush summit: ``I would ask the governors and the President to rate and rank every reform in terms of how it will actually impact on the quality of the relationship between pupil and teacher. ... Many `reforms' haven't had one iota of impact there. ... We need to stop talking about reform from the top down and start talking about it from the bottom up.''