Jolted Awake by Education Needs

In the 1980s, we learned how bad our schools were; how do we fix them in the '90s?

WHEN Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb (now a United States senator) took the reins of his state at the beginning of the 1980s, he faced a host of problems. What surprised him was the one that became his single most important challenge: the schools. This reality was shared widely by fellow governors, business leaders, and parents nationwide. It was not just that standardized test scores of students had declined: There was widespread unease that something was fundamentally amiss. The dropout rate was a national scandal, approaching 50 percent in some cities and more than 30 percent in most major urban centers. Curriculum and standards too often proved irrelevant to the world of work that students would enter and the responsibilities of citizenship they would assume.

The perception of schools as beacons of opportunity shifted. Schools and entire districts came to be seen as a locus of problems, unable to adapt to changing times, as well as victims of those times.

Pressures on Schools

Forces that originated in the social changes of the '60s and '70s converged and heightened the perception that schools could not cope:

The rise in the number of working couples and single parents profoundly altered the family unit.

The decline in America's economic position was linked to undereducated workers' inability to compete in international markets.

Waves of immigrant children from Hispanic and Asian countries inundated schools, arriving in larger numbers than the southern and eastern Europeans who had come at the turn of the century.

An economic underclass continued to grow. Predominantly urban and minority, parents delivered to the school's doorstep children having needs beyond the experience of many of the middle-class teachers who greeted them.

Drug abuse, including alcohol, wreaked havoc in all communities.

The cumulative effect of these changes on schools came crashing home in April 1983 when the US government released a watershed report, ``A Nation at Risk.'' It predicted nothing short of economic and social catastrophe if American schools did not close the education gap between US students and students in Western Europe and Japan. The critique took on a life of its own, generating further studies, commissions, and legislation in all 50 states. Education became a national priority.

``The scales fell from our eyes about our schools,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., executive director of the Educational Excellence Network. ``We looked hard at ourselves and said, `It's broken; let's fix it.'''

The family, as ``a constant presence in a child's life,'' was less and less the reality for more and more students, says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at Columbia University. Schools have ``glancing relationships with students,'' she argues, ``and you can't talk about [schools] as a replacement for parents.'' Change in the family is the major change that keeps the schools off balance, she says, with parents and educators unwilling to make demands on children. ``It's a form of national self-indulgence,'' she adds, and it becomes cumulative. ``This is what is frightening.''

At the same time, what schools needed to teach became more demanding. ``The social capital that we used to get from families, schools now have to provide,'' says Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction for the state of California. No longer can a high school graduate - and certainly not a dropout - count on getting a job just because he or she is willing to work.

``The spectrum of the international market is more demanding on workers,'' says Mr. Honig. Simply absorbing ``facts,'' which will change regularly and often during a lifetime, is no longer a student's role or a school's mission. ``Much more sophisticated learning, as well as learning how to learn, must occur for a much greater proportion of all students,'' he says.

Fewer Students, Lower Standards

Colleges and universities, partly as a result of declining enrollments and partly as a result of changes in curriculum brought about in the turbulent 1960s and early '70s, eased entrance requirements.

``The signals were adverse,'' says Arthur Levine of the graduate school of education at Harvard University. With colleges being less selective, high school guidance offices and school boards lost a major incentive to keep standards high, he says.

It slowly dawned on us as a nation, says Ed Carangelo, principal of a high school nationally recognized for excellence in science education in Niskayuna, N.Y., that ``Ten years from now, there will be a robot or a computer working at a McDonald's. The question is: Will it be made in America? Or Japan and West Germany?''

In addition, a sea change occurred in the way school districts were run. Control reverted to the state from the local level, while the Reagan administration retreated from involvement with local school districts, especially in direct federal funding.

America's traditional teacher corps of highly talented women was being drained. No longer limited to careers in teaching or nursing, women headed, en masse, into other professions.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of education majors in the 1970s and '80s ranked in the bottom quarter of all college graduates. Baby-boomer parents found themselves in a position no other generation of parents had been in: Many were as well or better educated than their children's teachers.

There was a demographic shift as well, with consequences in the makeup of the teacher force. Due to a decline in the number of births in the late 1960s and early '70s, enrollments in the '80s declined from historic highs.

Young college graduates, especially the brighter ones, knew there would not be teaching jobs waiting for them and looked elsewhere. A further barrier to the best and brightest entering the teaching profession: Starting pay, especially for those trained in science and mathematics, was grossly out of proportion with that of other opportunities.

Concern for Underclass

Conservative politicians, as well as a broad spectrum of the public, linked concern about the caliber of teachers with an increased concern about the failure of any relevant education to reach a nearly permanent underclass located in urban centers and concentrated in minorities.

Two approaches surfaced to deal with each of these problems:

Alternative teacher certification allows nonteachers to become teachers more easily. Public-school choice plans permit parents to select the public school their child will attend, and tax dollars follow. Neither tactic has been adopted widely enough to prove whether better schools will result, although initial signs are positive in New Jersey and Minnesota, the two states with the most radical alternative-certification and choice plans, respectively.

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