The Economy's Learning Curve

SHIFTS in interest rates and prices spur officials to pull various economic levers. Their decisions are felt by everyone, right in the family budget. Decisions to adjust the United States public school system are no less important to Americans' economic well being. But the effects are much less immediate, and officials are much less confident about which levers to pull, or who should pull them.

A report by the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Project should help change that.

It solidifies the link between improved schooling for poorer, non-white Americans and a stronger US economy. A third of the nation will be Hispanic, black, native American, or Asian in 20 years. A third of the public school enrollment already is.

The QEM study represents two years of work by a network of educators from all parts of the US. Its recommends 58 ways of making the public classroom a more engaging place for minority youngsters. These include elimination of ``tracking'' systems that sometimes assign minority kids to early failure, more and better summer programs, improved pay and benefits for teachers, involving minority parents in school programs, and embracing diverse cultures in the curriculum.

The ideas aren't new, and some are recipes for controversy - for instance, possible friction between a multicultural emphasis and traditional ways of teaching US history. But they are thoughtfully presented and provide a clear path for action.

Action is overdue. The high school drop-out rate for black Americans has fallen sharply in the past 10 years, but so has the number of blacks going on to college. Thirty-six percent of Hispanics leave school before graduation. Statistics hide a lot of individual success stories, but the overall picture remains bleak.

The QEM report and other analyses of American education envision schools that leave ``assembly line'' education - bland curricula, inflexible administrative structures - for something more responsive to individual students.

Children of all races and backgrounds would benefit from the change - as, inevitably, would the economy.

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