CBS Tackles US Schools' Problems

Network's week-long `Project Education,' capped by prime-time special, marks new approach. TELEVISION

`SOME experts believe we have only about 10 years to improve public education in this country. After that it may be too late to do anything about it,'' says Charles Kuralt, anchor of ``America's Toughest Assignment: Solving the Education Crisis'' (CBS, Thursday, Sept. 6, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). This two-hour prime-time special is the centerpiece of a unique week in network television, which includes not only many hours devoted to a major American problem but no-nonsense advocacy for specific solutions to the problem.

The week-long CBS News ``Project Education'' also includes education segments Sept. 2-7 on the ``CBS Evening News,'' ``Sunday Morning,'' and ``60 Minutes''; coverage Sept. 5 of a national education conference at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; and a nationwide forum Sept. 6, following the Kuralt special, at 11:30 p.m.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, only about 20 percent of the nation's 21,000 high schools rate as excellent; 40 to 50 percent are good to mediocre; one-third are shockingly deficient.

Ernest Boyer, president of that foundation, served as consultant on and off camera for this project, and it is clear that his ideas dominate the proceedings. In fact, one weakness of the program is that no dissenting opinions are recorded.

``America's Toughest Assignment'' utilizes some of the best news talent at CBS: Besides Kuralt, there are segments from Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, Harry Smith, Paula Zahn, and Ellen Moriarty. They search for clear advances in educating America's children in day care, nursery schools, elementary schools, and junior and senior high schools.

Some of the facts uncovered:

The average college student planning to teach today is white, female, and middle-class. She comes from the bottom half of her high school class and scores below the college-bound average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The United States has one of the world's highest rates of low-birth-weight infants, a condition considered a great risk for learning disabilities.

Chrysler Corporation spends 12 percent of its total budget teaching remedial math, reading, and writing to potential employees.

In a CBS poll, 71 percent of those queried said they would be willing to have their taxes raised $100 per year to help pay for better schools in their community. But the number dropped to 49 percent when asked if they'd be willing if the money went to some other community.

In math, America's 13-year-old students rank last among all industrialized nations.

By age 15, Americans rank 15th among the 16 industrialized nations in scientific knowledge.

Seventy-two percent of those polled by CBS say that President Bush has just talked about education without making any progress in improving conditions.

From the opening sequence of a speeded-up montage drawn from a day in the life of a Tappan Zee, N.Y., high school until the final segment, with Dr. Boyer's optimistic prediction that ``we can and will ... move from quality in examples we've seen and make them applicable all across the country,'' this special is an object-lesson in the positive and constructive approach to problem-solving.

Some of the solutions investigated are: ``basic schools,'' which tear down the barriers separating the first three or four grades and free children from having to perform at a certain level by a certain age; smaller schools; high schools that rethink their basic structure - everything from what they expect of students to how and what they teach; better teachers; local leadership; new partnerships among families, communities, colleges, and businesses; finding ways to measure student ability other than standardized multiple-choice tests; new financing instead of only property taxes, which assure that poor neighborhoods with low property values will have poor schools; more presidential leadership.

Two major areas, however, are totally neglected: the effect of the home environment on students and the consequences of bilingual education on students whom Boyer says are in urgent need of communicating more effectively.

This program goes directly to the sources, visiting schools and involved groups as well as committed individuals, and then treating everybody with an admirable and probing sensitivity.

Not many punches are pulled: Bush is faulted for not providing strong leadership, even though his campaign rhetoric labeled him ``the education President.'' New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, currently in the midst of controversy over tax reforms that would improve schools in poor communities, is given sympathetic treatment by the normally confrontational Mike Wallace, who says that some people compare the governor to Robin Hood.

Under the skillful direction of executive producer Joel Heller, ``America's Toughest Assignment'' proves to be a major public service by a network that has been accused of showing more concern with the bottom line than the public interest. It is an admirable commitment to the future of CBS News and the future of America.

The story ``CBS Tackles US Schools' Problems'' (Aug. 30, p. 14) stated that Chrysler Corporation spends 12 percent of its total budget on remedial education of employees. In fact, Chrysler spends 12 percent of its training budget (some $16 million) on teaching mathematics and reading to employees.

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