A Report Card on School Reform

A teacher survey reveals that many US educators are unimpressed by the first wave of change

A DECADE into the school reform movement, spending is up and awareness about the education crisis is heightened, but are United States schools and the students in them improving their performance? A new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggests that teachers are disillusioned with the progress of reform.

In surveys conducted for the report, ``The Condition of Teaching, 1990,'' only 18 percent of teachers gave a grade of ``A'' or ``B'' to US school reform efforts. Three years ago, 31 percent of teachers gave high grades to reform. Twenty-eight percent of teachers surveyed gave the movement a ``D'' or ``F,'' compared with 19 percent in 1987.

``Overall, the school reform movement began with great energy and hope,'' wrote Ernest L. Boyer, president of the foundation, in the report's foreword. ``Progress has been made, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that, nationally, the effort has begun to stall. Momentum is lessened, precisely because the most difficult issues, the most vexing problems, have not been adequately addressed ....''

Increasing numbers of educators are suggesting that the US is entering a ``second wave'' of school reform. Requiring an extra year of science for graduation or tinkering with the curriculum is not the answer, reform-minded educators say. What is needed is restructuring or reinventing the schools, they say.

``It means turning things on their head and getting the teachers to be an active participant in the way the schools run,'' says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit, interstate compact based in Denver.

The ``first wave'' of reform gained impetus from the 1983 report ``A Nation at Risk,'' which served as a call to arms. Since then, progress has been made in such areas as teacher salaries, testing, and teacher certification.

``The first wave of reform involved a lot of things that were fairly straightforward, and they were often top-down mandates,'' Mr. Newman says.

But that approach can only take schools so far, he says. ``The people who have thought long and hard about this - the governors, the legislators, the business leaders from the big corporations ... - are increasingly of the opinion that only radical restructuring of the schools is going to work.''

American schools, say reformers, have not kept pace with the changing world. In the midst of a whirlwind race of transformations caused by modern technology, schools stand out as the tortoises up against the hares.

``If you and I were to go and visit 10 schools picked at random, we would find the way they run not an awful lot different than it was 10 years ago,'' says Theodore Sizer, professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I. ``The reform movement simply hasn't affected, in any consequential way, the way that schools work. We have the same vehicle being asked to drive at about the same speed with pretty much the same equipment.''

Declining or stagnant standardized test scores, while not a definitive indication, support the case that the movement to improve schools is stagnating, some educators say.

Scores on the verbal portion of the 1989-90 Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) fell to their lowest level in a decade; math scores remained steady, as they have for four years. American College Testing reports that scores on the ACT, the predominant exam in 28 states, were unchanged in 1989-90.

While test scores are falling or staying stable, spending on education is skyrocketing. Per-pupil expenditures in public elementary and secondary schools will be up $354 per student this academic year, projects the US Department of Education. At a record $5,638 per student, expenditures have risen 33 percent in real dollars over the last decade.

``Our reform efforts and expenditures of the last decade have accomplished almost nothing,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., director of the Educational Excellence Network in Washington.

``The combination [of declining test scores and increased spending] says to me that ... we need to become much more radicalized in our whole approach to education,'' Mr. Finn says.

While Newman estimates that only 1 percent of all schools in the US are actively in the process of restructuring, there are pockets of progress. Some states, such as California, are witnessing improvement.

Bill Honig, California superintendent of public instruction, points to steady improvement in his state's dropout rate and test scores. ``A senior now in California - on our tests, which are hard tests - scores one full year ahead of a senior in 1982,'' he says. ``None of us are saying we are anywhere near where we want to be,'' he adds, ``but you don't start over again if you've got something that is producing results.''

The need is for a national strategic plan for educational improvement, Mr. Honig says. ``We have a lot more work to do, but we can't do that work unless we get agreement nationally and at the state level and at local levels [that] this is the game plan everybody is going to sign off on. There's been a lot of sniping and cheap political games, kicking the teachers, and kicking the schools, and throwing up your hands in despair, and just assuming nothing works, but that's not productive.''

Finn suggests that a detached view of the problem is one of the most important reasons for failing school reform. ``Everybody pays lip service to the proposition that the nation is `at-risk,' but nobody seems to believe that their own child or their own school has a problem.''

A recent Gallup poll bolsters this argument: Seventy-two percent of parents believe the public school their eldest child attends deserves an ``A'' or ``B.'' In sharp contrast, only 21 percent of respondents give US public schools in general a rating of ``A'' or ``B.''

The problem, according to Newman of the Education Commission of the States, is that ``we're too comfortable. It's not easy for us to ... get it in our heads that all this has something to do with whether this country is going to be competitive or not.''

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