THE best answer to the institutional problems that afflict education in the United States, writes National Endowment for the Humanities chairwoman Lynne Cheney, is to create plenty of choices for parents, would-be teachers, and professors. In a report released Sunday called ``Tyrannical Machines,'' borrowing a phrase from philosopher William James, Ms. Cheney reviews a host of problem areas in education: teacher training, textbook selection, standardized testing, and a university system that generally values research over teaching.
In one way or another she advocates choice as a way to solve some of these problems. Teachers should be able to choose alternative paths to certification, textbooks should be chosen more carefully, and professors who favor teaching over research should likewise be rewarded with tenure, she argues.
On top of it all, she urges that parents be able to choose their children's schools to promote competition among institutions. ``Healthy competition,'' she writes, ``is anathema to tyrannical machines.''
Cheney illustrates her 50-page report with examples of programs that solve the problems, such as a California effort that judges textbooks on the liveliness of their writing and a ``teaching portfolio'' that would give universities a way to document and assess good teaching the way an academic's publications document his or her research.
She acknowledges that her advocacy of choice stops at the student. The report encourages the development of core curriculums that enforce a broad education for college students, rather than giving students free reign over their education. There should be a ``design for learning,'' Cheney said in a Monitor interview. ``There shouldn't just be chaos and anarchy.''
She also says the problems she targets, and even the solutions, aren't new. Instead, she says, the report is ``bringing together ideas that are out there. What we need is a redirection of energy - decreasing the volume of criticism of these institutions and putting more energy into setting these solution in place.''
But the report is stirring criticism. National Education Association president Keith Geiger says there is nothing new in the report, that ``every solution [Cheney] talks about is being tried somewhere.''
Mr. Geiger says he favors much of what Cheney advocates, but notes the absence of any financial discussion in the book. ``How are we going to fund all of this when the federal government is reneging each year on its funding?'' he asks.
But Chester Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, says one shouldn't look for novelty. ``There's a lot of truth in this book,'' he says. ``That's why people are going to criticize it.''
Dr. Finn says that Cheney is not recommending ``an expensive menu of changes.'' And just because solutions are in effect somewhere, he says, doesn't make them the norm. Although parental choice programs are underway in several states, Finn notes, ``most of the educational profession is still adamantly opposed'' to it.
The fact that this report, which attempts to set ``an educational strategy for the 1990s,'' as Cheney puts it, did not come from the office of Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos is also raising eyebrows. ``I would like to see vision coming out of the Department of Education,'' Geiger says.