Studies Send Conflicting Messages On State of American Education

CAN the American system of higher education be one of the most highly regarded in the world and in terrible need of reform? Two recent studies taking a hard look at colleges and universities indicate that the answer is ``Yes.''

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, issued a report Dec. 8 that compared education in 24 countries. It found that the United States had one of the highest rates of college attendance, and that, on a per-student basis, it far outspends the Western European countries included in the survey.

The OECD report also found American scores in reading comprehension to be above average internationally, while math scores remain near the bottom.

Overall, however, it was a much brighter picture of the ability of the US educational system to prepare young people for the world beyond school than that issued a few days earlier by the Wingspread Group on Higher Education, which includes 16 leaders from business, labor, and education. Their findings were bluntly summarized by the group's chairman William Brock, a former labor secretary and US senator. ``We have issued this `wake-up' call to alert the leadership of the nation's colleges and universities that they must rethink their basic assumptions and how they go about their business,'' he said. ``Too much of higher education and education at every level seems to be organized for the convenience of educators.''

Who primarily benefits from higher education is a critical issue, according to Ernest Boyer, head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In his view, reports on higher education can reach different conclusions depending on the premises they start from.

If excellent teaching of undergraduates is seen as the fundamental purpose of higher education, Dr. Boyer says, then there's little question that the US system has serious failings. Hence, the Wingspread conclusion that extensive reform is urgent.

If, however, the advancement of scholarship through research is viewed as the basic purpose of a university, US institutions are probably No. 1 in the world, Boyer says. Certainly, they're rated that way by many overseas scholars, who don't look at how well freshmen are being taught but at the volume of publications and research.

Robben Fleming, president emeritus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a member of the Wingspread panel, emphasizes that change in US higher education is lagging far behind changes in the country's social and economic life. About half the people enrolled in college now are part-time or intermittent students, he notes, but few institutions are adequately adjusting to their needs. Too much time is spent selecting students to attend major universities and not enough time ``seeing how much we can add to their education once they get in,'' he adds.

The pervasive use of graduate-student teaching assistants to instruct undergraduates has been a complaint for years, but many senior professors remain well-insulated from students, Dr. Fleming says. That's an example, in his view, of how time and resources must be reallocated if people are to get their money's worth from an increasingly expensive education.

Uneasiness is growing between the public and political leaders, on the one hand, and college and university leaders, on the other, says Charles Lenth, director of policy studies for higher education at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

With state and federal budgets severely pinched, the crucial question for those concerned with higher-education reform is how to make the enterprise more efficient, Mr. Lenth says. One way to achieve greater institutional efficiency, he says, is to cut back on the array of courses offered and get away from the idea that every big college or university has to offer every specialty.

The need for far-reaching reforms in higher education includes much greater engagement with the secondary schools. The Wingspread report is intended to jolt educators into initiating those reforms themselves.

``But I think there has to be lots of pressures from outside,'' Lenth says. ``There's so much institutional inertia.''

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