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N.E. Study Blames Schools for Decline in College Quality

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Boston--The overall quality of New England's colleges and universities is slipping because of "a fundamental weakening" of public schools that has resulted in students who cannot "think critically," according to a regional study conducted by the New England Board of Higher Education.

The board, a nonprofit consulting organization funded by individual state membership fees and corporate gifts, aired those views in a 30-page report citing "widespread erosion" of student achievement and academic standards throughout the region's 260 colleges and universities and suggesting that such problems at both the school and college levels threaten the stability of the New England economy.

Prepared over the last two years by 33 representatives of labor, education, government, banking, and high-technology interests, the report was warmly received by government leaders because it does not place the full burden of improving the public schools on them.

Rather, it suggests that industry, which stands to gain the most by increasing the pool of skilled labor in New England, should contribute money, material, and manpower to the secondary and post-secondary schools.

The board arrived at 19 specific recommendations, seven of them aimed directly at the public secondary schools, for reversing regional trends.

It proposed that senior personnel officers from the area's high-technology industries take an active hand in reviewing and remodeling high-school curricula. Citing a critical shortage of qualified teachers in the mathematics and technology fields, the board also recommended that certification standards for secondary-school teachers be reassessed and that standards be more flexible in cases where individuals can demonstrate their proficiency apart from formal classroom training.

In addition, while acknowledging "the difficulties inherent in competency testing of teachers," the board recommended that "performance evaluation in some form should be provided on a systematic and continuing basis."

It also proposed that technicians be loaned to the schools to augment mathematics and science instruction and that secondary-school faculty be provided with part-time work in industry to lessen the disparity between the salaries of mathematics and science teachers and persons with corresponding skills employed in the private sector. The report stresses the need for individual high schools and corporations to establish close working partnerships to implement these recommendations.

Launching model programs promptly would provide guidance for schools and business planners throughout the region, it suggested.

On-Site Service

Regional resource centers for the continuing education of secondary-school teachers should be established and maintained by higher education and industry, according to the study, with sophisticated training packages developed for on-site service, mainly to keep teachers abreast of new developments in high technology. These programs, it said, could involve the use of video equipment and be supported by instructors from business and higher education.

"Although the initial development of such programs would be expensive," the report noted, "they would be cost-effective, as top-quality educational programs could be offered to a large number of teachers."

Schools, the report emphasized, must be able to provide high-technology industries with skilled personnel.

For example, the booming computer industry and its subsidiaries, such as technical publishing, accounted for 21 percent of the increase in aggregate New England employment between 1975 and 1980, it said. Combined with other skilled service jobs, such as banking and health, two out of every three new jobs--an estimated 331,600 during that five-year period--came from this sector. In New Hampshire, 11 percent of the total work force is employed by high-technology companies, followed by Massachusetts at 9 percent.

The report also recommended that competitive awards for "teacher creativity" be established and funded by industry. It suggested that awards be given by individual businesses or coalitions of businesses to teachers who design specific projects in such areas as computer literacy, writing competency, or critical thinking.

Also recommended was the establishment of high-technology magnet schools that offer intensive computer education and are funded through corporate gifts, and expanded programs for gifted and talented high-school students.

The board suggested having such students take courses at local colleges and work as assistants after school in research and development firms.

The document, "Threat to Excellence: The Preliminary Report of the Commission on Higher Education and the Economy of New England,"is available from the New England Board of Higher Education, School Street, Wenham, Mass. 01984.

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