Small Investments Found To PromoteBig Improvements
Portland, Ore--States, school districts, and schools can improve education substantially without spending much, if any, additional money, two speakers told the Education Commission of the States (ecs) at its 16th annual meeting here last week.
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Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University and former president of the California Board of Education, cited four target areas of reform that involve little or no additional cost: time; content actually covered in the instruction process; materials and technology used to convey the content; and the quality and ability of teachers.
"Since time engaged in learning or 'time-on-task' affects what is learned," Mr. Kirst said, "we need to alter, within the existing revenue base, whatever takes time away from students or students away from schools."
He offered the following suggestions:
Lengthen the school year by reducing vacations;
Review the nature of "work experience," programs in which students attend secondary schools in the morning and work at jobs in the afternoon. This work, he said, may have no relationship to skill training;
Consider the effect of time lost between classes, on recess, and at lunch;
Scrutinize the academic effect of tracking in elementary schools in which grouping takes place that consistently robs some students of learning time;
Analyze high-school transcripts to find out if a "fine-sounding instructional policy" masks individual-pupil curricula that are often superficial and unrelated;
Reconsider homework as a way of increasing the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning.
Mr. Kirst said the curriculum material that students and teachers actually cover is more vital than the teacher's style or methodology. In other words, he added, giving a student an opportunity to learn physics, for example, is more important than the quality of the teacher.
He deplored the profusion of electives, "such as the 262 courses offered by Highland Park High School in Illinois." Measures to reverse this trend, he said, "can be low-cost and even cost-saving, as curricular offerings are condensed."
"To upgrade the quality of textbooks and other materials," Mr. Kirst said, "we need a widespread movement by a number of states and local school districts" requesting more demanding books. "Textbook publishers respond to the market."
Documenting his charge against textbooks, Mr. Kirst pointed to a recent survey of textbook publishers that disclosed that the level of challenge in their books had dropped by two grade levels over the past 10-to-15 years.
In California, he added, "We tried to reserve slots in our statewide adoption list for textbooks that would challenge the top third of our students; no publisher had a book to present!"
The Stanford education researcher said the computer should not be treated like a typewriter in a typing class--cut off from the rest of the curriculum. It must be brought back from physical and curricular isolation into the "regular" classroom period, he argued.
"Moreover," said Mr. Kirst, "we need to incorporate the whole range of learning technology, not just the computer, so teachers can focus on higher-order skills. The videodisc and videotape recorders have to join the standard repertoire of teachers and provide much of the drill-and-practice time."
To upgrade teacher quality, Mr. Kirst urged correcting "the random setup of in-service courses that earn teachers post-B.A. credits and thus higher salaries, but which are not highly correlated with the intructional program."
To accomplish that, he suggested "a revision of the teacher-salary schedule so that increments for advanced education are directly related to local education-agency objectives."
Mr. Kirst also recommended fo-cusing on in-service programs that are most effective for supplying what the teacher and the school really need, and making a special effort to attract qualified teachers--particularly in the shortage areas of mathematics, science, and physical sciences.
"I can offer no quick solution," he admitted, "but would suggest summer jobs in industry for math and science teachers as a way to increase compensation."
Allan Odden, director of the ecs program division, suggested extending the school day as well as the school year to increase academic learning time.
Other ways to do this, he added, could include encouraging reduced "administrative intrusions" into the school day, promoting the use of techniques from effective-teaching research that increases time-on-task in elementary schools, requiring more academic courses for credit in high schools, and reducing credits now given for work or other non-academic experience.
Reading, writing, mathematics, and computer literacy should become central to the elementary-school program, Mr. Odden said. He also suggested more formal courses in high schools and higher entrance requirements for public colleges and universities.
To improve the teaching of mathematics and science, Mr. Odden recommended giving mathematics and science teachers higher salaries than other teachers--"if that is what it takes to get qualified teachers."
Mr. Odden charged that curriculum content has been watered down and that academic challenge in most textbooks is fading.
In addition, he said, "There has been a precipitous decline in English, math, science, and foreign-language requirements for high-school graduation and college entrance. Electives--often not designed to yield some cohesive substantive whole--have replaced sound core curricula.''