New Tracking Systems Needed, Federal Commission Is Told
New York--Addressing the federal group charged with recommending ways to improve American education, two researchers last week urged that elementary and secondary schools make tougher academic demands of students and experiment with new tracking systems, while another argued that such in-school factors were more important than has been commonly held in recent years.
Lauren B. Resnick and Daniel P. Resnick, in a paper delivered here before the National Commission on Excellence in Education, said that all students should be required to complete a strict core curriculum regardless of their postsecondary aspirations. They said the stricter academic requirements should be part of a new system of tracking and testing.
Ms. Resnick, of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, and Mr. Resnick, of the departments of history and psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University, said the changing composition of the economy presents the best opportunity in years to stiffen requirements and perhaps even to put all students on a "fast track."
"Is Shakespeare really for the masses? Why not? There's a magnificent experiment to be done here," Ms. Resnick told members of the 18-member panel appointed last fall by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.
"No country has seriously tried to teach students with the expectation that they would all do well on the fast track," Ms. Resnick said. "There is no better time than now, or place than in the United States."
The researchers recommended modifications in the three "tracks" commonly used by U.S. high schools--college preparatory, general, and vocational.
Under the Resnicks' plan, all students would be required to show competence in major areas of study such as mathematics, science, English, history, and foreign languages. The core-curriculum courses, they contended, would help vocational-education students master the fundamental ideas behind the trades for which they study.
Better Definition of Tracks
The Resnicks also suggested that educators better define the purposes of the three tracks. "Right now, general education is just the spillover of college-preparatory education," Mr. Resnick said. "There is no thought given to encouraging these people to achieve something."
In addition to tougher academic standards and a new tracking system, the Resnicks urged a shift from aptitude tests to frequent evaluations similar to the advanced-placement section of New York State's Regents' examinations.
Such a change would bring the American education system more into line with the British and French approaches, and, the Resnicks argued, would increase motivation for sustained classroom study.
British students advance academically by passing different levels of examinations in many of 20 different subject areas. The system en-courages teachers to make certain that their students master the material to be covered in the tests, Mr. Resnick said.
The aptitude tests most common in the U.S., however, do not encourage such long-term commitment, Mr. Resnick said, because they test general mathematical and verbal abilities only. Most students prepare only briefly for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, he said, and thus classroom study lacks the important motivational device that a subject-area examination system would provide.
Regularly held examinations in the specific courses of study, Mr. Resnick contended, should replace the aptitude tests and determine whether students advance.
But before curricula could be made more rigorous, Mr. Resnick acknowledged, schools would have to buy better textbooks and recruit better teachers. The effectiveness of texts touched off a lively discussion among the commission members and spectators, who agreed that most texts are bland but disagreed on what can be done.
Many members challenged Ms. Resnick's statement that pressure from the public could influence publishers to improve the books' contents. Ms. Resnick said that series from six publishing houses cover 80 percent of the market.
"The problem is that they are boring, and the reason is that most people who write textbooks are the same people who write government reports," said Annette Y. Kirk, a parent from Mecosta, Mich., and a commission member.
Mr. Resnick said that one obstacle to curriculum reform is public schools' reliance on "credentialism," rather than knowledge of a subject area, in hiring teachers. Most public schools require teachers to hold certificates from teachers' colleges, a system that keeps many liberal-arts graduates away from teaching. Private schools often hire teachers with more knowledge in a subject, Mr. Resnick said, because "they have the freedom to pick what they want."
'Time on Task'
The Resnicks' suggestions were supported somewhat by a report by Donald B. Holsinger, professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, that says classroom factors such as course content and "time on task" are possibly more important to performance than outside factors such as home life and innate ability.
Mr. Holsinger's paper, delivered by Edward Kelly, a colleague at the university, used data gathered over more than a decade by the International Association for Education Achievement. The study involved 250,000 students in 21 industrial and developing nations. It was issued in 1976.
Equality of Educational Opportunity, the 1966 study by the sociologist James S. Coleman, has set the tone for public debate on factors affecting student achievement, Mr. Holsinger said. The Coleman study concluded that background characteristics such as family income and parents' educational attainment exert the strongest influence.
But the Holsinger report, like other recent research, confirmed what Mr. Kelly called "common-sense" conclusions that factors in the classroom can make a bigger difference than many educators have believed. Spending more "time on appropriate tasks" should be a primary goal, Mr. Holsinger believes.
The next meeting of the commission is scheduled for Nov. 15-16 in Washington, D.C. The topic will be "25 years of change in education and society."