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Bell Commission's 'Excellence' Study Acclaimed

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Washington--The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, released last Tuesday, was greeted with a generally favorable reaction from the education community here.

Spokesmen for education organizations praised the report's recommendations for stemming the "rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's educational system, although some expressed disappointment that the panel did not call for greater federal aid to make the recommended improvements possible.

The report was also praised by President Reagan--who said its findings were "consistent with our task of redefining the federal role in education"--and Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

"I haven't read a sentence in the report with which I disagree," said the Secretary, who appointed the commission in August 1981.

Reaction also came swiftly from the public, according to the commission staff. The panel's executive director, Milton Goldberg, said his office had already received 400 telephone calls requesting copies of the report by 10 A.M. Wednesday.

The 18-member commission, which devoted 18 months and $785,000 in federal funds to the 36-page document, found that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded" to such an ex-tent that the nation had, "in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

Its wide-ranging recommendations included: increasing high-school graduation requirements and requiring study of a core curriculum; increasing college entrance requirements; lengthening the school day and the school year; and restructuring the teaching profession and increasing teachers' pay.

David Pierpont Gardner, president of the University of Utah and chairman of the commission, told reporters at a press conference last week that the commission members specifically avoided making recommendations on how the nation might pay for costly improvements such as increasing teachers' pay.

"The things in the report are things we can agree on," Mr. Gardner said. "We might not have gotten agreement on the issue of financing education. But we hope the report will provoke both discussion and controversy among those who are responsible for financing education."

But some of those who responded to the report--including spokesmen for the nation's two largest teachers' organizations--said its recommendations could not be met without increased federal assistance.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, characterized the study as "basically a good report," although he cautioned that "state and local governments will not heed these recommendations without financial help."

U.S. Representative Carl D. Perkins, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said he was "encouraged" by the findings.

"I hope that as a result the President will recognize that we are going to have to put more resources and support into education," he said.

But Republican Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate's education panel, said "the real commitment to improvement has to take place at the local level, where the kids, the people, and the problems are."

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said some of the report's suggestions reflected reforms that had already begun in school districts. "Educators have heard this message and are acting," he said.

'End to Federal Intrusion'

The report was presented to President Reagan at a White House ceremony late Tuesday that received extensive media attention. Mr. Reagan, speaking at the ceremony, interpreted the report as a "call for an end to federal intrusion." He added that he "would continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education." (See the full text of the President's statement on this page.)

None of those issues was mentioned in the report, which said, "The federal government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education." The federal government's "functions of national consequence," according to the document, include research, civil-rights protection, data collection, support for curriculum improvement, and financial assistance for disadvantaged precollegiate and college students.

The commission members told reporters at the press conference that they had, by design, avoided men-tioning partisan or controversial issues concerning the federal role in education because they were unable to agree on those issues.

One commission member, Gerald Holton, said he was surprised by the President's statement because the panel's recommendations were "precisely the opposite of what Mr. Reagan had to say. The President can't possibly have read our report in full, or he never would have used the report to imply that that's what we recommended," Mr. Holton said.

Annette Y. Kirk, the parent representative on the panel, said she was pleased the President had mentioned tax credits, even though the report did not, because tax credits would "promote excellence through enhancing parental choice."

Lawrence A. Uzzell, president of Learn Inc.--a research organization here that promotes vouchers and tuition tax credits--said he was disappointed that the report did not address those issues more directly.

"What the commission said is that the patient is sick," said Mr. Uzzell. "What they didn't say is what to do about it that will really make a difference," he said.

Observers of the commission were almost unanimous in their praise for the "non-academic" language of the report, which was written in the form of "an open letter to the American people."

Commission members said the principal credit for writing the report belonged to Mr. Holton, who was the founding editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Others said they were less than pleased that the document was not longer. "That's an awful lot of money for 36 pages," said one Republican Senate staff member.

But Mr. Gardner, the commission chairman, said the brevity of the report was "a reflection of the times."

"The attention span of most people tends to be relatively abbreviated," he said.

Copies of the report, "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" are available at $4.50 apiece from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402; telephone (202) 783-3238. The ordering number for the report is 065-00000-1772.

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