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Federal Leadership Must 'Inspire, Guide' Improvement Effort

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If the "threatened disaster" to the national welfare posed by a school system whose performance "falls far short of expectations" is to be averted, the federal government must assume a role of strong leadership that guides and inspires states and communities without impeding local control of education, according to the report of an independent task force on federal education policy.

"... Even though state and local government should continue to bear the major responsibility for the provision of educational services," the report states, "it is increasingly important that the federal government emphasize the pressing need for a high-quality system of education open to all Americans, regardless of race or economic position."

The report, which was released in New York City last Thursday, was sponsored by The Twentieth Century Fund, an independent research foundation which conducts policy studies of economic, political, and social issues.

For excerpts of the report, see page 14.

Participants in the 12-member panel, a diverse group of well-known scholars and educators who had spent a year and a half on the report, last week said they themselves were surprised that they had reached a general consensus on the importance of a strong and fiscally supported federal role in education.

Among the report's several specific recommendations are proposals for a federally sponsored master-teachers program and the redistribution of bilingual-education funds to programs that concentrate on teaching students to write, read, and speak English.

The report--like the recently released report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education--contains a dark assessment of the state of American public schooling, along with the message that the situation can only be changed through a new national commitment to education.

"The task force believes that the schools must make a concerted effort to improve their performance and that there is a clear national interest in helping schools everywhere to do so," the report states. "That interest can be asserted and dramatized most effectively by the federal government."

But unlike the Excellence Commission, The Twentieth Century Fund task force calls for significant new federal outlays for education.

For example, the report says that the proposed master-teachers program could cost as much as $5 billion per year by the fifth year--a sum equivalent to one-third of the 1983 federal budget in education.

The panel says the expense is warranted: "Good teachers are as valuable to the nation as new tanks or fighter planes or a new highway."

"The task force is aware that some of its proposals are costly," the report states. "But we should be able to afford the price of a commitment to educational excellence."

Commenting on the similarities and differences of the two reports, Robert Wood, chairman of The Twentieth Century Fund task force and director of urban studies at the University of Massachusetts, said: "The [Excellence Commission's] voice about the education crisis is a little more strident than we are.

"The picture they paint is one of great and universal trouble. We're not quite as bleak, although we do say the schools are in trouble.

"But as I look at the two reports together, there is a common diagnosis. What was heartening to me about the Excellence Commission report was that, despite the guidelines under which they began, they ended up acknowledging the need for a federal role in education. We wanted to do this, and to be more specific about appropriate ways the federal government could act."

The effect of both reports "should be to put education back on the national agenda," he said.

The Twentieth Century Fund report is critical of many past effects of federal involvement in education, saying that "all too often" federal intervention and regulation "swelled school bureaucracies, imposed dubi-ous and expensive procedures, and forced state and local governments to re-allocate substantial portions of their scarce revenues."

Nevertheless, the panel concludes that there is a need for a federal role--one that preserves traditional concerns for equal educational opportunity for the poor and the handicapped, combined with a new push for education quality.

"This calls for a change in direction," the report states, "replacing the current emphasis on regulations and mandates with a new emphasis on incentives. ..."

The panel also recommended:

That a federally funded national master-teachers program be established. Such a program would award to the "best teachers from every state'' a monetary grant (the report uses a figure of $40,00 per year) for a period of five years. The task force expressed the hope that such a program would "help pave the way for a reconsideration of merit-based personnel systems for teachers" to "foster improvements in quality.''

That funds now going to federal bilingual-education programs be used instead to teach non-English-speaking elementary students how to speak, read, and write English. (The panel also asks that proficiency in a second language for American students be an important "long-term goal''--the immediate need, it says, is for "modest" grant programs to train language teachers.)

That the government create a program of "special federal fellowships'' to school districts as an incentive to form small, individualized programs for failing students.

That federal programs to promote better mathematics and science training in secondary schools be established. The panel favors an incentive approach--perhaps through federal loan-forgiveness programs for prospective teachers.

That federal support continue for education programs directed to the poor and the handicapped.

That federal "impact aid" be reformulated to include school districts with large numbers of immigrant children.

That there be federal support for a number of specific education-research activities, including the gathering of traditional statistical information about the nation's education system; collection of information about the educational performance of students and teachers across the nation; rigorous evaluations of federally sponsored education programs; and "fundamental research into the learning process."

"Unfortunately," the report states, "the National Institute of Education and other federal agencies have too often allowed their interests and resources to be diverted into peripheral topics, into fruitless quests for 'quick fixes,' or into catering to particular interest groups."

Comments on and dissents to several of the report's recommendations are made in the report by various members of the task force.

For example, Carlos R. Hortas, chairman of the department of Romance languages at Hunter College, objected to the proposal dealing with bilingual education. He called bilingual programs in which children are taught in English and in their native language "essential if we are to provide a healthy learning environment for children of limited English ability."

Nevertheless, said M.J. Rossant, director of The Twentieth Century Fund, "given their diversity, their differing political views, the thing I think is remarkable is the extent to which [the panelists] agreed."

The task force says it does not support proposals for tuition tax credits or tuition vouchers, but on some other issues relating to the federal role in education--such as the question of whether the federal Education Department should continue to exist--it does not comment.

"There was fairly wide agreement that it [the Education Department] was an irrelevant issue," said Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor at Teachers College of Columbia University and a member of the task force.

"This commission decided that the whole focus of the report had to be on quality of education," she said. "Things like structural arrangements, whether there is or is not a federal department of education, were not as important."

Ms. Ravitch also said she was surprised at the degree of consensus the group reached.

The project was suggested by a group of Twentieth Century Fund trustees, Mr. Rossant said.

The task force held 11 sessions between October, 1981, and September, 1982. The group examined federal education policy with the purpose of making policy recommendations for a federal role in education, particularly in primary and secondary education.

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