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EXCERPTS FROM The Report of the Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary

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Education Policy
Robert Wood, Chairman. Director of urban studies, University of Massachusetts


Brewster C. Denny. Former dean, Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Washington


Chester E. Finn Jr. Co-director and professor of education and public policy, Center on Education Policy, Institute for Public Policy Studies, Vanderbilt University


Patricia Albjerg Graham. Dean and Charles Warren Professor of the History of Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University


Charles V. Hamilton. Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government, department of political science, Columbia University


Carlos R. Hortas. Chairman, department of romance languages, Hunter College


Diane Ravitch. Adjunct associate professor, Teachers College, Columbia University


Wilson Riles. Wilson Riles & Associates, Sacramento, formerly superintendent of public instruction and education, State Department of Education, Sacramento


Donald M. Stewart. President, Spelman College, Atlanta


Robert E. Wentz. Superintendent, Clark County School District, Las Vegas


Rosalyn Yalow. Chairman, department of clinical science, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City


Rapporteur: Paul E. Peterson. Professor of political science and education, department of political science, University of Chicago

The nation's public schools are in trouble. By almost every measure--the commitment and competency of teachers, student test scores, truancy and dropout rates, crimes of violence--the performance of our schools falls far short of expectations. To be sure, there are individual schools and school districts with devoted teachers doing a commendable job of educating their students, but too many young people are leaving the schools without acquiring essential learning skills and without self-discipline or purpose. The problem we face was succinctly summed up just three years ago by the President's Commission on a National Agenda for the Eighties when it reported that:

... continued failure by the schools to perform their traditional role adequately, together with a failure to respond to the emerging needs of the 1980's, may have disastrous consequences for this nation.

This Task Force believes that this threatened disaster can be averted only if there is a national commitment to excellence in our public schools. While we strongly favor maintaining the diversity in educational practices that results from the decentralization of the schools, we think that schools across the nation must at a minimum provide the same core components to all students. These components are the basic skills of reading, writing, and calculating; technical capability in computers; training in science and foreign languages; and knowledge of civics, or what Aristotle called the education of the citizenry in the spirit of the polity.

As we see it, the public schools, which constitute the nation's most important institution for the shaping of future citizens, must go further. We think that they should ensure the availability of large numbers of skilled and capable individuals without whom we cannot sustain a complex and competitive economy. They should foster understanding, discipline, and discernment, those qualities of mind and temperament that are the hallmarks of a civilized polity and that are essential for the maintenance of domestic tranquility in a polytechnic constitutional democracy. And they should impart to present and future generations a desire to acquire knowledge, ranging from the principles of science to the accumulated wisdom and shared values that derive from the nation's rich and varied cultural heritage.

These are admittedly formidable tasks that too few schools today come close to accomplishing. 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. That interest can be asserted and dramatized most effectively by the federal government. The federal government, after all, is charged with providing for the security and well-being of our democratic society, which rests largely on a strong and competent system of public education. It is in the best position to focus public attention on the vital importance of quality in our schools and to support its attainment. The federal government should be able to foster excellence in education, serving as a firm but gentle goad to state and local communities without impeding or restricting state and local control of and accountability for the schools.

Excessive Burdens

Before putting forward our proposals for a new federal policy on elementary and secondary schooling, we think it useful to identify what has gone wrong. Why, despite spending more per student than every other advanced nation, is there a growing gap between the goals and achievements of our schools? Many developments--economic, demographic, social, political--have contributed, directly and indirectly. We have always demanded a great deal of our schools, but never before have we demanded of them as much as we have over the past 30 years. On one hand, we have charged them with being the melting pot, the crucible for dissolving racial divisiveness, and on the other, with sustaining, and even exalting, ethnic distinctiveness.

The schools, moreover, have had to provide a wide array of social services, acting as surrogate parent, nurse, nutritionist, sex counselor, and policeman. At the same time, they are charged with training increasing percentages of the nation's youth, including large numbers of hard-to-educate youngsters, to improve levels of competency so that they can effectively enter a labor market in which employers are currently demanding both technical capability and the capacity to learn new skills. In essence, the skills that were once possessed by only a few must now be held by the many if the United States is to remain competitive in an advancing technological world.

Demographic changes as well as changes in attitudes toward traditional mores and values have also had a marked influence. The schools have had to cope with more children, and especially more problem children, than ever before--those who are without the rudiments of English and those who are unmotivated or prone to violence, quite apart from those who are physically handicapped. Problems have also come about as a result of the ready availability of drugs, the growing number of family breakups and the increased permissiveness in those remaining intact, the distractions of television and of easily affordable video games, the growth of underworld culture.

The difficulties of coping with these burdens have been compounded in some cities by inappropriate judicial interventions and by the spread of the trade-union mentality that has accompanied the bureaucratization and politicization of the schools. As a consequence, already large administrative staffs have burgeoned, and new rules and procedures have been promulgated, forcing classroom teachers to spend more time on paperwork and less on teaching. The rise in teacher and administrative unions has thus helped transform what had been a noble though poorly compensated profession into a craft led by collective bargaining organizations with a focus on bread-and-butter issues--wages, working conditions, and job security (for which read seniority). ...

... This Task Force believes that re-educating the young is a compelling national interest, and that action by the federal government can be as appropriate as action by state and local governments. Certainly, federal intervention was not only appropriate but necessary in bringing about desegregation of the public schools and in providing needed assistance to poor and handicapped children.

All too often, though, the nature of federal intervention has been counterproductive, entailing heavy costs and undesirable consequences. Direct federal outlays accounted, at their peak, for less than 10 percent of total annual spending on the schools, but by resorting to compulsory regulation and mandated programs the federal government has swelled school bureaucracies, imposed dubious and expensive procedures, and forced state and local governments to reallocate substantial portions of their scarce revenues. What is more, its emphasis on promoting equality of opportunity in the public schools has meant a slighting of its commitment to educational quality. Thus, the federal government has not only had a pervasive influence on the spending of local school districts but has undoubtedly played a part in many of the other troubles of the schools.

Despite all of its shortcomings, however, there is a need for a continued federal role, in part because equality and excellence are not mutually exclusive objectives. We think that both objectives should be vigorously pursued through a fresh approach, one that reflects the national concern for a better-educated America and that strikes a reasonable and effective balance between quality and equality. The federal government must continue to help meet the special needs of poor and minority students while taking the lead in meeting that general and overwhelming need for educational quality. Federal education policy must function, moreover, in ways that complement rather than weaken local control. This calls for a change in direction, replacing the current emphasis on regulations and mandates with a new emphasis on incentives. ...

The Federal Commitment

Educational quality cannot be legislated into existence. Still, Congress must not continue to be ostrich-like about the failings of primary- and secondary-school education. Its readiness to legislate on other aspects of education, whether in programs for the handicapped, or for all those whose English is limited or nonexistent, or for special interests--for example, the National Education Association--that successfully lobbied for the establishment of the Department of Education while ignoring declines in test scores, suggests to many Americans that quality education is not a national goal. That false impression must be erased.

This Task Force calls on the executive and legislative branches of the federal government to emphasize the need for better schools and a better education for all young Americans.

Quality of Teachers

The traditional commitment of teachers to quality education has been challenged by many forces, some that have affected all of society, others that are peculiar to the community of educators. The teacher--along with all other authority figures--does not appear to command the respect commonly accorded a generation ago.

The complex organizational structure in which the classroom teacher now operates restricts independence and autonomy; as new organizational positions have proliferated, many of the best teachers have been "promoted" to better-paying administrative positions, devaluing the status of the teacher. In addition, the organizations--the unions and professional associations--to which teachers belong have protected their weakest members rather than winning rewards for their strongest. They have promoted the principle of equal pay or, at best, a differential pay scale that primarily takes into account educational background and seniority, thereby limiting the financial incentives available for rewarding superior professional work.

The collective-bargaining process, moreover, has not only made it difficult to encourage promising teachers or dismiss poor ones, it has forced many of the best to leave teaching for more financially rewarding work. The result is that the quality of teaching suffers.

We propose the establishment of a national Master Teachers Program, funded by the federal government, that recognizes and rewards teaching excellence.

The Primacy of English

Our political democracy rests on the conviction that each citizen should have the capacity to participate fully in our political life; to read newspapers, magazines, and books; to bring a critical intelligence to television and radio; to be capable of resisting emotional manipulation and of setting events within their historical perspective; to express ideas and opinions about public affairs; and to vote thoughtfully--all activities that call for literacy in English.


The Task Force recommends that the federal government clearly state that the most important objective of elementary and secondary education in the United States is the development of literacy in the English language.


The Task Force recommends that federal funds now going to bilingual programs be used to teach non-English-speaking children how to speak, read, and write English.


The Task Force recommends that the federal government promote and support proficiency in English for all children in the public schools, but especially for those who do not speak English, or have only limited command of it.


From a national perspective, young men and women with proficiency in foreign languages are sorely needed now that we are increasingly involved in competitive trade and investment with the rest of the world. More and more jobs will be available in government, industry, trade, commerce, and the universities for Americans who can converse with other people in their own languages and who can participate in strengthening our international ties.


This Task Force wants every American public-school student to have the opportunity to acquire proficiency in a second language.

Science and Mathematics

At the turn of the 20th century, there was no real need for widespread scientific literacy. Today, training in mathematics and science is critical to our economy. Our citizens must be educated in science if they are to participate intelligently in political decisions about such controversial issues as radiation, pollution, and nuclear energy.


The Task Force recommends that the federal government emphasize programs to develop basic scientific literacy among all citizens and to provide advanced training in science and mathematics for secondary-school students.

Better Education for All

In proposing new federal measures to stimulate national interest in improving the quality of public education, we urge that they not come at the expense of children from low-income families or of children suffering from one or another disability.


The Task Force supports continuing federal efforts to provide special educational programs for the poor--and for the handicapped.


The Task Force believes that the guiding principle should be that categorical programs required by the federal government should be paid for from the federal treasury.


The Task Force also recommends that "impact aid," originally aimed at helping cushion the burden imposed on local school facilities by the children of military personnel, be reformulated to focus on school districts that are overburdened by substantial numbers of immigrant children.


The Task Force urges that federal attention and assistance go to depressed localities that have concentrations of immigrant and/or impoverished groups as well as those that are already making strong efforts to improve their educational performance.

Educational Research

Research on questions of educational quality can have symbolic as well as substantive value. For example, the study of the effects of school segregation undertaken by James Coleman for the Office of Education in 1965 focused public attention on the perniciousness of racism. Subsequent studies stimulated and informed public debate over such critical questions as the effects of school desegregation on "white flight,'' the results of compensatory education programs, and the relative merits of public and private schools. Current national concern with the quality of public education, particularly at the high-school level, has been stimulated in part by findings of such federally sponsored projects as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


The Task Force recommends federal support for a number of specific activities:


The collection of factual information about various aspects of the education system itself;

The collection of information about the educational performance of students, teachers, and schools across the nation.

Evaluation of federally sponsored education programs.

Fundamental research into the learning process.

Provision of Choice

Although elementary and, to a considerable extent, secondary education in the United States is compulsory, it does not have to be public-school education. American parents, who traditionally have insisted on a say in their children's schooling, can turn to private schools when they are not satisfied with public schooling--and some 10 percent of the school-age population attends private schools today. But the vast majority of children attend public schools, and it is critical that their parents be able to influence the quality of schooling. ...

... Many proposals have been made in recent years to give parents more of a voice in choosing where their children are educated. Among them are tax-credit plans and tuition vouchers. The Task Force does not endorse such proposals or recommend a major redefinition of the relationships betwen public and nonpublic schools. We believe that the provision of free public education must continue to be a public responsibility of high priority, while support of nonpublic education should remain a private obligation. Yet we recognize that some children have not been able to learn in the present setting of public education. We cannot ignore, for example, students who repeatedly fail city or state competency examinations or fail in other ways to attain their academic capacity.


The Task Force recommends the establishment of special federal fellowships for [students who repeatedly fail], which would be awarded to school districts to encourage the creation of small, individualized programs staffed by certified teachers and run as small-scale academies.

Leadership in Education

While the federal role in promoting equality of opportunity and educational quality in the nation's schools is significant, elementary and secondary education in the United States must primarily remain a responsibility of state and local government. ... But even though state and local government should continue to bear the major responsibility for the provision of educational services, 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. Toward this end, the Task Force has put forward a coordinated policy of overall federal support for American schools that simultaneously asserts the national interest in quality schools and in equal access to education, with assistance for those with special needs. ...

The Task Force is aware that some of its proposals are costly. But we should be able to afford the price of a commitment to educational excellence. This nation's young people are our most precious and potentially our most productive asset, provided that we invest wisely in educating them. In our view, support for our program by Congress and the White House will demonstrate the value that they attach to better schooling for all.


Note: The full report includes comments from individual members of the commission dissenting from or elaborating on a number of the recommendations.

Reprinted by permission of the Twentieth Century Fund. Copyright 1983 Twentieth Century Fund.

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