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For the Record: Bennett, Finn Discuss Key School-Reform Issues

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At an international conference on education reform held in Japan last month, Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Education Department, presented a paper on trends and issues in American education. The paper was written by Mr. Finn and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

The following excerpt from that paper--a section titled "Five Issues and Dilemmas"--raises questions the Secretary and Mr. Finn see as confronting American educators in light of the current reform movement.


1. Can we reach agreement on academic content?

Notwithstanding the heavy emphasis that the reform movement is placing on academic learning, our educators and policymakers have found it markedly easier to agree about the skills (both basic and "higher order") that schools should impart to students than about the body of knowledge that students should acquire. Here, there is some tension between our tradition of local control and centripetal tendencies of the reform movement.

But there are also deep-set controversies about such matters as the legitimacy of a "common culture" in a pluralistic democracy; about the relative worth of particular books; about the extent to which authorities other than the teacher should prescribe course content, rather than simply specifying subject categories and entrusting the teacher with responsibility for selecting the material to be covered and the texts to be used.

Is it sufficient, for example, for the state simply to stipulate that all secondary students must study English for four years, math for three, and science for two? Who, then, should determine whether the English curriculum will consist of great works of literature or pulp magazines? Whether students will learn expository or creative writing, or no writing at all? Whether the math curriculum will cover trigonometric functions and calculus or "business" math and computations that never go beyond simple algebra? Whether by science we mean biology, chemistry, and physics (and what kinds?), or psychology, geology, and bio-genetics?

If we care about the ability of Americans to communicate with one another on the basis of shared background knowledge and a common fund of "cultural literacy," must we not care as much about the content of the curriculum as about cognitive skills? Yet are we certain that business leaders and elected officials, however well-meaning, should be shaping the internal elements of the curriculum? If educators should be making these judgments, should they be doing so at the school level, the state level, or through nationwide associations of specialists in particular subjects and disciplines?

It is plainly not the responsibility of the federal government to specify the content of the school curriculum. But whose is it?

2. Can schools effectively attend to the moral and ethical development of their students, to character formation, and to the central values of the society?

Again, the American public is fairly clear about its priorities. Judging from poll data, there is widespread general agreement that schools should teach children the "difference between right and wrong." Yet many of our schools have not paid conscious attention to such matters, and there is a body of educational thought that insists that schools should be pointedly "neutral" with respect to values, ethics, morality, and the like.

This attitude is yet stronger in higher education, where a number of scholars seem to believe that colleges and universities must forswear these things altogether.

There is, to be sure, a point at which conscious efforts to impart values to young people in school could turn into a degree of "indoctrination" that itself defies some central American values; there is also the obvious problem that not all values are consensual. While virtually all Americans believe that murder is evil, that charity is praiseworthy, and that honesty is preferable to deception, there may be valid exceptions to each of these maxims; circumstances in which they do not fully apply; or contravening values of considerable importance to some people.

That helps explain why it is no simple matter for schools, especially public schools, to deal directly with these subjects. (Many of our private schools have paid careful attention to the development of character as well as intellect in their students; this helps account for the popularity of private education in the United States today.)

But it is not impossible, either, and we have tended perhaps too often to proffer relativism as an excuse for avoiding decisions that educators and other adults not only can make for our children but should make for them.

It will not do for us to leave the impression that schools bear the full responsibility for this kind of education. Parents, churches, communities, and myriad private organizations in the United States share in the obligation to see that our children grow in virtue as well as in skills and knowledge. But schools have a role, too, and it is not one they have always been comfortable playing.

3. Can we continue to respond appropriately to extraordinary children?

There is a touch of irony in even posing this as an issue, for--as we noted above--a great strength of American education has been its sensitivity to the differing needs of children who are gifted or handicapped, career-minded or college-bound, not yet fluent in English or from backgrounds that do not fully prepare them for academic learning. We have been flexible and, at least in recent years, we have been responsive. When we admire the educational systems of other societies, it is usually for their success with the education of "ordinary" children; when others admire us, it is usually for our willingness to act on the basis of concern for extraordinary children.

Yet the reform movement, as we have observed, emphasizes uniform-ities, similarities, and commonalities; it tends to impose the same standards and expectations on all children; and it emphasizes much the same kind of "academic" education for all.

Can we do this with due regard for significant differences in ability and motivation? In life ambitions and family circumstances? Can we retain the best of our individualized system and thereby make schooling interesting and worthwhile for the extraordinary youngster as well as for the boy or girl at the statistical mean? Can we do this without imprisoning human beings inside the walls of their own aspirations? (We have in mind the youngster who thinks he wants school to prepare him directly for a job, but whose life prospects may be inhibited if the school responds too simply and thereby neglects to prepare him for 50 years of living, working, loving, and thinking.)

If there is any truly perplexing "second generation" dilemma that the reform movement must now confront, it is how to harness its dominant homogenizing impulses to the reality that people are not all alike.

4. Can we confer responsibility, authority, and accountability on education professionals at the school level, while also affording more educational choices to parents and children?

One of the strongest findings of recent education research is that the most effective schools--those whose students learn the most and the fastest--tend to be schools with a clear sense of purpose, an institutional ethos, team spirit, and a measure of autonomy. Yet the current reform movement is tending to remove from the schools many of the judgments and powers that comprise [sic] this autonomy. It is, to be sure, doing this in order to upgrade the performance of unsatisfactory schools. But in the process it may be endangering the capacity of all schools to create those internal working arrangements that foster educational excellence.

This point differs from our prior observation that local education agencies are surrendering authority to the states. Here we are talking about the ability--often lacking, even in local public-school systems that retain much autonomy--of the individual school team, i.e., its principal and teachers in conjunction with its students, parents, and community, to establish goals and procedures that maximize its strengths, meet its distinctive needs, and elicit professionalism from its staff.

Of course, schools that possess a high degree of sovereignty are apt to differ from one another in curricular emphasis, pedagogical style, and internal organization. This flies in the face of uniformity and homogenization, but it also raises a collateral issue, namely our desire to enhance the ability of families to select the schools they believe are best for their children.

If schools are all alike, such choice is not very important. But if schools differ, then the right to select among them is valuable. Conversely, if families have the right and the wherewithal to make such choices, schools will be apt over time to differ more, one from the next.

In the United States heretofore, we have not so much fostered educational choice and diversity as permitted them. Families could, if they wished to and were able to pay the price, decide to reside in a community or neighborhood with a public school that pleased them, or to enroll their children in private schools, of which we have a large number and considerable variety. Many families have availed themselves of one or both such possibilities.

But for the most part only the relatively well-to-do have had the financial resources to do so. That is why we--and President Reagan, and tens of millions of American citizens--favor new public policies that would enable lower-income families to make educational choices for their children as well. Some such proposals would assist children to attend private schools; others would yield greater purposeful diversity and family choice within public-school systems; still others would do both.

The specific policy mechanisms are numerous and varied, but let us be clear that all share a dual purpose: to afford more educational choices to families of every background and income level and to confer more authority, responsibility, and accountability on the professionals who lead and teach in individual schools.

5. Can we employ the teachers we need?

The United States finds itself enmeshed in a dual dilemma with respect to teachers: In many communities, regions, and subject specialties, we face an actual shortage of individuals who meet the present minimum standards and are willing to become teachers. This may be termed the "quantity problem," and it grows worse as our school enrollments again begin to rise.

Yet at the same time, we are dissatisfied with the intellectual apti-tude, the prior education, and the pedagogical prowess of a sizable fraction of our new teachers. This may be termed the "quality problem.'' The two problems interact with one another, and the most obvious solutions to either one are apt to exacerbate the second.

Do not misunderstand. The United States also possesses many wonderful, gifted, and dedicated teachers with talents and knowledge that rival any in the world. But we do not have enough of them, and we are deeply concerned that in the future we will have still fewer.

Multiple causes may be considered, certainly including unappealing working conditions, salaries that in many cases are not "competitive," archaic and irrelevant licensing requirements, the relatively low status of the teaching occupation in American society, the varied opportunities now available to talented women and minority-group members, and the spotty condition of "professionalism" and "quality control" within the ranks of teachers themselves.

What is to be done? Many things, we believe, beginning with the recognition that the dual "teacher problems" pose perhaps the greatest single threat to the eventual success of our education-reform movement and that they are not apt to be solved in piecemeal fashion, but only through the development of comprehensive long-term strategies for revitalizing the teaching profession.

Such efforts are now under way in many different forms within the profession itself, among national commissions and study groups, at the state and local levels, and in colleges and universities. These are commendable and portentous. We do not know whether they will prove sufficient to the task. But we are certain that the task is as important as any facing American education in the late 1980's.

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