States Question Bennett's Position That Greed Imperils Gains
Copyright 1987, Editorial Educators and policymakers across the nation last week generally disputed a "hypothesis'' advanced by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that "the education-reform movement is being hijacked and held for ransom'' by education bureaucrats and special-interest groups.
In a strongly worded April 5 address, the Secretary said he was worried that the school-reform movement had entered a phase characterized by the kind of "sloth, cowardice, and gluttony'' that "befell Odysseus' crew in the land of the Lotus Eaters.''
The claim that lasting reform can be achieved only with "lots of money ... is polite extortion,'' Mr. Bennett asserted in his speech at a meeting of education writers in San Francisco.
"I now believe we stand at a critical juncture in the movement for education reform,'' he continued, and failure to resist the pressures of special interests "will mean ... the slow death of reform. The outcome is still in doubt.''
But a drastically different assessment of the condition of the movement emerged last week in interviews with more than 100 leaders in education, government, and labor in some 24 states.
In general, they agreed, the vital signs of the school-reform movement are strong, and the primary threat to the drive to improve education is, in fact, insufficient funding. Nearly all of those interviewed--particularly those in economically hard-pressed areas--rejected the Secretary's argument that school improvement can be achieved without a major infusion of new funds.
"I recognize that there are problems. But, frankly, I think [the reform movement] is alive and well,'' noted Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the author of High School, one of several reports that helped spark the drive for reform. "Rather than search for excuses at this time, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education.''
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed with the Secretary that "there are some places where there's backsliding.''
But, the union leader added, the problem is not nearly as widespread as Mr. Bennett indicates. "There are 50 states in this country, and all of them have enacted reforms. If he finds one state where it happens ... I'm not sure that constitutes a big national wave.''
Mr. Shanker also said he sensed "a certain arrogance'' in Mr. Bennett's approach to reform. "[N]ot everything that Secretary Bennett thinks is desirable is desirable,'' he said. "He has the right to fight for his point of view, and other people have the right to fight for theirs. There's nothing that makes his ideas reforms and other people's non-reforms.''
The Cost of Reform
State education officials also chided the Secretary for his claim that those concerned about raising school-funding levels "do not have educational improvement as their first priority.''
"The concept coming from the Reagan Administration that you can have reform at no cost just doesn't work,'' said Bill Honig, the California state school chief who is locked in a bitter public debate with his state's governor over school funding.
"The President is saying, 'You only need heart,''' he continued. "He would never make a statement like that about the military. Can you imagine him telling a division heading into battle, 'Well, you don't have adequate training and weapons, but if you have heart and the right attitude, you'll win'? He'd get laughed out of court.''
Added Larry Austin, a spokesman for the state education department in Oregon: "Bennett has focused on the wrong target.''
"Our state board and state superintendent were heavy into school improvement even before A Nation At Risk,'' the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Mr. Austin said. "But our requests for the expansion of statewide student testing and curriculum improvements have been erased by the legislature. You have to realize that they're looking for places to cut the existing budget. To get school improvement, you need dollars. And we aren't getting the dollars.''
Mr. Austin noted that state officials have attempted to implement low- or no-cost reforms, such as the state board's adoption this month of an "honors diploma'' for high-school graduates with grade-point averages above 3.5. "Now that didn't take any money,'' he said. "But there's only so much you can do in the way of structural school reform when you don't have the money to do it.''
In his speech to the Education Writers Association, Mr. Bennett cautioned that his assessment of the reform movement was "preliminary, impressionistic,'' and subject to verification. He also used what some observers called a fairly narrow definition of what constitutes reform--namely, an emphasis on outcomes, as opposed to resources and inputs; on measuring student achievement; and finally, on holding individuals and institutions accountable for their performance.
"These are the principles that, in several places, are under assault,'' the Secretary argued. To back up his claim, he asserted that:
- The Indiana House, "apparently under pressure from the state [National Education Association affiliate],'' last month "gutted'' Gov. Robert D. Orr's school-reform plan in the current legislative session. "It had been one of the most promising in the country,'' he said. "In the words of one Indiana paper, through the House's efforts, 'attention again has been focused myopically on the lowest common demominator--dollars per pupil.'''
- In Texas, state lawmakers have "abandoned'' a plan adopted as part of the state's comprehensive 1984 reform bill to require current teachers to take a subject-matter skills test this year. He also noted that some state officials "are calling for reconsideration of the state's teacher-appraisal system,'' also adopted as part of the reform act.
- Statewide career-ladder plans are "under attack'' in Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. (See related story on page 1.)
- In Michigan, the state school board last month decided "not to require local districts to give statewide student science tests.''
"The reason? Because students scored poorly in the first year the tests were given,'' Mr. Bennett said.
- The executive director of the National Science Teachers' Association, Bill G. Aldridge, recently stated that he "opposed raising high-school science requirements ... because increasing science requirements will drive up the dropout rate.''
"Now, shooting yourself in the foot is one thing,'' the Secretary said of Mr. Aldridge's statement, "but shooting yourself and American students in the brain is another.''
- Legislative proposals to expand parental "choice'' in education "have been squelched'' in the past year in California, North Dakota, and Louisiana.
Response to Criticism
Officials representing the states and organizations singled out for criticism by Mr. Bennett issued strong rebuttals, in some cases complaining that he had not conducted a full review of the facts.
In Texas, for example, a spokesman for the governor, the state school commissioner, a key legislator, and the president of the state's largest teachers' union displayed an uncommon degree of unanimity in noting that Texas has one of the nation's most comprehensive testing programs for prospective and working teachers, including a subject-matter-skills test for education-school graduates seeking certification. The decision not to test current teachers on their mastery of the subjects they teach, they all agreed, still leaves the state with a strong overall testing system.
"The kindest way I can put it is that his remarks remind me of the guy sitting up in the stands who has never been out on the playing field--he always knows the best play to call,'' said Senator Carl Parker, chairman of the chamber's education committee. "It also demonstrates that you shouldn't hold yourself up as an expert when you don't know what you're talking about.''
In Michigan, the outgoing state school chief, Phillip E. Runkel, called the Secretary's comments on the state's science tests an example of "his pop-off mentality.''
"Bennett was clearly misinformed,'' Mr. Runkel said. He explained that the state conducts annual assessments of students' reading and mathematics skills in grades 4, 7, and 10 and periodic assessments of other subject areas, including science.
"Our intent was never, never to test for science every year,'' he said. Mr. Runkel acknowledged that the results of the science test this year were "poor,'' but added that the state board has adopted a 31-point plan designed to improve students' science skills before the next assessment "in two to three years.''
He also noted that the state will permit districts to voluntarily use the statewide testing instrument to assess their own students' science skills in the years between now and the next statewide assessment, and that the state will pick up the full costs of the tests. About half of the state's districts are expected to conduct their own science assessments next year, he said.
"Bennett never called, he never asked us about it,'' Mr. Runkel said. "This continued kind of reaction is unfortunate, because we're probably doing more in the way of reform than most other states, and we have far less of a way to go. It was our plan, it was a good plan, and it works.''
Mr. Aldridge of the National Science Teachers Association was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment. But Leroy Lee, the president of the NSTA, said he thought Mr. Bennett "misinterpreted'' Mr. Aldridge's remarks regarding science requirements for high-school graduation.
"As a teacher, I have seen school systems say, 'Let's have two years of science instead of one,''' said Mr. Lee, currently the executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. "But if you take one year of inappropriate science and make it two, you're losing ground.''
"If you're talking about preparing kids for college, then, yes, it is appropriate to say, 'Let's require additional coursework in physics and the like,''' he continued. "But there are an awful lot of kids who aren't going to college, and to require them to take college-prep courses is inappropriate. All people in the realm of science feel it is important to have as much science instruction as possible. But the key is appropriate science.''
Officials in most the states surveyed disagreed with the Secretary that "backsliding'' threatens hard-fought reform gains won over the past several years. In addition--and in direct confrontation with Mr. Bennett's position--most officials said that where reforms are threatened, inadequate financing is at the root of the problem.
State education officials, lawmakers, heads of teachers' unions, and representatives of administrators' groups were called in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. The states were selected on the basis of a relatively high level of reform activity in recent years.
In Indiana, one of the states cited for criticism by Mr. Bennett, the debate appears not to be over the need to reform, but rather a fundamental disagreement over what direction reform should take.
The 31-point, $372-million reform package advocated by Governor Orr and H. Dean Evans, the state school chief, places its greatest emphasis on the targets identified by Mr. Bennett.
According to a spokesman for Mr. Evans, it would require annual student testing with mandatory summer remediation for low-scoring students; tie the school-accreditation system to "outcome'' measures, with below-par schools facing the possibility of a state takeover; provide financial rewards for schools performing above the expectation for demographically similar schools; and add 10 days to the school year, lengthening it to 185 days.
The House-approved version deleted most of these provisions and replaced them with initiatives endorsed by the Indiana State Teachers Association. Warren Williams, the ISTA's executive director, said its main features include new programs for "at risk'' children; expansion of the popular PrimeTime program, which previously lowered pupil-teacher ratios in grades 1-3, to the 4th grade; diagnostic student testing with guaranteed remediation; greater teacher accountability through locally bargained evaluation systems; and an overall increase in general school aid.
The debate over the two versions of the bill, however, may be largely academic. Late last week, the state Senate was expected to take final action on a third version that incorporates provisions of both. Representatives from both the I.S.T.A. and the Governor's office added that further compromises could be reached when the bill is acted on in a House-Senate conference committee.
Reforms 'On Track'
In other states, assessments of whether reform measures are "on track'' in nearly all cases varied on the basis of the condition of the state's economy.
For example, in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, and New Jersey--all states with relatively robust economies--there was general agreement that reform is moving forward.
"I think that education reform is moving ahead very well in Minnesota,'' said Ruth Randall, the state's commissioner of education. "Minnesota has been a state that's been willing to put money into education for many, many years.''
Educators and politicians characterize the state's reform process as largely "evolutionary,'' but note that the current legislative session may prove to be the strongest yet for such efforts.
Bills introduced in the legislature this session would, among other things, provide for more equitable state funding among school districts; establish a core curriculum for schools and an outcome-based method of measuring student achievement; and encourage districts to participate in open-enrollment programs for their students, for dropouts, and for 11th and 12th graders who wish to attend college.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, disagreements over a pilot master-teacher program and Gov. Thomas Kean's "academic bankruptcy'' proposal have not dampened what officials called a spirit of cooperation regarding reform.
"There have been special-interest groups that have opposed some of the reforms,'' noted Cummings A. Piatt, assistant state commissioner of education. "Has that opposition impeded the reforms? Definitely not.''
"We have had our skirmishes from time to time,'' added James P. Connerton, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association. "There are occasional attempts to put things in from the top down, things that we find unacceptable. And then we go to battle. But more and more we are finding it easier to deal with things before we get into confrontation.''
"I think it is valuable for Secretary Bennett to sound a warning,'' said Richard P. Mills, special assistant for education to Governor Kean. "After all, reform measures across the nation are still new, and there are very big issues that still have to be dealt with.''
But, Mr. Mills added, "I don't see the backsliding he is warning about in New Jersey.''
Although officials report that reform "is moving along well'' in Missouri, at least some are beginning to worry about the possible effects of a future economic downturn on recent gains.
"We had broad agreement from every group in the state on what we were doing,'' said Representative Annette N. Morgan, chairman of the legislature's joint committee on education. "We had our fights during the process, but we pretty much worked them out before implementation.''
"So far we have been able to fund what we are doing,'' Ms. Morgan continued. "The trick is going to be to continue to fund these programs. The state's fortunes are not getting better. Our farm economy is depressed. At this point, I can't say what the future will bring.''
In other states, however, recent economic downturns have cast a pall over the future of reforms adopted in past years.
"There is no denying funding has been a critical problem,'' said Sally Howell, a spokesman for the Alabama School Boards Association. "It has tied boards' hands in wanting to implement critical reforms.''
Over the past two years, the state has cut school aid by 5 percent, because revenues were inadequate to balance the budget. These cuts have forced local boards to delay implementation of certain reforms, such as additional courses to allow students to receive an "honors diploma.''
"Everyone has had very positive feelings about enhancing instruction in this state,'' said Tyna D. Davis, director of instruction and professional development for the Alabama Education Association.
"But funding is a problem, because a lot of the things it takes to enhance instruction will take more money,'' she added. "Teachers are having to go into their own pockets for instructional materials. Teachers haven't received a pay raise for two years, and there's a possibility that health benefits will have to be cut. There are a lot of schools with inadequate facilities, and that definitely impacts on good instruction.''
In Kansas, officials say that the poor health of the agriculture-based economy has put the brakes on reform.
"We're not getting anywhere on teacher salaries,'' said Representative Denise Apt, chairman of the House education committee. "We don't have the money. We increased the sales tax by 1 percent last year, but we've still had to make cuts.''
Other reform suggestions, such as extending the school day or the school year, "never were taken seriously in Kansas,'' said James H. Hays, research director for the Kansas School Boards Association. "We're having enough trouble paying for our school year as it is.''
In Louisiana, "the wave of reforms enacted in 1984 and 1985 didn't get off the ground because they weren't funded,'' noted Paul Jones, a member of the House education committee's staff. The state has "a good plan ready to go,'' he noted, but has adopted a "save-what-you-have and restore-what-you've-cut mentality'' to reform.
The weakened condition of New Mexico's energy-based economy forced lawmakers to delay until 1988 reform measures that were to take effect this year. The measures would have required districts to offer kindergarten programs and would have reduced the pupil-teacher ratios in kindergarten and 1st grade.
Despite the state's fiscal woes, $6.1 million was appropriated exclusively for education reform in the recently-ended legislative session. Most of the money was set aside to pay for additional teachers' aides to help schools move toward the goal of reducing class sizes and also to relieve teachers of non-instructional duties.
"The 1987 legislature was facing a real tough situation,'' said Alan Morgan, the state superintendent of public instruction. "They were going to have to decide whether to sign the check written for education reform by the 1986 legislature.''
"The one primary factor in all this was the fact that, in 1986, when the legislature adopted education reform, oil was selling for $22 a barrel,'' Mr. Morgan said. "In 1987, it is selling for $15 or $16 a barrel.''
Despite recent setbacks in some states, Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation said that, in his opinion, "it's truly remarkable that for almost five years this nation has been engaged in a sustained and constructive commitment to improve the nation's schools.''
"And it's truly remarkable when you think that almost all the states have been involved,'' he added. "In 1983 ... I thought the debate might go on a year or two. But it has remained at the center of many governors' agendas.''
"At no other time in modern history has education been so constructively and persistently at the heart of the national debate,'' he continued. "And that's as it should be. We need voices at the national level to help in that endeavor.''
Staff writers Ellen Flax, Kirsten Goldberg, Anne Pavuk, Blake Rodman, Robert Rothman, and Debra Viadero, and associate editor Lynn Olson, also contributed to this report.