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Broader Focus Said Key to Next Wave Of Reform Drive

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CHICAGO--The school-reform movement has succeeded in raising student achievement in high school, but without more progress in professionalizing teaching and improving instruction in the early grades, such gains may be jeopardized by a return to "benign neglect,'' a major new study released last week concludes.

The book-length report, "... the best of educations'': Reforming America's Public Schools in the 1980's, examines the reform process to date, concentrating on seven states: California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. It is the result of a two-year study commissioned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At a conference here coinciding with the report's release, a group of prominent educators and business leaders convened by the Education Commission of the States generally agreed with the report's conclusions on what the essential elements of the "second wave'' of reform should be.

And they were in agreement with the new study in warning that the second wave may never arrive, unless the public is convinced that the energy and money expended thus far have been worthwhile and that further efforts are needed.

Americans are an "impatient people,'' said Gov. James Thompson of Illinois, one of those attending the E.C.S. conference. "They want to know what we have done with their money.''

The commission's executive director, Frank Newman, agreed. "The toughest part lies ahead,'' he said. "We're moving into a period of increasing subtlety'' that will make reform more difficult to explain and sell to voters and politicians.

The economic problems of many states also threaten reforms, the conference participants said. They rejected U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's assertion, made most recently in an April 5 speech to the Education Writers' Association, that school reform can be accomplished without significant infusions of new money. (See Education Week, April 15, 1987.)

But more money alone will not be sufficient to provide the needed changes, said Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

"We are going to fail unless we get much more out of the resources that we put into school than we are now,'' he said. And that goal, he added, can only be accomplished through "fundamental structural change'' that addresses the fact that "pressures on productivity are absent in the public realm.''

Disillusionment and Neglect

In the new report, William Chance, a consultant formerly based at the University of Washington's institute of public policy and management, identifies four stages in states' education-reform process: issue identification, crisis activity, disillusionment with results, and return to neglect.

Both he and most of those attending last week's conference placed the current progress of the reform movement nationally at the third "appraisal'' stage. And they said it risks falling into the fourth stage--neglect--unless more emphasis is placed on early-childhood education and the elementary grades, selecting and preparing teachers, school-site management, and testing and assessment.

"Properly used, [testing] programs can provide the tripwires that fire the alarms, drawing attention to the problems of individual students and entire systems,'' writes Mr. Chance in the new report.

But in "second wave'' initiatives, he said, reformers will have to ensure that testing is used as a tool to diagnose student problems, not as the ultimate goal of classroom teaching.

One of the most crucial goals of the second wave, the report maintains, should be providing all children with an adequate foundation of literacy skills in the early grades.

The leaders gathered at the E.C.S. conference on reform here expressed similar sentiments.

"If you don't work on development in the early grades, you're always dealing with the problems and deficiencies in the later grades,'' said J. Troy Earhart, state commissioner of education in Rhode Island.

But that does not mean, he said, that the emphasis of the first wave of reform on reducing the dropout rate and raising educational standards has been misplaced.

"There has to be a period of time that you're working on both,'' he said, "and that time is now.''

Needed Emphases

In his book, Mr. Chance argues that while much has been done to improve student outcomes, the reform movement has accomplished little in its second major area of emphasis, the restructuring of the educational professions.

"Progress there, aside from the time-tested remedy represented by adjustments in teacher salaries, has been marginal,'' he writes, adding that "if teachers truly wish to be treated as professionals, they must accept some of the conditions of professionalism.''

Among the professional issues that need further attention, he said, are differentiated salary systems, evaluation programs, and the adoption of more rigorous, effective, and relevant training for both potential and practicing teachers.

The author also recommends that:

  • Educators and the public develop a consensus on what competencies students need to learn in school to prepare them for later life.
  • State governments and other agencies provide sufficient funding for research on all aspects of education to assist in the development of effective policy.
  • Grass-roots education organizations be supported by foundations and other private entities as a means of keeping the public involved in schooling.
  • Private organizations consider funding pilot programs testing a wide array of experimental approaches to learning, to give legislators the evidence of program effectiveness they require before funding full-scale program implementation.
  • A careful and sustained effort be made to monitor and disseminate information on the progress of various reforms undertaken in the states.

Throughout the new book, Mr. Chance stresses that most of the measures enacted in the first wave of reform "have stayed close to the familiar,'' and have addressed the symptoms of problems, rather than their causes.

He says that "this may come from the emphasis on pragmatic solutions, the presence of strong political figures who required direct and describable alternatives, the absence of leadership from the professoriate, the limited depth of the research base, or, most likely, a combination of these.''

And although educators have played a larger role in setting the reform agenda than is commonly supposed, he asserts, the political nature of the movement "embodies a reassertion of public control'' over education.

The education establishment has always considered the goals of excellence and equity to be mutually exclusive, according to Mr. Chance, and has allowed students to be "schooled'' without being "educated.''

This point was brought home in his choice of a title, taken from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. "We had the best of educations,'' said Alice, "in fact, we went to school every day.''

The reform movement, the author contends, represents an assertion of the public's belief that all students can and should be well educated.

The success of the movement to date has been predicated on the involvement of a much broader range of participants in setting the education agenda than has been generally true in the past, he says, and its future is dependent on maintaining the coalition.

"It has taken nearly 95 years,'' the book states, "but at last the country may be starting to take seriously the principle of universal education. And that's what it's all about.''

Copies of "... the best of educations'' may be obtained, while supplies last, by writing the E.C.S. Distribution Center, Suite 300, 1860 Lincoln Street, Denver, Colo. 80295, or by calling (303) 830-3692.

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