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Debate Over Report's Tenor Lasted to the Final Months

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Members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education struggled until the final months with just how "grim'' a picture of education they wanted to portray.

According to William O. Baker, the retired chairman of the board of Bell Telephone Laboratories, "the quite drastic assessment'' of education that he and others "felt had to appear in the report'' was considered "overdone'' by other members of the commission.

"It was a real divisive point between the educators and non-educators on the commission,'' recalled Susan Traiman, a former staff member. "It was the non-educators--and really, the scientists--who had come in on the first day and felt there was a crisis.''

"I think it was really quite astonishing,'' she added, "that the educators came around to really agreeing that [the report] would be kind of a blast'' at education.

Another former staff member, Peter H. Gerber, noted that the educators on the commission "were anxious to have the crisis portrayed alongside two things: One, we in the profession know this is serious. And, two, many efforts have been made which have mitigated what could have been a much worse situation.''

The final report does mention the existence of "outstanding programs and schools.'' And it cautions against the search for "scapegoats,'' particularly among the nation's "beleaguered teachers.''

But it chose to emphasize the need for systemic change, rather than examples of success.

That decision led one staff member to criticize the text as "unrelievedly grim,'' and "a shotgun approach to American education based on a declaration of war.''

"As such,'' he warned in a memo, "it can be too easily written off.''

'A Whole System'

In the end, however, David P. Gardner, chairman of the commission, achieved the unanimous consensus that he wanted.

And A Nation at Risk was far from "written off.''

The report "made'' Secretary Bell, as one observer noted. And it may have helped to save the Education Department.

"I half expected a minority report,'' Mr. Bell wrote in The Thirteenth Man. "But David Gardner wouldn't have this.''

"He wanted his commission members to stand behind their report without any dissent.''

Several individuals praised Mr. Bell last week for taking a "hands off'' approach to the commission's work. "He did not intrude. He did not review it. He did not attempt to chill the commission,'' Mr. Gerber noted. "And he did take a risk.''

In addition, he said, the final document was "remarkably free of the specific proposals of the Administration at the time it was issued.''

"And it was remarkably circumspect,'' he added, "with regard to the issues that had been raised by the Administration,'' such as vouchers and school prayer.

In fact, Ms. Traiman recalled, some of the more conservative commission members were severely criticized by their own colleagues after the report came out for being "too wishy-washy'' on such topics.

"There are 40 or so individual recommendations,'' in A Nation at Risk, Mr. Holton said, "a whole system of recommendations under five or six headings, and of a great variety.''

The result, he asserted, "was a very thoughtfully put-together system of steps, ranging from what parents must do, to what school boards must do, to what teachers themselves must insist on, ... to what the federal government must do.''

"All too many readers,'' he said, "have focused on one or another of these recommendations and have forgotten that it is a system--that it is a plan to pursue in total.''

"Congratulations are premature,'' he stated, because "most of the things we've asked for have not been put into operation to this day.''

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