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Bennett: Despite Reform, 'We Are Still at Risk'

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WASHINGTON--American schools have improved in the past five years, but the level of student achievement remains "unacceptably low,'' Secretary of Education William J. Bennett reported last week.

"The precipitous downward slide of previous decades has been arrested, and we have begun the long climb back to reasonable standards,'' Mr. Bennett concluded in "American Education: Making it Work,'' and in remarks at a White House ceremony where the report was presented to President Reagan.

"We are not doing well enough, and we are not doing well enough fast enough,'' Mr. Bennett said. "We are still at risk.''

Mr. Bennett's document assesses educational progress since the publication of the landmark 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, which galvanized the reform movement with its warning of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.''

The President gave Mr. Bennett the "homework assignment'' of updating the 1983 report last year during a joint visit to a Missouri school, and the sequel was released on the fifth anniversary of the original's release, April 26.

The follow-up report was issued with great fanfare: two news briefings and the formal ceremony in the White House's East Room.

Recent improvement in test scores "is no accident,'' Mr. Reagan said in accepting the report, "but, as Bill has told us, we have a long way to go. This report will serve to guide us on our way.''

'Opposition by Extortion'

The sequel is more a position paper than the dramatic call to arms that A Nation at Risk was fashioned to be. It includes as recommendations many of the measures Mr. Bennett has touted for some time, such as parental choice and "accountability'' for educators.

The report also continues Mr. Bennett's assault on the "education establishment,'' and teachers' unions in particular, blaming the slow progress of reform on "the narrow, self-interested exercise of politicalpower'' by "those with a vested interest in the educational status quo.''

Mr. Bennett attacked "the false claim that to fix our schools will first require a fortune in new funding,'' accusing education advocates of "opposition by extortion.''

"Many in the education establishment want two things: a whitewash of the problem and a blank check,'' Mr. Bennett added at a news briefing, where he called the National Education Association "the single biggest obstacle to reform.''

He said this resistance can be overcome with support from governors, legislators, school-board members, and the public.

The education community was quick to respond, arguing that Mr. Bennett's report does not give educators enough credit for the accomplishments of the past five years and that not enough time has elapsed to judge fairly the progress of reform. (See related story on page 1.)

The Secretary's critics contended that the Administration has not done its share, pointing to proposed spending cuts for almost every year of the Reagan Presidency and to the absence in the new report of any mention of a federal role in school improvement.

Mr. Bennett reiterated his contention that reform can be accomplished with existing funds if they are spent more wisely.

He told reporters that a "modest federal role'' is appropriate and that "anyone who has seen the last three years can't say the federal government has not been involved in reform.''

"When people say, 'more federal role,' they don't really mean more federal role. They mean a different role,'' Mr. Bennett said, "or they mean more federal cash.''

Mixed Progress Report

The report cites as progress increased teacher salaries, state initiatives supporting alternative certification of teachers, open-enrollment plans, teacher testing, and reward systems for educators such as merit pay.

It also recounts a record of mixed progress in student test scores.

Average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which were in decline in 1983, have increased by 16 points in the ensuing five years, Mr. Bennett reported, although the average score has been static for the past three years. The average scores of minority students have also increased, he noted.

Mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have improved, according to the report, but fewer than 5 percent of 17-year-olds tested in the last reading assessment could read at the "advanced level'' needed for higher education, and scores on recent assessments of knowledge of literature, history, and geography were "discouraging.''

A study comparing the transcripts of 15,000 1987 high-school graduates with those of students who graduated in 1982--done especially for the report--found that secondary-school students are taking more academically rigorous courses.

Less than 2 percent of the 1982 graduates took a course load similar to that recommended in A Nation at Risk, but 12.7 percent of their 1987 counterparts did. Many more of the recent graduates had taken courses in American history, advanced mathematics, chemistry, and biology.

In addition, the report says, the number of students in less rigorous "general track'' programs decreased from 35 percent to 17 percent between 1982 and 1987.

Remedies 'Not Mysterious'

Despite these gains, Mr. Bennett said, "curricular foolishness has not been eliminated from American high schools, and not all students have shared equally in the national trend toward stronger curricula.''

"Good schools for disadvantaged students are too rare,'' he wrote, acknowledging that the fruits of reform have not necessarily reached those most in need.

In the report and in his remarks, Mr. Bennett said that the ingredients needed to improve education are "not mysterious,'' and merely need to be more widely implemented, a conclusion that is questioned by many educators.

"Indeed, identifying what works--establishing the ideas and practices that make for effective schools--has been a signal accomplishment of the reform movement to date,'' Mr. Bennett said, citing several examples of successful schools and teachers he has lauded in the past.

"Their success should be a model and foundation for the future of education reform in America,'' he said.

The report makes the following specific recommendations:

  • Strengthen curricula. Improvement in courses of study and course content must continue, the report says, and all students must study a "common core'' of knowledge in subjects such as literature and history.
  • Provide equal opportunity. Disadvantaged students should be offered the same quality of instructional programs as others, Mr. Bennett said, adding that quality education "is the central civil-rights challenge facing us today.''
  • Foster an "ethos of achievement.'' To succeed, schools must create a climate of discipline and clear goals and teach commonly accepted moral values and work habits along with reading and arithmetic, the report says.
  • Recruit and reward talented teachers and principals. The report calls for higher salaries tied to merit pay and stricter standards, as well as increased use of alternative certification routes.
  • Instill "accountability'' in schools. Mr. Bennett reiterated his call for systems that hold educators personally responsible for the success or failure of their students.
  • Increase parental choice. The President joined Mr. Bennett in restating this Administration priority, calling for "healthy rivalry'' among schools.
  • Focus education spending on classroom activities, rather than on administrators and support staff. Mr. Bennett said he believes the bureaucratic "blob'' is consuming too much of the education budget.

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