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States' Improvement On Education Goals Called 'Only Modest'

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States have made "only modest" progress toward achieving the goals set forth in A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 document that helped spur the school-reform movement, a forthcoming report by a federally funded research center contends.

The report, expected to be released late this month, also partially debunks the notion that state efforts turned, in mid-decade, toward a so-called "second wave" of reform seeking school-based solutions to the question of quality, rather than merely increased requirements.

"It is true that high-school curricula are [now] more academically oriented, standards for the teaching profession are more selective, teachers' salaries are higher, and state and local governments have boosted educational funding," the report says. "But doubts still linger about the rigor and challenge of some of the new courses in academic subjects, the impact of reform on at-risk students, the quality of teachers and teaching, and the equitable funding of schools."

Moreover, it adds, schools lack adequate indicators to measure progress, and some controversial reforms, such as career ladders and merit pay for teachers, "have not been widely adopted."

Despite its assessment of limited success, however, the report views as "overly harsh" Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos' judgment that school performance is "stagnant."

The plethora of state actions has "produced modest change in the direction of goals expressed in 1983," the report states, and "beginning steps are also being taken toward the school-restructuring agenda."

It concludes that "while much remains to be done, there has been a move forward."

'Concerns at Every Level'

The report, "The Progress of Reform: An Appraisal of State Education Initiatives," was prepared by the Center for Policy Research in Education, a federally funded consortium that includes Rutgers University, Michigan State University, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

It was written by William A. Firestone, a senior research fellow at cpre, Susan H. Fuhrman, professor of policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers and director of cpre, and Michael W. Kirst, professor of education and business administration at Stanford.

Based on interviews with educators and policymakers, a review of research, and in-depth studies of six states--Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania--the report represents an "interim assessment" of a five-year study, begun in 1986, of the implementation and effects of state education reforms.

The researchers chose to gauge the effectiveness of reforms against the goals set out in A Nation at Risk, according to Ms. Fuhrman, because that Reagan Administration document reflected the "concerns felt at every level of government."

Reforms in the six states under study, she noted, represent the range of responses to such concerns. Three of the six states--California, Florida, and Georgia--embarked on a comprehensive reform strategy by packaging several initiatives into a single omnibus piece of legislation. The other three pursued reform in incremental steps.

The states also differed in whether they chose to rely on mandates, inducements to districts for improvements, or other strategies.

'A Barrage of Signals'

The report concludes that "the heaviest level of state involvement has been in mandating more academic courses and upgrading teaching through changes in certification and compensation."

Some 45 states increased or set for the first time graduation requirements, 27 states instituted minimum grade-point averages for beginning teachers, and most increased teacher salaries faster than those of other workers, the report notes.

However, reforms such as school restructuring or career ladders for teachers, measures that were "aimed at changing the organization of instruction or altering decisionmaking practices within schools," it points out, "did not generally garner much support."

The study also found that, although the press for reform was nationwide, each state responded according to its political tradition.

"Three states in cpre's study4that had histories of solving problems with large-scale policy fixes used that approach again," it says. "The states that lacked experience with comprehensive reform did not initiate it in the 1980's."

Moreover, states tended to reject complicated reforms in favor of more manageable policies, it notes, and adopted sets of changes that lacked coherence.

"The most common problem was not that specific provisions conflicted, but that they were often unrelated," the report says. "This sent a barrage of signals to districts."

The study found little evidence to support the view prevalent in education rhetoric that the reform movement shifted, beginning about 1986, from an emphasis on minimum-competency standards to a "second wave" focusing on the quality of teaching and learning at the school site.

Despite some state planning and implementation grants for experiments in school restructuring, the report maintains, "states are still enacting policies more characteristic of the first wave of reform."

"In other words," it concludes, "it appears that the reform movement is being driven by a broad set of policy recommendations that reflect state needs at a particular time."

Curricular Reforms

In analyzing the particular reforms, the report notes that the most widely adopted changes have been those aimed at raising student standards: increases in course requirements and testing programs.

Although these reforms were widely accepted by administrators, teachers, and parents, the report concludes, they "met with mixed success.''

"Graduation and testing policies focused the high-school curriculum around academic courses and skills," it says. "They also created more uniformity across schools and districts. What the policies did not do, however, was produce a high-level academic curriculum for all students."

For example, it notes, schools in four of the states studied added coursework in academic subjects, and students in those schools tended to take fewer elective courses. But middle- and lower-achieving students in those states tended to take courses that were essentially at the basic or remedial level.

In addition, although the higher standards did not result in higher dropout rates, as some educators had warned, there is evidence, the report says, that "some counselors and other school personnel were advising students to take easier courses so they could graduate, rather than harder courses that would enable them to go to college."

Teacher Quality

State policies to attract and retain teachers, particularly assessment programs, increased salaries, and alternative routes to certification, have also been popular.

But in noting that, the report adds that "we know a good deal more about what states are doing than we know how these programs affect the quality and activity of the teaching force."

For example, it says, although testing requirements for incoming teachers were implemented without much controversy in most states, considerable debate exists over whether such programs actually measure the quali8ties needed for effective instruction and over whether they discriminate against minorities.

The report also questions whether higher minimum salaries may, in addition to attracting candidates to the field, be driving veteran teachers away by compressing the wage scale.

In addition to adopting curricular and teaching reforms, states also redirected resources to education during the 1980's, the study found. Revenues per pupil rose by 31 percent between 1980 and 1988, compared with a 28 percent increase during the 1970's.

Such increases occurred, according to the report, not only in relatively wealthy states, but also in those facing hard economic conditions, such as West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina, and Tennessee. They were accompanied in some cases by equity reforms that equalized spending differentials across districts.

But the report notes that the high upward trend in spending appears to be slowing, and may stop altogether if the economy slows down. In addition, it says, while state aid rose substantially between 1983 and 1987, the state share of education funding rose "only modestly."

Copies of "The Progress of Reform" are available for $7 each, postpaid, by contacting: Publications, The Center for Policy Research in Education, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; (201) 828-3872.

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