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The President's Education Plan: A Sampling of Opinion

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Education is the most decentralized part of American government. Substantial reform and improvement has to be a bottom-up process, enlisting individual citizens and communities. A President and Administration can urge change--but not order it. [Secretary of Education Lamar] Alexander is right in saying that the main problem is not lack of funds but complacency. Too many of us, he says, believe "the nation is at risk, but I'm O.K."

To have a conservative President of the United States and an education secretary as persuasive as Alexander saying over and over again that we are all at risk unless we set and achieve radically improved education standards is no small thing.

David Broder, syndicated columnist, The Washington Post.

The [Bush] plan's real importance is in how it may change, directly and indirectly, the way federal, state, and local governments spend their education dollars. To that end, it seeks to increase accountability, foster innovation, and encourage a better match between workplace needs and adult skills training ...

The Bush program recognizes and honors the American tradition of state and local control in both the funding and operation of schools. It also recognizes the Washington fiscal reality of a $300 billion deficit.

It proposes, by using legitimate federal leverage, to boost the achievement of American schoolchildren and, thus, of the American nation. It deserves a test.

The Chicago Tribune.

Bush is big on awards. Thus, he wants to give grants of federal dollars to schools whose students really show improvement. Nice idea. But does this mean he'd refuse to put new federal dollars in schools that are slipping backward? If not, does this mean the President is willing to let some schools go down the drain? How awful to contemplate that this great country can write off any school.

But the President's vision doesn't extend to providing equal access to a good education for every child. Or a federal guarantee that every school will have its basic needs met. Bush's revolution doesn't intend to push back the frontiers of desegregation and racial justice in the schools.

It's principally a revolution to benefit the privileged and the middle-class already in good schools. In Bush's America, the poor are forgotten.

The Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Ind.

[The President's] central idea is an old one whose time has come: parental choice of school, which will introduce cleansing competition to the stolid monopoly that is now the public system. "The money follows the children and the children follow the good schools."

Competition, not monopoly, is the American way; we have seen it work and produce. In schooling, let bad schools fail; close them; guarantee their students access to successful schools. Then revamp some of the failed schools, open them under new management to put competitive pressure on the others.

William Safire, syndicated columnist, The New York Times.

Not once in his 24-minute education address did Bush utter the words "public school." In fact, Bush wants to erase public education as fully from the American vocabulary as he did from his speech. To Bush, ''parental choice" doesn't mean encouraging flexible alternatives to sometimes-stagnant neighborhood schools ... It means removing tax dollars from public classrooms and removing schooling itself from the civic domain.

Bruce Shapiro, a member of the Initiative for Quality Urban Education in New Haven, Conn., writing for The Nation.

Officials contend [the choice plan] would give poorer children an opportunity that the wealthy already enjoy. And they say it would force public schools to improve themselves. But some educators fear that choice would undercut those schools by encouraging the departure of students who have the most interested parents. And even Mr. Alexander can't say what the President's proposals would do for the early years that almost everyone thinks are crucial in education.

Carl P. Leubsdorf, chief Washington correspondent, The Dallas Morning News.

For all that the President's proposed 535 experimental schools might reveal about improving education, the fact remains that we largely know what makes a good school. A solid core curriculum. Discipline. Parental involvement. Teachers who have thefreedom to do their best.

Many schools--public and private--already have those qualities. The fastest way to create more of them is by holding their feet to the fire of choice. Trying to secure other reforms without choice will take years and consign another generation of students to academic mediocrity.

The Wall Street Journal.

In my interviews with nearly 3,000 children, parents, and teachers around the country over four years, I have heard this repeated theme: The most important issue is not the academic life of the student, but the emotional life of the child. Bush's proposals give only cursory attention to that principle.

In any true education revolution, public schools must be identified as the most important community hubs for families--complete with counseling centers, day-care facilities, and in-house and outreach parenting programs. Schools should augment the family, rather than replace it.

Richard Louv, author of Childhood's Future, writing in The Christian Science Monitor.

One reason past reforms have fizzled is that ordinary schools couldn't replicate the experimental successes of gifted, impassioned teachers. That's what happened with the "New Math," which seemed so bright in its experimental phase and so impossible in most classrooms ... But whole states full of ordinary schools are making [choice] work. What is helping them is the magic of the marketplace. Principals now ask, "Why are 100 students transferring out of my school? How can I lure new ones?"

The choice ideas should fly. Bush and his education secretary, Lamar Alexander, must chop off the dead weight of nonpublic-school choice and let the winds of competition blow through America's public schools.

New York Newsday (Nassau, Suffolk edition).

To overcome Bush Baloney and Democratic Dickering and really change American education in this decade requires a marriage of two concepts--taxing and spending at all levels of government, but only in support of a radically changed system that demands more of teachers, kids, and parents.

Thus far in the 1990's, the only certainty is that the bipartisan Establishment in [Washington] is not up to the task and is confident that the public will fall for the latest pseudo-initiative.

Thomas Oliphant, The Boston Globe.

Even before we examine each provision of President Bush's proposal to make our educational system more competitive, we should challenge the premise of his plan. The trouble is our schools are already much too competitive. ...

In most classrooms, students are forced to work against each other, competing for gold stars, grades, and recognition. The lesson that all competition teaches is that everyone else is an obstacle to one's own success. ...

Instead of more competitiveness, we need to emphasize cooperation, which research and experience suggest is far more likely to produce real excellence. One of the most exciting developments in education over the last decade is cooperative learning. When students work in pairs or small groups to help each other learn, they feel better about themselves, like each other more, and develop sophisticated cognitive strategies that result in higher achievement. ...

Rather than help schools move in that direction, our "education President" offers more of the win-lose framework that has left our economy--and, more to the point, our educational system--in deep trouble.

Alfie Kohn, author of The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life, in an op-ed essay for The New York Times.

While the President wants each child to come to school ready to learn, there was only token mention of the integral part the family plays in making sure that the child is ready to learn. President Bush has endorsed Head Start, a proven success and the darling of preschool anti-poverty programs. Yet Bush has chosen not to use his bully pulpit to push other pro-family programs that better prepare children for the classroom. If the President wants to make a lasting impact on that other 91 percent of an American child's life, he must understand that the success of his education program is inextricably linked to national policies that give stronger support to working families.

The Los Angeles Times.

Bush's main weapon to influence change is to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit. Federal officials can--and apparently will--exhort state and local authorities to try out new ideas and find novel solutions to the ills plaguing the nation's schools. But they can do little more than that ... [W]ith the federal budget deficit hovering around $320 billion, Bush can't just throw more money at the problem. Nor should he. The 26 percent after-inflation rise in school spending during the past decade--despite a drop in enrollment--has provided little educational return. That's because a big chunk of the increase pays for a growing school administration bureaucracy, rather than teaching and equipment.

Whether the country's public school systems pass or fail is up to the states and cities. But given the constraints on his options, Bush surely deserves an 'A' for effort.

Business Week.

Giving bright, highly motivated low-income students more educational options is not only desirable, but imperative. Too many of these students are trapped in public schools that continue to operate despite poor performance.

But what about the less motivated, most troubled students, who are ill equipped to exercise choice and might be rejected if they did? Washington's emphasis ought to be on improving the weak public schools for them, or on attaching enough money to each student, so that better schools would want to compete for even the dullest and most poorly behaved. Unless the Administration is willing to promote quality education for all students, its plan will be little more than a publicly funded scholarship program for the bright and restless.

The New York Times.

Since the Bush plan shows no recognition of the need for additional educational research and evaluation, it implicitly assumes that we already know about how to improve the system. The fact is that we remain woefully ignorant about many aspects of effective schooling, teaching, and learning. This knowledge gap exists in part because federal investment in educational research has been miniscule, especially when compared to research in fields such as science, agriculture, defense, and health care.

How is it that the Administration believes that we need lots of money to strengthen national defense, science, agriculture, health care, and foreign policy, but we can somehow achieve significant educational reforms on the cheap?

Alexander W. Astin, professor of higher education, University of California at Los Angeles, writing for The Los Angeles Times.

Parental choice carries with it the promise of reform but also the threat of a debacle. Even the vaunted market system does not work for everyone, especially those consumers who can't afford to consume. Given the general reluctance of an increasingly suburbanized America to deal with the plight of the inner city, "choice" may become another term for "tracking" or ... dumping. After all, parental choice already exists. It's one of the reasons some schools are so good while others are so bad.

Richard Cohen, syndicated columnist, The Washington Post.

An Educational Experiment We Need

By Francis Washington

Although the performance of public schools continues to disappoint, scarcely a week goes by that does not see the introduction of some innovative educational idea. The abundance and variety of ideas is astounding. Among those I have read about in these pages and elsewhere are: philosophy for children, school-site budgeting, video-disk science instruction, cooperative learning, writing across the curriculum, institution of a traditional dress code, simulated economies in schools, Afro-centered curricula, differentiated staffing, mentoring by community members, reciprocal teaching, public choice and other forms of deregulation, performance testing, whole-language instruction, corporation-school partnerships, assertive discipline, new curricular frameworks, new approaches to teacher education.

I am far from suggesting that these ideas are worthless. Some in fact sound extremely promising. Nevertheless, the disappointing performance of many of our students--low-income and minority children especially--remains. We do not know why this is so. Perhaps the schools' efforts are simply no match for the hours the young spend watching television, the absence of parental guides, or our society's traditional disdain for intellectual performance. Perhaps the ideas are fine, but degenerate in the hands of the ordinary teachers ultimately responsible for their implementation. Perhaps the variety of efforts attempted in the same school system or the same school work against each other and cancel each other out. Perhaps successful ideas are simply not given enough time to develop and grow roots. Perhaps the successful spread of good ideas is impeded by lack of adequate funding. Perhaps underlying structural features of our society, racism and inequality of social and cultural capital, doom efforts to improve schools for all children.

The limited success of creative, often heroic efforts prompts three responses: the proposal of ever bolder ideas, such as "bankrolling educational entrepreneurs," mentioned in a Dec. 5, 1990 Commentary; renewed calls to return to the educational ways of our ancestors; or simply a sense of defeat and resignation. Is such resignation warranted? I do not know but I propose that we try to find out.

Almost all school-improvement efforts are bedeviled by one constraint that, while not without reason, ought to be removed in order to conduct an experiment with impact. This is the requirement that the level of funding per child in the schools that innovate not exceed by very much the level of funding at the neighboring school or school system. Any proposal that would, let's suppose, require that spending per child in an experimental school be increased by a factor of five would be summarily dismissed. The reason is obvious; it would be patently unfair, not to say politically infeasible, to permit some children to receive so disproportionate a share of educational resources. Moreover, some would argue that such a huge investment in a few children, even if successful, would accomplish little since it would stand slight chance of replication.

I believe, to the contrary, that such an experiment would yield an answer to the single most important question that those committed to educational improvement need to confront: to what extent is the continuing mediocre performance of our children, "at risk" children especially, a result of our unwillingness to invest in education? In other words, are our schools failing because we can't make them better or because we won't make the necessary investment?

Let me try to weaken resistance to the idea of spending a large amount on a few children, even in an experiment, by pointing to a setting in which huge amounts are already being spent on only a few children. Consider intensive care for low-birth-weight infants. The cost of such hospital intensive care for infants weighing less than 1,000 grams at birth varied between $50,000 and $144,000 in 1985, according to one study conducted at a Denver hospital. (About two-thirds of the infants survived.) In one cost-benefit analysis of such care, the total costs per surviving baby exceeded their projected average lifetime earnings. These astronomical costs may be compared to the $2,000 it costs for delivery and neonatal care of a healthy newborn in one of our local hospitals. That is, the cost of care for premature newborns may exceed that of healthy newborns by a factor of 50.

It is not difficult to identify children whose likelihood of thriving educationally is very low. What would happen if we invested even five times as much in their education as in that of their more-likely-to-thrive peers--if we invested $25,000 per year instead of the U.S. average of about $5,000? The answer is that we simply have no idea. But we ought to find out.

One of the difficulties of attempting to compare the relative effectiveness of different schools or kinds of schools is the differences in their respective populations. The study I propose, to be carried out in one city, would begin by trying to identify as large a pool as possible of at-risk 2-year olds. From it, 50 matched pairs of children would be chosen by lot for participation in the experiment. One child from each pair, chosen again by lot, would serve as control, attend conventional day-care facilities and local public schools. The other half would, for 12 years, receive an education in which budgetary constraints were virtually eliminated.

Such a program would include an intensive early-education component for the children themselves as well as for their parents. For ages 6 through 13, the program would extend beyond the conventional school day to include various kinds of after-school activities. Throughout the study, but at the end of 8th grade especially, the children's development would be compared. We would then have some idea of what might be done to salvage educationally at-risk children if resources were ample. I emphasize "some" because no such experiment is likely to yield definitive conclusions.

Without going into any details of the experimental design, let me answer several obvious questions that consideration of such a study brings to mind:

(1) Is it ethical to provide benefits to the children in the experimental group that are not offered to those in the control group? I believe it is not. Therefore, I propose that the control-group children receive an equivalent sum of money at the end of the 12-year experiment, with the proviso that that money be spent only for their education. In exchange for the benefits provided, the parents in both experimental and control groups would promise not to pull their children out of the experiment.

(2) Who would teach in the experimental school? To test the limits of our pedagogical prowess, we need to invite the best teachers in the nation to participate. I would hope that the professional challenge as well as substantially higher salaries made possible by increased funding would permit a national recruitment effort. I would hope a team of teachers could be assembled whose classroom effectiveness with at-risk children was acknowledged by their own supervisors and communities.

(3) Don't different communities and parents want different things for their children? What would the school's philosophy be, and according to what criteria would the children's progress be assessed? This question is harder to answer in theory than in practice. While I would suppose that the school would have as its primary aim the intellectual development of its children, there is no reason to think this must be done at the expense of their development as caring, confident, and socially conscious human beings. A parent and citizen board of overseers would monitor the project.

(4) Given the plethora of ideas and approaches to teaching, who would decide what methods to use? This is a difficult question. If the teaching staff had sufficient lead time to plan the program, perhaps one year before the children arrived, I would hope that they could design a program they had confidence in. They would have the resources to hire whatever consultants they wished to, but unless the teachers felt ownership of the pro4gram, their own commitment would be jeopardized.

(5) Who would run the school? I would hope that the school district in which the experimental school was located could find an administrator who was respected by teachers as well as community members. Since this administrator would have ample resources as well as an outstandinggroup of teachers, I would expect him or her to play a largely facilitative role.

The proposed experiment would cost about $2.5 million a year for a 12-year period, no small sum, but the total for all 12 years is less than 1 percent of the research budget of the U.S. Education Department for the current year.

Before the experiment got under way, two constituencies would need to be satisfied. The educational-research community would need to be convinced that the research design met the highest standards for such research. And the community of advocates for poor children would need to be satisfied that the project would make use of every available resource for improving the chances of children in the experimental group, given current knowledge about education practices.

What might the experiment tell us? If, despite a substantial investment, the children in the experimental program failed to develop their capacities to a significantly greater extent than their peers in the control group, we would need to lower our expectations about the redemptive power of good schooling. If a significantly greater proportion of the experimental children were to thrive educationally, we could begin to try to change people's attitudes toward educational investment.

When a premature infant is born, even if the prematurity is the result of the mother's abuse of drugs or alcohol, even if the child's chances of a normal life are not assured, we say with one voice: "Save the child; we'll worry about how to pay for it later." If the experiment I propose shows that "intensive educational care" yields similar benefits, shouldn't we adopt the same attitude towards expensive educational intervention?

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