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Advice to the New Administration: We Need Four More National Education Goals

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Now that we have national leadership with a sense of responsibility for all American children and youths, it is time to reconsider our national education goals. The six goals agreed to by the governors and the President in 1990 take us only part of the way toward opportunities America should be seeking for its young people. If we leave our education goals where they now are, we dishonor ourselves, and we lower the horizons of young Americans.

Here are four suggestions for extending the reach of education in this country:

1. School financing. The way schools are funded in the United States could not be better designed to do what it does: provide a relatively well-supported and effective education for young people from well-supported families and an inferior education for those from relatively poor families, so that our public schools become a system for perpetuating privilege. A byproduct of this arrangement is that the children of blacks, Hispanics, and recent immigrants get the least effective schools. Thus does racism still dominate the schools, in spite of the Brown decision and numerous state-level efforts to promote equity through the rulings of state courts. The goal statement for this situation might go as follows:

"A totally new plan for financing public schools in the United States should be launched by the year 2000. It should be based on the needs of children and youths, so that the acci
dent of where a student is born or where a student lives does not determine the level of support for schooling.'' State, local, and federal roles in financing schools will have to be rethought to reach this goal, as will equity for both students and taxpayers.

2. Preparing and stimulating teachers. The present educational goals don't even mention teachers, an amazing omission when the most thoughtful analysts of schooling point directly to the need for change in classroom teaching practice. Our attention must focus on the supply of teachers for America's schools, on their initial preparation for teaching, and on the opportunities they need and are frequently denied for improving their classroom activities while teaching.

The situation we confront today in teacher supply and quality is nowhere more cogently described than by Richard Murnane and his Harvard University colleagues in Who Will Teach? Policies That Matter: "The need to hire two million teachers in the next 10 years is daunting; yet it also provides a tremendous opportunity. Success in designing policies that attract skilled teachers to the nation's schools will affect the composition of the teaching force for years to come--much more so than in the recent past, when relatively few teachers were hired. The stakes are high. These new teachers will make up the bulk of the teaching force for the first 25 years of the next century. If they are primarily academically weak college graduates, who could find no more attractive jobs, the nation will pay the price for many years. If they are among the nation's academically talented graduates, and if they have learned the skills needed to teach effectively, the benefits will be long term indeed.''

The federal government could well fashion some new legislation to encourage progress in this realm. In the late 1960's, Congress passed the Education Professions Development Act. It created a broad federal mission for supporting improvements in teacher preparation, in the in-service renewal of teachers' skills and knowledge, and in the preparation of principals and superintendents. But this legislation was abandoned during the Nixon years, and few of today's educators ever heard of it. Both the salaries and the social status of most U.S. teachers are far below those in the countries with which we compete. Even George Bush took a shot at this problem in America 2000 by suggesting lots of prizes for successful teachers. If he had ever carried through with his plan, he would have worn out the Rose Garden but done very little for teachers. Professor George Madaus at Boston College has raised his voice about the lack of attention to teachers in our nation's education goals, and I quote him (from an unpublished paper) to set forth a new goal with that message:

"By the year 2000, America will have the best prepared, most highly respected teaching force in the world.''

3. Promoting cultural understanding. Students in American schools must learn about and understand each other, not just by celebrating unfamiliar holidays and other superficial activities, but by seriously studying other cultures, traditions, and historical experiences. American social diversity is on the increase, and unless we find the way to grasp that fact as a reality to be dealt with on a positive basis, we could revert to a nation of competitive enclaves trying to beat each other out. This issue of making social diversity work is a vast and complex arena of differing views. Should the myth of the melting pot be set aside for the more modern myth of pluralism? I think it should, but that is easier to say than do. The boundaries of this issue reach far beyond the schools into universities, and a variety of other settings.

President Clinton has done a classy job of expressing a general position on this topic, and of practicing what he preaches in appointing his Cabinet. Leaders in schools should accept his challenge and match his action. To have a set of educational goals that does not mention this topic at this time in history is irresponsible. At the same time, we have to recognize that deep feelings are aroused by this issue. California, New York State, and recently New York City have been through difficult and damaging controversies over it. Only if respected political, social, and economic leaders will join the cause for including this topic in the school agenda will we succeed in moving it forward to the place it deserves. In his book Loose Cannons: Notes on the Culture Wars, the distinguished African-American-studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides a useful guideline for keeping diversity in the agenda of schools:

"Ours is a late-20th-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend these divisions--to forge for once a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities--is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of American culture. Beyond the hype and the high-blown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth. There is no tolerance without respect--and no respect without knowledge. Any human being sufficiently curious and motivated can fully possess another culture, no matter how 'alien' it may appear to be.''

Hence, this additional national education goal: "By the year 2000, all American schools will include in their school-devised vision statements a specific commitment to introduce students to a more complete understanding of the many facets of American society.''

4. Helping families to be educators. Americans must consciously see the family as an educational institution and understand that the schools alone cannot provide all of the stimulation and guidance young people need to mature successfully. The so-called "education-reform movement'' of recent years has been seriously lacking in this regard. A Nation at Risk in 1983 sought longer school hours, more tests, and more required subjects but had nothing to say about families until its final few pages, where it delivered a short lecture urging families to take a major interest in the learning of their kids. There was no recognition at all of the very great changes in American families in recent years. In effect, that bellwether report assumed that families from Scarsdale and families from Harlem were equally capable of doing more for their youngsters.

What happened as the result of this kind of thinking is that the school-reform movement pushed forward on the basis of an erroneous assumption--that we can fix the schools so that the schools can fix the kids, no matter what we do to kids in families and communities. By the time America 2000 was being packaged in the U.S. Education Department and the White House, this serious error had surfaced. So you will find in America 2000 recognition of the fact that from birth through age 18 kids spend 8 percent of their time in school and 92 percent somewhere else. America 2000 didn't have much to say, however, about what to do in response to these numbers. But at least they were recognized.

The person who has done the most in this country to call attention to the vast gaps in our safety net for children and young families is Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. Now, the family as an educational institution is beginning to be recognized and so are a variety of activities that are outside the school. How anyone could draft the goals of education in this country without an emphasis on families and communities is hard to understand. This is particularly true when one considers the many recent changes in family circumstances that children and youths have experienced:

  • American parents have less time with children because of the demands of work and commuting.
  • More children suffer the side effects of poverty.
  • A rapidly growing cohort of very young mothers lacks knowledge about parenting, and lacks husbands as well.
  • Erratic or nonexistent health and nutrition services limit the capacity to nurture children in many young families.

It can be argued that the first national education goal--"All children will start school ready to learn''--is addressed to these conditions. And so it is. But it is cut off at the knees by its implication that family support is needed only to get started. Family and community supports are needed throughout the years of schooling and beyond. The first goal of education should be changed to carry the full message of parental obligation through childhood and adolescence, and of public initiatives to support and educate families needing help with this responsibility. Here is a suggested new goal for family and communities:

"By the year 2000, families and communities will be recognized as significant educational institutions from birth to adulthood and their mission for serving children and youths will include both providing school readiness and maintaining it throughout the pre-adult years.''

Harold Howe 2nd, a former head of the U.S. Office of Education, is currently a senior lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

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