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Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Think Tank Inks Blueprint To Lift Achievement

Think Tank Inks Blueprint To Lift Achievement

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The nation's public schools can dramatically raise academic achievement among struggling students over the next two decades with a coordinated strategy that puts greater emphasis on accountability, urban schools, and early-childhood education, argues a report released here last week.

The report by the Consortium on Renewing Education, an education think tank based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., suggests that a comprehensive reform effort that includes school-based control, stronger teaching and leadership, and more interstate collaboration on reform initiatives could significantly improve achievement.

The panel of scholars, educators, policymakers, and business leaders that wrote the report contends that such progress can be made with little added financial investment in education.

Although it is clear what steps need to be taken to improve education, few states have put together a comprehensive program for doing so, according to James W. Guthrie, who directed the project for the consortium, known as CORE .

"Our best chance to double achievement is not by waving the magic wands of school choice or national exams, or by trying to achieve national goals that nobody is made responsible to meet," Mr. Guthrie, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt, said.

"The CORE agenda calls for states to introduce a comprehensive set of accountability measures and better ways of deploying talent and resources readily available."

Multidimensional

While many of the recommendations outlined in the report are consistent with much of the current thinking on reforming schools, "20/20 Vision: A Strategy for Doubling America's Academic Achievement by the Year 2020" earned praise from some education experts for presenting what they see as a thorough and realistic plan.

For More Information:
"20/20 Vision: A Strategy for Doubling America's Academic Achievement by the Year 2020'' is available for $20 from the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University at (615) 322-7372.

"It's one of the most comprehensive reports we have of both what the problems are and what the possible interventions are," said Gerald E. Sroufe, a longtime lobbyist for the American Educational Research Association here. "It considers many dimensions, whereas most of the school reform reports consider only one or two."

The five-step plan calls for:

  • Shifting authority, responsibility, and resources from districts to schools;
  • Adopting an accountability system that includes the drafting of academic standards, proficiency tests, and school-by-school performance summaries;
  • Building school capacity, through such measures as raising certification requirements for teachers and administrators and shifting some money from secondary education to early-childhood programs for children beginning at age 3;
  • Attending to urban education and the distinct challenges of big-city schools; and
  • Implementing reform and building cooperation among states to share data and resources and create interstate comparisons on school performance. The development of a voluntary national test using the Internet and written by the states is also suggested.

Such a test would be in lieu of ones in reading for 4th graders and in mathematics for 8th graders that President Clinton has proposed.

By following this blueprint, the panelists maintain, schools can "double achievement" by 2020, meaning they can reduce by half the percentage of students who score "below basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The federally sponsored NAEP samples students in core academic subjects.

The panel included representatives from national education organizations, the two national teachers' unions, former governors, and prominent scholars and education researchers.

The report is also described as an "open letter" to state and local policymakers and professional educators.

'Manhattan Project'

Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics who served on the advisory panel, likened the proposal to a full-scale attack on an inadequate education system.

"The report is the educational equivalent of the Manhattan Project, which brought together an unprecedented assembly of [experts] to end a terrible war," he said at a press briefing here in a reference to the intensive effort to design and build the first atomic bomb. "Today, we have a war on ignorance."

Some critics, however, said that despite its ambitious intentions, the proposal is too narrowly focused.

"It is A Nation At Risk with a vengeance," said Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University. He referred to the landmark 1983 report declaring that the U.S. education system was being eroded by "a rising tide of mediocrity" that threatened the nation's future.

"This report offers a Christmas tree of proposals aimed to gladden corporate executives' and legislators' hearts," continued Mr. Cuban, a co-author of Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. "This [contends] that the purposes of schooling are to enhance the economy; and schooling, in my judgment, has much broader purposes related to democracy and thinking about what is the good life."

But Mr. Guthrie argues that the CORE panel has the answer that other reports and organizations do not. He cited as examples A Nation at Risk and the National Education Goals Panel, the board that monitors progress toward providing a high-quality education for American children.

"There have been some good ideas, but they seemed not to be achievable," he said.

'Practical Solutions'

And Judith Rizzo, a panel member and the deputy chancellor for instruction for the New York City schools, said the core report offers practical solutions for helping students and schools achieve.

"This report identifies what school systems really can do on their own," she said, "with resources they already have."

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 6

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