American education is on a roll. Public confidence in the schools is up. Educators are once again seen as crucial to society. The schools are being asked to play a central role in economic and social development. They are even supposed to purvey virtue--by teaching values--and are slated to take a leading role in the war on drugs. And, most important, the schools are expected to become “excellent,” as gauged by turning out graduates who can score well on standardized tests. After being ignored for a decade and then occupying the national doghouse, education is now at the top of the agenda.
Yet, just as the schools have again achieved prominence, there are many danger signals. Despite the recommendations of blue-ribbon panels, there has been precious little money forthcoming to implement change and improvement. At the federal level, there has been almost nothing. Some of the states have been more serious in their commitment, but in all instances, funding has fallen short of what is needed.
In New York, for example, the ambitious Regents’ Action Plan had to be considerably scaled down and delayed because of lack of money. Recommendations to extend the school day and to provide more foreign-language instruction have both been shelved. Some funds have been provided, but not enough to stimulate real change.
The schools are also in the process of being oversold. We are repeating the 1960’s, when education was called on to solve many of society’s problems. Educators rallied and implemented a variety of programs designed to correct the difficulties. Money was also provided--although the Vietnam War soon put an end to largesse to education. But the fact is, the schools failed. They will also fail in the 1980’s.
Schools can do some things--they can teach children, they can instill some basic civic values, they can help provide skills needed in a rapidly changing employment market. But they cannot ensure that the trade deficit with Japan will be reduced or that drugs will disappear from the streets.
Educators, however, love to be loved. They also have weak backbones. And they realize that they must please both the policymakers and the public if school budgets are to increase. So the usual reaction of the education community is to agree that things have to be improved; to agree that the schools will take on more responsibilities for values education, drug education, and law enforcement; and, of course, that test scores will be improved.
Who in the education community is saying no to any of these initiatives? Some point out that money will be needed to implement new programs, but in general educators are happy to bask in the unaccustomed public attention and to express their agreement that the schools are, in fact, important institutions in society.
The lessons of recent history are important at this time. In the late 1950’s, the Soviets launched Sputnik and there was an outcry that America was falling behind the Russians in technology. The schools came in for their share of criticism. At the same time, there was a national push to close the gap, including major new funding for science education and curriculum reform. It worked, and science received increased emphasis.
Soon afterward, the pressures came from quite different directions. In the enthusiasm of the Great Society, the schools were called on to help solve the nation’s racial problems, to open up the curriculum, and to permit more free choice. In the hang-loose 60’s, everything went. Life-adjustment courses were in, and rigorous academic standards were out. The schools, having beefed up the science curriculum, now went in the other direction. Many academic requirements were abolished. Foreign-language courses and advanced- mathematics instruction took a nose dive.
But America’s problems, in the end, could not be solved by the schools. The education community, which eagerly promised to do everything, found in the 1970’s that schools, pulled in several different directions, were in disarray. They also found that the public was in no mood to listen to the complex (but true) explanations for failure. Inflation was up, the oil crisis was upon us, and no one was interested in education. Enrollments were declining for demographic reasons, and school budgets were slashed. The schools were in the headlines because of disputes about school busing. Violence became endemic in inner-city schools. Teacher salaries, never high, did not keep up with inflation. Able women who once chose teaching, as one of the few professional careers open to them, found other, more remunerative outlets for their talents. The prestige, economic position, and morale of the teaching profession declined.
The 70’s, then, saw a major backlash against education. Part of the cause for this was the overselling of education a decade earlier. Schools simply promised more than they could deliver. It is also worth noting that the schools were very much tied to the liberalism of the Great Society--and were indeed seen as an engine of many of the social programs of the day, from Head Start to nutritional programs to bilingual education.
In light of this history, it is instructive to look at some of the recent proposals for improvement and reform in education to get an idea of the scope of the proposals and the potential costs involved:
• Lengthen the school day and perhaps extend the school year to provide more time for educating young people.
• Institute tests for graduating students to ensure that minimal competencies have been learned.
• Ensure that all students have “computer literacy” and provide access to computers for all schoolchildren.
• Raise the standard of the teaching profession by revamping teacher education, using tests for entering teachers, and raising teachers’ salaries.
• Establish a basic curriculum so that all students will learn the fundamental elements of mathematics, science, social studies, and English.
• Upgrade the teaching of foreign languages so that America can compete more advantageously in the international marketplace.
• Relate schooling more closely to the ''world of work.”
• Instill a sense of values in children.
• Participate actively in the war on drugs.
These are but a few of the recommendations made by one or another of the major commissions or by political leaders. In almost every case, the education community has applauded the recommendations and has indicated its willingness to comply. There has been nary a dissenting word.
What, then, should be done? First of all, it must be recognized that the schools can do one job best--that of educating children. All the rest is extra. Second, improvement is not without cost, particularly in the context of a decade of fiscal problems for our schools. Third, questions must be asked about the ability of the schools to undertake all of the improvements recommended and, in some instances, even about the advisability of some of the reforms. Educators must sometimes say no.
If the schools become a pawn for the agenda of the current conservative Administration in Washington, they will suffer when the political winds change. If education is currently heading upward, it is just as surely destined for a fall if good judgment and a bit of caution are not exercised.