States' Reform Efforts Increase as Focus of Issues Shifts

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An Education Week national survey of education reform suggests that the movement to improve schooling that began several years ago has taken root in all 50 states, becoming so well established that in many the issue is not whether to make changes, but when and how those changes should be made.

The results of the survey, conducted in late November, indicate that the central effect of the recent spate of education reports—"A Nation at Risk" being the most visible—was to heighten an already strong interest in reform and shift the focus of the debate to a new set of issues, merit pay and instructional time chief among them.

Among the principal survey findings:

In the last 11 months, 54 state-level commissions have been formed to study various aspects of education improvement; many have been formed since the April release of "A Nation at Risk," the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Since 1980, about 104 such formal state-sponsored commissions have been established. The sponsorship came from all branches of state government—governor's offices, education departments, state boards of education, and legislatures, the survey found, suggesting the scope of the developing interest in education.

Also during the last 11 months, 33 states began considering the question of differential pay and status for exemplary teachers. This year, legislatures in California and Florida approved career-ladder plans for teachers.

Instructional time—one of the major recommendations in "A Nation at Risk"—has become a prominent issue in a number of states in recent months. Seven states—California, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, and North Dakota—have approved measures to extend instructional time either statewide or experimentally in selected districts.

And 10 states—Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are considering either an extension of the school day or a requirement that the use of instructional time be improved.

Sixteen states are considering extending the school year; North Carolina has already done so.

Ten states are considering limitations on extracurricular activities, either by keeping them out of the "instructional" day or by linking students' eligibility to a certain grade-point average.

The Education Week survey also found that some of the reforms that this year's national reports called for were well underway in many states several years before the "rising tide of mediocrity" captured the attention of the press, the public, and politicians. Since 1981, for example:

More demanding requirements for high-school graduation have been established in 26 states by either boards of education, legislatures, or state superintendents. Twenty-four states are considering recommendations to increase graduation requirements.

Seven states have enacted or are considering a requirement that students take an "exit test" before receiving a diploma. They join 19 states that had enacted such measures earlier, according to figures from the Education Commission of the States.

Twenty-one states have approved computer-literacy measures, for either teachers or students, or both; 10 more are considering similar requirements.

Interest in early-childhood education is also growing, the survey found. Five states currently are considering initiatives to extend kindergarten hours or provide early-childhood education; Mississippi joined the 14 states that have state-required and funded kindergartens. (Another 36 states sponsor optional kindergarten.)

Fifteen states report they have taken steps to improve their schools of education; three states have started requiring prospective education-school students to pass tests; 12 more are considering such a requirement.

Seven states have enacted new teacher-evaluation requirements and eight are considering doing so; seven enacted competency-testing requirements for certification.

The recommendations that have emerged so far in the states, as well as those expected soon, are likely to have a strong effect on the legislative agenda in the coming session, a number of state officials said. Many indicated that the proposals will be fashioned into legislative packages for consideration in January, when a majority of the legislatures begin their new sessions.

In Alabama, for example, an education aide to Gov. George Wallace said that the Governor planned to use the recommendations of the superintendent of education and those of a task force, to present the legislature in February with an "historic" education-reform package.

And in Georgia, where several groups are studying education issues, Gov. Joe Frank Harris plans to wait until the 1985 session, by which time he will have all the proposals expected during 1984 to draw from.

Progress Varies

The survey, which canvassed governors, education officials, and legislative leaders, indicates that some states are much farther along than others in conceiving and enacting overall reform "packages" affecting education. In Arkansas, California, Florida, and Mississippi, for example, the legislatures have enacted major laws that will change the face of education in those states. In virtually every state that has recently approved such large-scale reforms, the changes have been championed by a governor or other state leader. In other states, especially in the Rocky Mountain region and in New England, the issues—many of them the same—are still being studied.

Leadership appears to be a key factor in those states in which major reforms have been enacted, the survey suggests. In Florida, Gov. Robert Graham is credited with the legislature's acceptance of major reforms. His efforts, however, were joined by those of Ralph D. Turlington, the superintendent of education, who several years ago began a push to raise Florida to the upper quartile in terms of achievement, teacher salary, and other variables.

In Mississippi and Arkansas—both states that have historically ranked low on various measures of educational success—the leadership of governors was central to the enactment of reform, state officials say. Gov. William Winter of Mississippi spent several years campaigning for improvement before the legislature passed substantial programs in December 1982. In Arkansas, Gov. Bill Clinton pressed hard for the reforms that were enacted in the recent special session of the legislature.

The survey also indicates that in a number of states, taxation to support the reforms has been enacted or is being proposed despite the difficult financial situation faced by many states. Although the National Governors' Association reported last December that states' fiscal health had declined to its lowest point in nine years, the Education Week survey found that in the last several years, 16 states had approved tax increases earmarked for education. Currently, seven states are considering recommendations on tax initiatives, the survey found.

The irony of the recent national emphasis on improving schooling is not lost on those who have been working for several years to put in place the changes that the new reports have called for.

At a recent meeting, one chief state school officer described the re-action that followed the final approval of higher graduation standards in May 1983—one month after the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report, but several years after the state's education department decided that new standards were necessary. The department received a flurry of telephone calls from reporters who wanted to write about this prompt response to a national call for improvement.

Noted the superintendent: "I was too embarrassed to tell them that we couldn't have done it that fast even if we'd wanted to."

Vol. 03, Issue 13

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