Reform: Good Staying Power, Suggestions for New Directions

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Educators reflecting last week on the fifth-year anniversary of A Nation at Risk applauded the staying power of the school-reform movement.

But they cautioned in interviews that attempts to fine-tune the existing system may have gone as far as they can go.

To achieve the gains in student performance called for in recent reports will require a hard look at the very nature and structure of schooling, they argued, not just "more of the same'' done better.

Their five-year evaluation of the reform movement came as Secretary of Education William J. Bennett issued his own report on the state of American education.

Mr. Bennett concluded that "American education has made some undeniable progress in the last few years.'' But he added: "The absolute level at which our improvements are taking is place is still unacceptably low.''

Several educators last week attacked Mr. Bennett's report as too negative. But many agreed with his assessment that reform still has a long way to go.

They questioned, however, whether the Secretary's call for stronger course content, an "ethos of achievement,'' hard work and discipline, and heightened accountability would solve the problem.

Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, characterized the Secretary's report as "a reheated wall chart out front of the Secretary's rehashed personal agenda.''

"You look all the way through the recommendations, and I don't detect anything there that's not been there before,'' he said.

And in the draft of an "Open Letter to Education Secretary William Bennett,'' scheduled to appear in The New York Times earlier this week, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Mr. Bennett of a "failure of leadership'' and a "flawed'' vision of school reform.

The Secretary, he asserted, wants "to bring us back to a 'golden age''' that never existed "except for a few.''

"The truth is that some kids, not most, can learn in the kind of school'' Mr. Bennett idealizes, he wrote.

"How can anyone believe that a structure that only worked for 20 percent of the students in more favorable circumstances than we have now will work better today?''

"I think Bennett has missed the point,'' added Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

"What we need to do is change the process, so that students are drawn actively and excitedly into schooling,'' he said. "And where that happens, then you will get these sharp, intensive jumps in learning.''

"The problem we have gotten into,'' he added, "is that we have equated higher standards with rote learning and mandated subjects.''

Theodore H. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, agreed. "I don't think we've gotten to the heart of the problem yet,'' he said. "We're still talking about testing everybody and putting the screws on the existing system even more.''

"The problem is the existing system,'' he said. "And until we face up to that unpleasant fact--that the existing system has to change--we're not going to get the kinds of changes that everybody wants.''

'The Thunderclap Continues'

Although educators still disagree about whether A Nation at Risk's agenda was correct, five years later, they universally praise the report for the attention it focused on schooling.

Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, credited the report with helping to generate "five years of the most sustained commitment to education improvement that we've had in our history.''

"The thunderclap of the rhetoric of A Nation at Risk continues,'' agreed Mr. Sizer, "and that's quite striking.''

In 1983, when A Nation at Risk was released, there was already a burgeoning school-reform movement under way in a few states and an even greater number of school districts.

But as Diane Ravitch, a professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, pointed out, the report "was a massive consciousness-raising activity.''

"It created a tremendous interest in education and education improvement all over the country,'' she said, "and people who never cared about schools began to take a look at what was happening and, most importantly, began to think in their different capacities about what they could do to lend a hand.''

"I can't think of any time in the past 20 years when there have been so many different organizations and agencies actively involved in trying to help the public schools,'' she said. "It has escalated beyond anyone's expectations.''

The pressure for reform that resulted from A Nation at Risk has also forced private schools to reassess teacher salaries and recruitment, the content of their curricula, and their accountability to parents, said John C. Esty, president of the National Association of Independent Schools.

"I think the values of independent education have been reaffirmed by the reform dialogue,'' he said. But he added: "I think parents don't take as much for granted at independent schools as they used to.''

'Broke the Logjam'

A Nation at Risk also hastened the pace of school reform in a number of states and school districts by giving added legitimacy to their efforts.

Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California, recalled that "we had a bill going through the legislature'' when A Nation at Risk was released.

"It had bipartisan support,'' he remembered, "but we had resistance from our governor.''

"All of a sudden, this report came out ... and it broke the logjam,'' he said. "It was one more piece of evidence that we were on the right track.''

Far Enough? Fast Enough?

But educators disagreed last week about just how rapidly the school system has responded to the call for reform.

"Structurally, there's been a huge and swift change across the 50 states, generally,'' said Allan R. Odden, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "And I think that's good news.''

State and local funding for education has increased, he said. High-school graduation requirements are up. And students are taking more academic courses, of a more rigorous nature.

But he agreed with Mr. Bennett that improvements in student performance have not come far enough fast enough.

'Overnight Miracles?'

That view was sharply disputed by others, who said it is too soon to judge the success of the reform movement, and that Mr. Bennett's evaluation is too critical.

"I think this whole look at [school reform] after five years is as premature as you can get,'' said William S. Woodside, former chairman of the American Can Company, now called the Primerica Corporation.

"Most of the reforms were made within the last two or three years and here we are looking for instant results,'' he said. "It's going to be a long time--5 to 10 to 20 years--before you can really see all the changes that you would like to see made in the system.''

"Did he expect that there was going to be some overnight miracle or something?'' asked Hernan LaFontaine, superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., school system. "That's hardly the way it works in such a vast enterprise.''

Mr. Honig, in particular, berated the Secretary for not giving "credit where credit is due.''

"If any other industry had had productivity increases of around 25 percent in a three-year period, the leadership would be saying, 'That's terrific. Keep it up','' he said.

"Sure, we're nowhere near where we have to go,'' he added, "but the way you get there is you encourage and reward people who are doing what you asked them to do. And you don't minimalize it, or belittle it, or degrade it, or basically say it hasn't happened.''

Mr. Honig also accused the Secretary of providing "misleading and unfair'' information about test results. He argued that improvements on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the College Board's achievement tests, and other measures of student achievement are far more substantial than Mr. Bennett has portrayed them.

'A Conservative Document'

Whether educators interpret the progress made to date as "dramatic'' or just "modest,'' however, most agree that current reform strategies have probably run their course.

"A Nation at Risk was in some respects a conservative document,'' said Mr. Boyer. "It called for improvements along traditional lines, and we've had, therefore, a move to improve education through regulation.''

"I think, in large part, that agenda was an appropriate one,'' he added. "And clarifying academic standards was, I think, necessary and overdue.''

But he argued that the regulatory phase of school reform "has just about reached its limits, and achieved whatever it was we were going to achieve.''

"The whole reform movement urgently needs to be balanced by a recognition of the personal and professional aspects of education that were not touched on in A Nation at Risk,'' he said. Those include paying more attention to teachers' working conditions, the instructional process in schools, and the nature of leadership.

"We had an education system that was declining,'' added Mr. Odden. 'And I would argue that given the intensive political nature of the American public-school system, we had to go through the Nation at Risk phase.''

"But even the governors and the business people are now talking about teacher professionalism, the need for a new kind of curriculum, and school restructuring,'' he said. "Nobody really knows what it is, but that's the new agenda.''

'Wrong Trail'

Others questioned whether A Nation at Risk's agenda was ever right to begin with.

Harold Howe 2nd, former U.S. commissioner of education, said that A Nation at Risk "awakened'' the public's interest in education, "but not necessarily because it was correct.''

"It resulted in a considerable amount of activity, some of which was useful,'' said Mr. Howe, who is now on the education faculty at Harvard University, "but a lot of which was not only not useful, but also on the wrong trail.''

The regulatory mandates that resulted, he said, conveyed an "unwritten message that the people in the schools are not to be trusted.''

In the last few years, he noted, criticisms of the report have resulted in a "countermovement'' that holds out far greater promise for the schools.

Lawrence A. Cremin, the noted education historian, said A Nation at Risk gave both an "inadequate diagnosis'' of the problem and a "terribly narrow vision of what American education might be.''

"They thought they would take care of equity by saying everybody ought to do the same academic curriculum,'' noted the Teachers College professor, "giving no attention to the ... problem of transforming curriculum materials, so that youngsters of different interests, abilities, and backgrounds can do their best in them.''

By ignoring that issue, he argued, the report "slowed the progress that we were making on a tremendously important educational agenda ... and that is the extension of the best education possible to the entire population.''

'Shocking Disinterest'

The vast majority of those interviewed last week called the problems of "at risk'' youths the number one priority now facing American education.

"The equity issues not only are not being addressed, but perhaps are getting worse,'' said John I. Goodlad, professor of education at the University of Washington.

Although poor and minority students are denied access to the best education, he said, "the shocking disinterest'' in the problem "verges on a national disgrace.''

"At the very time that other nations are beginning to look to us'' for guidance, he said, "we are moving to the kind of class educational system that Western Europe has been trying to get away from.''
'We've made what I would call zero progress with respect to the dropout, with respect to meeting the needs of minority youth,'' agreed former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

Although both A Nation at Risk and Secretary Bennett's new report "mention'' the problem, he said, they should have made "an even stronger case and a stronger plea.''

Changing Instruction

Educators predicted last week that solving the problems of 'at risk' students will require fundamental changes in the nature of instruction that could benefit all children.

Secretary Bennett's "basic proposition that all children ought to have access to a strong and rich curriculum is exactly right,'' said Mr. Howe.

But he added: "We've got a long way to go to be able to differentiate the teaching strategies which will help all children master this central core of learning.''

Mr. Bennett's report "says almost nothing about instruction,'' noted Dennis Gray, deputy director of the Council for Basic Education.

"It therefore leaves the mistaken impression that learning can be improved without changes in instruction,'' he said, "merely by strengthening content or curriculum.''

'Major Disservice'

Because changes in instruction ultimately will depend upon talented and enthusiastic teachers, several educators also criticized Mr. Bennett last week for engaging in continued "teacher bashing.''

The Secretary's report reiterates his assault on the "education establishment,'' and teachers' unions in particular. Mr. Bennett blames the slow progress of reform on "the narrow, self-interested exercise of political power'' by "those with a vested interest in the educational status quo.''

"I think that it's a major disservice,'' said Mr. Newman of E.C.S. "If teachers are to become a part of the solution, you can't go around and say, 'You're greedy, self-serving, nasty people,' and expect them to all say, 'Oh gosh, we didn't know that. If only you had told us earlier, we would have changed.'''

The National Education Association--which has sparred with Mr. Bennett throughout his term in office--staged a protest of about 300 teachers and union activists outside the White House last week, the day Mr. Bennett was presenting his report to the President.

The union termed Mr. Bennett's report a "cover-up for the Reagan Administration's failure to help improve America's schools.''

Such continued "divisiveness,'' said Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation, is "really sad, if not tragic.''

"Instead of acknowledging that [teachers are] the answer to quality in education,'' he said, "we have them pictured in the report as standing in the way of progress.''

"First, I don't believe that,'' he said. "And second, they're the only teachers we have.''

Closing Down Creativity

Educators generally criticized the reform movement last week for using teachers as a scapegoat and failing to involve them in needed changes.

Many so-called school reforms, Mr. Goodlad said, have done more "to close down creativity than to open it up.''

"We have not really managed to empower and release the people at the level of the local school,'' he said. "There's been a lot of rhetoric ... but whatever bold initiatives have been taken generally haven't seen their way through the legislatures and gotten the funding.''

A survey by his organization, Mr. Boyer said, "indicates very clearly that teachers have, in large part, been bypassed'' by the reform movement.

Said Terry Weeks, a social-studies teacher in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and the national Teacher of the Year: "The blame is shoved our way, but we have very little control in establishing the type of programs that might best alleviate the problems.''

'Excellence Costs'

Critics also assailed Mr. Bennett for continuing to downplay the federal role in school reform, and the cost of necessary changes.

"[W]e are spending enough on education to do the job well,'' the Secretary argued in his report. "The trouble is not our level of investment; rather, it is the low rate of return we get for it.''

"Of course, it's not only a matter of money,'' Mr. Shanker wrote in his open letter to Mr. Bennett. "But you lose credibility every time you repeat that statement.''

"After all,'' the union leader added, "families that have more money do move to and live in districts that spend more on their schools. They seem to know that money does make a difference.''

And Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., accused the Secretary of ignoring the most powerful recommendations in A Nation at Risk by "failing to recognize that excellence costs.''

"Bill Bennett would have us believe that excellence costs nothing, and nothing is exactly what the Reagan Administration is doing to help schools teach students,'' she said, noting that the federal share of elementary and secondary education funding has fallen from 9.2 percent in 1981 to 6.2 percent at present.

Former Secretary Bell said that "we need the same kind of obsessive concern [about education] that we've seen on the part of President Reagan for the problems in Nicaragua and the plight of the contras.''

"I realistically couldn't expect Secretary Bennett to come out with that,'' he added. "His constituency would skin him alive.''

'Too Many Tests'

But many educators agreed with Mr. Bennett's call to improve the quality of standardized tests.

Mr. Gray expressed worry, however, that the report's strong reliance on test scores to assess the progress of reform sent a message of "tacit approval'' about the validity of such examinations.

And Ms. Ravitch of Teachers College said that the "tremendous emphasis on testing'' has been one of the more "counterproductive'' trends of the reform movement.

"There are too many tests of all kinds,'' she argued. "I think teachers feel they're spending too much time preparing kids for tests. There's also a tendency to align the curriculum to the tests, when it ought to be the other way around.''

Said Mr. Boyer: "We've introduced more testing than ever into the schools, but we're using crude instruments and measuring that which matters least.''

"The reform movement hasn't generated a thoughtful discussion about how to develop better instruments for the evaluation of students,'' he said, "and I worry that using current instruments will really trivialize what the outcomes of education should be.''

Vol. 07, Issue 32

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