As President Bush and the nation's governors prepared to meet this month to follow up the education summit, they heard hundreds of reform ideas. Among them were proposals for new programs, new money, and, consequently, new regulations. But giving more power to bureaucracies or state capitals will not improve our education system. That can only be accomplished through reforms that deregulate the schools.
As I read the numerous proposals for reforming education, listen to experts from the best think tanks, and hear about the many experiments now under way in our schools, I get an uncomfortable feeling. It's a fear that this wave of reform will fail like previous ones, that we may be looking for a varnish and ignoring the structural flaws under the surface, that talking about education has simply become fashionable, and fashions can change quickly.
Schools today are different from the way they were when I was growing up. They have something that we didn't have: young teachers.
It has become commonplace to observe that Americans know little of the geography of their country, that they are innocent of it as a landscape of rivers, mountains, and towns. They do not know, supposedly, the location of the Delaware Water Gap, the Olympic Mountains, or the Piedmont Plateau; and, the indictment continues, they have little conception of the way the individual components of this landscape are imperiled, from a human perspective, by modern farming practices or industrial pollution.
Teachers face one of the most important and difficult jobs in the nation--the education of the next generation of Americans. They often confront directly the grim world of crime, drugs, abuse, and neglect that students bring into the classroom. For all that they do, teachers endure unacceptably low salaries and low status. The result is hardly surprising: Teaching is a profession in crisis.
Two kinds of reform now dominate American education policy. The first, state-oriented or top-down reform, has been the more popular over the last decade. The second, locally oriented or bottom-up reform, has enjoyed growing support since the mid-1980's. Unfortunately, unless current policies are changed, the two kinds of reform may cancel each other out and leave our schools not much better off than they were before. One way that the two brands of reform can be made to complement, not oppose, each other is for states to take a more active role in regulating the quality of the individuals who staff schools, while giving up attempts to micromanage what they do in the classroom.