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Translating the current push for educational reforms into academic excellence

Sixteen months after a presidential commission on educational excellence issued its report, ''A Nation at Risk,'' the studies and reports are still flowing in. But this September, as 35 million schoolchildren return to the classroom, the movement for school reform is no longer just talk. Many of the proposals were turned into legislation, which in turn has become law.

Yet as the new school year begins, many educators and politicians fear that reform hoopla may be creating unrealistic expectations on the part of the general public. Not wanting to dampen the overwhelmingly positive attitude of citizens toward improving schools (the most recent Gallup poll shows support for education the highest it has been in a decade), school officials say they must now show proof that reforms translate into academic excellence.

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''This is the crucial time (for school reform),'' says Bill Honig, California superintendent of public instruction. ''We are in the transition from broad legislated changes to the technical changes in the classroom.'' The way to improve learning is to focus on the school building as the fundamental unit, he says. ''This is the stage we are at now,'' and the reforms will be judged in the light of one overriding question: ''Does it promote excellence or retard it?''

''You can't simply legislate good schools,'' adds Delaware Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV (R), one of a number of governors who have championed school reform for the last two years. ''Given the short attention span of our society (and the fact that) we won't even begin to see results until the graduating class of 1986 ,'' it is crucial that the public be kept clearly informed about the step-by-step progress made in carrying out the reforms, Governor du Pont says. Citizens must be assured that ''school systems will not just take the money and run. (Taxpayers) want to see progress,'' he adds. Mandatory evaluations

That is why mandatory interim evaluations are integral to reform packages in many states. More than a decade of skepticism about poor public school performance makes this a political reality within any kind of meaningful reform program, says Gov. Richard W. Riley (D) of South Carolina. His state's school reform plan has built into it a number of specific requirements to determine whether academic success is occurring. Each school must submit an annual School Improvement Report, which will be audited by the state education department.

Another result of the various state plans is a philosophic victory, of sorts, for educational traditionalists. Competition, once a verboten word in academic circles, has replaced ''open classroom'' and ''self-discovery'' in education parlance.

Academic excellence is every state's goal, and a consensus exists that this excellence is obtained by tougher course requirements, reduction or elimination of electives, more mathematics and science, more homework, longer school days and school years, better school discipline and classroom management, and more regular testing - all traditionalist approaches to schooling. Speed of reforms

The speed with which many state plans came into being, though, is not without perils, cautions Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Too often legislators and politicians were afraid to be seen doing nothing. There was a ''rush to take untested actions which may be educationally unsound to meet the demands of the public for change,'' he explains.

While welcoming the national concern for educational reform, Mr. Shanker fears there was not enough consideration given to what education research has shown to be effective in improving learning. If legislation is passed too quickly, he says, its staying power is questionable when practical realities, and costs, arise. He cites Louisiana's experience earlier this summer.

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Mandatory testing of new teachers is now state law in Louisiana. (The AFT strongly supports rigorous subject-matter testing for all new teachers.) When the number of applicants who passed the test fell short of the number of expected teacher openings for this September, the state education department lowered the passing grade.

Shanker says another unexpected consequence of quickly passed legislation lies in the message sent to prospective teachers. He points out that we want to honor teachers (and all of the reports have called for this) and that we want to attract the best and brightest into teaching. Yet young people in college and high school see all the regulations being passed and ''they get the distinct message that teaching is not a profession,'' he says.

A professionial is supposed to have a high degree of control over his work and to be relatively unsupervised. ''But we are now telling teachers more than ever before what they should do,'' says Shanker. The reforms may be telling teachers to have a very low professional ego. The difficult question of ''What is the relevant role of professional competence in the classroom?'' still needs to be addressed, he asserts. Teacher salaries

The most discussed education issue in state legislatures during the past year was teacher salaries.

Merit pay fueled the debate, with much looking across state lines and comparing pay scales with regional or national averages. The issue caught national attention when Ronald Reagan proposed, and much of the public agreed, that payment be based on performance.

For teachers, however, the term ''merit pay'' has pejorative connotations, says Gary Watts, assistant executive director of the National Education Association.

''Career ladder'' is a more acceptable description, as it makes an important distinction. Merit pay suggests the same total amount of money with a few teachers getting more than others, whereas a ladder allows for everyone to move up the pay scale as individual performance warrants. Longer school days

A new-old idea, that of extending the length of the school day, met with a much more cautious response. The Kansas Legislature and several others asked for further study before acting. Such a move is readily understandable, since, except for teacher salaries, longer days and a longer school year mean the greatest increases in costs. Teacher and parent groups stressed that they wanted better use of the time schools already have.

The matter of discipline was heavily debated in community after community. The pendulum has clearly swung in the direction of stricter discipline. The overriding consensus lies in favor of a student's right not to have his education interfered with by the disruptive behavior of other students.

Whatever their shortcomings, one undeniable benefit coming from the discussion and passage of reform proposals has been the educational process of enabling the public to determine the quality of a school, says New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R). Parents, legislators, and businessmen now have a set of common denominators with which to gauge the quality of their local school. Criteria for a good school

The criteria for a good school can be summarized easily, says Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Good schools have a climate that holds high expectations of academic excellence for students; strong leadership in a principal who is the instructional leader and not just a good building manager; superior teachers who know and love their subject matter; supportive parental involvement, especially in matters of homework and discipline; and a good counseling program that shows students how to open doors of opportunity.

The message about these criteria has gone out, says California's Bill Honig. Short or long term, it is one of the most positive developments of the whole school reform movement, he says.

Please turn to page B10 for a summary of exemplary reforms recently instituted in eight states.

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