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Accountability is key theme for Education Department

THE United States Department of Education's theme for the next school year, says William Kristol, will be a ``thorough and careful look'' at the educational reforms of the past five years and at current problems: what has worked and what has not. Mr. Kristol should know: He occupies the powerful position of chief of staff in the department, of which William J. Bennett is secretary. Over the next 12 months, the department will also stress accountability of teachers and school systems, Kristol added in an interview. It will seek to reward individual school districts with a little more money when they do a good job of carrying out federal programs, such as the Chapter I program that provides additional educational help to disadvantaged children. (A proposal to that effect is pending in Congress.) It will recommend that, in Kristol's words, ``a really good national test'' be drawn up to permit - for the first time - good state-by-state comparisons.

The department will also seek to reform federal tuition aid to college students in ways that provide incentives for colleges to not raise their tuitions, Kristol says. For example, more money for a college's work-study programs if it agreed to limit tuition raises. And it will try to persuade Congress to give local school districts more flexibility in deciding how their bilingual programs should be structured. If Congress consents, Kristol says, Secretary Bennett feels that ``there'd be a much stronger case for a little more money'' for the program.

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Which leads to what, in many ways, will be the biggest education department change of all, provided the White House concurs: money - the amount that the Reagan administration recommends for the department's budget in fiscal year 1989, the one now in the planning stage.

In recent years the administration, including Mr. Bennett, has proposed major cuts in the department's budget, which could be expected to come from sharp trims in the amount of federal aid for college grants and loans. Each time Congress has brushed aside the idea of such a cut and budgeted a much higher figure; in so doing, Bennett believes, the department badly hurt the credibility of its other ideas with Congress.

This past June, the secretary said in an interview that he was lobbying within the administration for a much higher figure than the administration has sought in past years, perhaps $20 billion. Although Kristol would not comment on that question for the record, department sources report that Bennett is indeed pushing hard for that higher amount. If he succeeds, it would seem to protect against the kind of substantial cut in federal aid to college students that has been repeatedly threatened, but not put into effect, during the Reagan presidency.

Late last month, Vice-President George Bush, in a break with past administration policy, called for additional federal aid to help families meet rising college tuition costs. The College Board's annual survey of college costs, released the first week in August, concluded that tuition and fees will be 8 percent higher this year at private, four-year colleges and 6 percent higher at public colleges; both figures exceed the present annual rate of inflation, now at about 5 percent.

The current and latest of many educational reform movements is generally dated from 1983, when the Department of Education published its ``Nation at Risk'' report; it said that major reforms were necessary in the American education system. Bennett is charged by the president with producing a follow-up report at the five-year mark, which will be April of next year. It will, Kristol said, be a look at ``the state of the art of educational reform.''

He hints that the new report will find both progress and challenges: ``It's our sense that the reform movement has made quite a lot of progress.'' Much work has gone into reform at the state and local levels, he said, and some improvement has been noted in test scores. But many of the easier steps have been taken, and ``some of the toughest choices lie before us.''

Much of the reform movement thus far has been ``about accountability,'' Kristol says, and ``we're going to push hard to keep the focus on accountability.... You've got to free up teachers and principals to do their jobs as they see fit and then hold them accountable for the results.''

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A prime measure of results, he says, is the test scores of students: They're ``pretty useful, but they must be supplemented'' by other factors, such as the degree of satisfaction with the school by teachers, students, and administrators, and the dropout rate.

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