THERE is bound to be a lot of diversity in an education system of over 100,000 schools in some 16,000 school districts employing roughly 2.6 million teachers and serving over 45 million students in a pluralistic society. Yet for all the sizes and shapes of schools in the United States, their purposes, at least in the eyes of the American public, are not all that different. Americans want their youngsters to come away from high school able to read, speak, and write English with reasonable facility; to comprehend and apply the principles of science and mathematics; to understand our past and that of other peoples; and to appreciate and participate in the institutions that make a democratic polity possible. Virtually all parents want this for their children. So do taxpayers, policymakers, and others.
Yet many schools fail to impart these things to youngsters. Roughly 80 percent of our 11th-graders can't write an adequate persuasive letter. Only one out of twenty 17-year-olds can read well enough to learn from literary essays, historical documents, or scientific materials. US students score near last place when compared with other nations' students' performance in science and mathematics.
One reason: Few youngsters complete enough serious course work. In 1982, less than 1 in 10 graduated from high school with four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and two years of foreign language. More than twice as many graduates in the class of 1987 had earned these credits - an encouraging trend but still far short of what's needed. And in the offing are indications that this momentum could be slowed or stopped. Critics seem transfixed by dropout figures, unable to conceive of any solution that doesn't feature lower standards for minority and disadvantaged youngsters.
This is elitism and hypocrisy of the worst kind. It is to call these youngsters equals while treating them as inferiors. It is to serve them a third-rate academic fare and consign them to the back of the intellectual bus with little hope of advancement. These children need what their advantaged peers more often get: the knowledge and skills that offer the best hope for a shot at good jobs, upward mobility, and success in our society.
All schools ought to guarantee that all their students acquire such knowledge and skills. This is the highest mission of schools today - and every school ought to be held to account for it.
Accountability depends on reliable measures of student learning and achievement, measures that some educators oppose. It is said that tests trivialize learning, that they cannot gauge what's really important (for example, analytical skills, creativity, compassion), or that it's unfair to compare the performance of dissimilar students. All of which is nonsense. Good assessment instruments can measure most important knowledge and skills. And a curriculum aimed to teach what is tested is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the tests are well conceived.
Simply measuring student learning is not enough, however. There need to be consequences for the results - rewards for superior gains in student learning and purposeful changes made when learning remains chronically low. One necessary element is the reporting of results to parents, teachers, principals, policymakers, taxpayers, and the news media - in timely fashion and manageable formats.
Without such information, education reform is but a groping in the dark. Absent the ability to compare student learning across schools, districts, county lines, state lines, and national boundaries - and from year to year - educators cannot pinpoint weak links in instruction and curricula. School boards, legislators, and governors cannot identify effective policies and alter unsuccessful ones. Parents cannot locate educational opportunities best suited to their children's needs.
Americans are spending more than $300 billion a year on education, roughly 6.8 percent of our gross national product, more per student and per capita than any other nation. We deserve better returns on that investment. So do our children.
Chester Finn is assistant secretary of the US Department of Education.