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Secretary Outlines Academic Plans

LOOK for a British accent in a new round of education reforms emanating from the United States Department of Education next month.Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander likes what he sees when he looks at the model former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put in place: greater choice for families, more autonomy for individual schools through various kinds of local management and budgeting plans, and extensive testing to guarantee that schools are doing their job. In a wide-ranging interview in his office, Mr. Alexander discussed with the Monitor his administration's plans for the new school year. First and foremost, he wants people to feel more comfortable with a "break the mold, start from scratch idea," he says. "There is a new level of understanding about the size of our education problem that I don't think we had two years ago," he says. That this understanding has arisen on his watch encourages him to think he can make a difference, presenting the country with an opportunity that he does not want to squander. The "country is willing to accept more change than it was willing to even a few years ago," he says. The Department of Education's primary concern is that each new proposal carefully support the six national education goals agreed on by President Bush and the nation's governors. [see list at left]. At the same time, it must build on what Alexander considers is a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. We are no longer going to wait for the system to take the "reform-itself approach," he says. "If that necessitates working around the system to get done what everyone in business and state and local government say they want to get done but that the education establishment has not gotten done or is moving too slowly to do," so be it, he says. What specifically would he like to have happen in the academic year 1991-1992? * See real progress on a national-examination system in the subjects of science, history, English, and geography. He points to what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recently did for math as his model. * Obtain funding from Congress for the first wave of totally redesigned schools. The administration calls this its "American Schools Idea." Six design teams formed by the New American Schools Corporation, a private, nonprofit corporation, would develop blueprints for these break-the-mold schools. * See at least 100 communities become America 2000 communities based on the following criteria: adoption of the six national education goals; creation of a commmunity-wide plan for achieving them; development of a report card to measure them; and readiness to create and support a New American School. The administration plans to open a New American School in 535 such communities, at least one in each congressional district, by 1996. * See more communities offer poor parents a broader choice of schools as a way of helping disadvantaged children and improving all schools, including keeping schools open from 6 to 6. This would pave the way for offering day care and other services right in the school building. Low-income parents and single mothers know they need a better education for their children without knowing what it should be, Alexander says. Many in middle-class suburban school districts are comfortable in a way they shouldn't be, he says. * Start a federally funded program called USA ON-LINE. "It would work like a quasi-public system that schools, families, and communities could tap into," he says. Rather than prescribe curriculum at the national level, something he would be loathe to do and the American people would resist, he says, USA ON-LINE would gather learning materials and make them available in a variety of electronic formats. For example, if the subject is geography, all the relevant visual images from the National Geographic for the last 100 years could be available on interactive videodiscs. * Establish and support Governor's Academies - special learning centers for teachers to upgrade their skills - in math, science, history, English, and geography. "We're going to have to radically change what it is we teach," says Alexander. "The first target for this is the teachers in the classroom who will need to change what they are doing. If it is true that only 15 to 20 percent of our students know what it is we want them to graduate knowing in math, we must change the teachers in place," he says. The goal is to see such teachers' academies in every state. "Most Americans instinctively know that caring for, and loving and raising and educating children and educating themselves is principally their own responsibility or the responsibility of their community and their state," says Alexander. "The remedies we are prescribing are not for everyone else, but for a child right now, right in a class."