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Bell Proposes $900-Per-Pupil Upgrade for US Schools

WHEN Terrel H. Bell was secretary of education in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1985, he commissioned "A Nation at Risk," the study that launched school reform in the United States. He is back in Washington to promote his new book, "How To Shape Up Our Nation's Schools," which he coauthored with Donna L. Elmquist.In his life "after" Washington, Mr. Bell likens himself to the educational equivalent of a certified public accountant. He and a nonprofit company he formed "audit" individual school districts or entire state education systems (as is the case in his home state of Idaho). The audit combines a hard-nosed look at current education practices and the likelihood of their achieving the six national education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors. He reports, to his dismay, that in far too many instances the spread between educational practices and the sought-after learning goals that crystallized in the previous decade are widening rather than narrowing. "We think the schools are rudderless, that they don't have a master plan as to where they are going," he says. Supportive of the current administration's efforts, Bell harbors concerns in two critical areas: "There will be so much attention brought on the year 2000 that the focus won't be sharp enough right now on what is going on in schools," he says. Changes must be less radical than what is being called for, and this can be done, he says, if schools join "the high-tech revolution that has gone on in the rest of society." The Bell proposals also call for more money. "There are 43 million kids right now [in public schools]... . If you have to start with a given that there will be no tax increase, that's where we part ways with the administration," he says. The reform strategy he lays out in his book calls for an increase of $900 for each elementary and secondary student. The money would provide one computer for every three students, software, and training. Each year for five years, one-fifth of all public schools would bring computers on-line. Each summer, teachers would be intensively trained in the use of the new technology. Bell would tie teacher promotions to the use of technology. He would also shift the employment ranking of elementary and secondary teachers to reflect those of the university, so that teachers don't feel they have to "graduate" into administration and leave the classroom for more money. Bell is confident that more time with interactive technology each day will raise student reading levels. He would have students spend a third of their time with "smart" software (even working in pairs). Teachers could then be free to work more closely with the rest of the class.