As Schools Start Up, Reform Shifts From Spending to Seeing Results
AS classrooms reopen next week, children will resume the 12-year process of mastering words and numbers. And schools will resume the process, now 10 years old, of responding to ideas and policies of the education-reform movement.
Last spring marked a decade since the "Nation at Risk" report, commissioned by the United States Department of Education, startled the reform movement into action. Many remedies called for in the 1980s have been applied. Teachers' salaries are generally higher, up to an average of $36,846. Forty percent of schools have longer school years than 10 years ago. Academic requirements have been strengthened in many districts. (School openings in Connecticut and Chicago, Pages 7, 8.)
But few would say the job is done. States and the federal government still push a reform agenda. President Clinton's education bill - which moves along the "Goals 2000" path blazed by President Bush - is likely to be acted on this fall by Congress. Its effort to establish national education standards and nudge states toward adopting them has revived debate over local versus centralized school control.
For many who have followed school reform, the fall of 1993 is a time to reassess priorities and check the movement's course. "The focus is now on outcomes," says Alan Odden, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Up through the '80s, we were primarily concerned with inputs and process." The "inputs" are steps like higher teacher salaries; they often boiled down to dollars. Education spending rose over the last decade, though in the 1990s t he trend has run head-on into recession and pinched budgets at every level of government. Dollars versus results
Aside from funding inequities between rich and poor school districts, Mr. Odden says, one reason why financing education through property taxes is under attack is because that system encourages a preoccupation with how many dollars go into the till, instead of the broader question of results. The basic "outcome" is "what kids know and can do." This emphasis goes with "the whole issue of standards and standard-setting" - how you measure what is being accomplished by reform. Odden says some states, such as
Pennsylvania, have stepped into political quicksand when they tried to set educational standards and "value-laden" goals. Their experience will be noted elsewhere, he says.
Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor and former California State Board of Education president, suggests that student performance can be boosted by making it clearer to kids that schoolwork matters.
A good step would be abolition of Scholastic Assessment Test exams that determine admission to college. They should be replaced, he says, by tests that assess students' grasp of material taught in high school. Colleges should "only admit kids based on exams linked to what you study in school, not what some educational gurus say you ought to know," he says. Professor Kirst would also urge employers hiring people out of high school to ask for school transcripts. Kids have to be shown that what they studied
- not just the fact that they graduated - counts. Kirst sees this kind of incentive adjustment as a way to "intensify" reforms that followed "Nation at Risk," such as stronger curricula.
"We have to keep our eye on that ball," concurs Roland Barth, a Harvard University author and lecturer and former principal and teacher. He is concerned that the emphasis on school reform could fade when compared with such mega-issues as health care and budget-balancing. He would like to see changes begun - such as greater management authority within schools themselves and greater autonomy for teachers - greatly expanded.
Building on gains already made is also a theme for Scott Thompson, executive secretary for the National Policy Board for Education Administrators in Washington. He sees a danger that school reform could be sidetracked by social problems - youth violence, family breakdowns, health concerns - that converge at the doors of many schools, particularly in large cities. "We could find ourselves back where we were in the early '80s," Mr. Thompson says, "when the focus was on dropouts and making sure everyone gra duated." The result then, he says, was lower standards that had to be worked back up. Guns deter learning
The emphasis on academics shouldn't be watered down, says Emeral Crosby, the principal of Detroit's Pershing High School and a member of the task force that wrote "Nation at Risk." But from his urban perspective, there is no way to avoid tackling these social problems if learning is to have any chance of succeeding. "We're talking about books, but the guns hurt us faster than the books can help us," he says.
Many education analysts would second Mr. Crosby's concerns. Rexford Brown, a senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, calls for a more "communitywide" approach to educating youths. He sees little alternative to having schools work much more closely with the array of other social-service agencies that help children and families.
Michael Usdan, who heads the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, says the focus of reform has to shift downward toward preschool and early primary years. Without a strong emphasis on preventive health care and social intervention "as early as possible," he says, "all the attention on standards may not mean that much." He decries the "total detachment" of schools from other government services.
Put these issues with better leadership training for teachers and administrators, more parental involvement, and other items experts mention, and it is clear that the school-reform movement should have enough fuel to last at least another decade.