President Bush's contribution to upgrading education in this country has largely been rhetorical -- raising the level of debate about what's wrong with the schools and what should be done to fix them.

Critics contend much more should be expected from a candidate who promised to be "the education president." So far, there are no indications that student performance is improving.

But some major changes have been set in motion.

"It's hard to notice the beginning of a quiet revolution," says Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and energetic education secretary Mr. Bush recruited last year after firing Mr. Alexander's lackluster predecessor, Lauro F. Cavazos. "President Bush set the direction. . . . That's what a president does."

Actually, Mr. Bush is only part-way through what Mr. Alexander calls a four-part process: "You see an urgent need, set a direction, create a strategy to move in that direction and persuade half the people you're right."

The president hasn't yet been able to persuade half the people he's right on the strategy he's chosen. It depends heavily on two controversial propositions: establishing a series of privately-funded model schools, and creating competition between public and private schools by giving students vouchers to choose where they want to go.

"There's not enough substance," says Gov. Roy Romer, a Colorado Democrat, who has been working with the White House on its school reform effort. "A lot of the basic issues have not been thought through."

In the fall of his first year, the president convened an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., for which he gathered the nation's governors to help him devise education goals that all would work to achieve by the year 2000.

Despite sharp partisan differences about whether the federal government should beef up its 6 percent share of education financing--which was about 9 percent in 1981 when Mr. Bush came into office as vice president to Ronald Reagan--the group came up with six goals to guide their work:

* That all children are healthy and intellectually prepared enough to start school;

* That the high school graduation rate will rise to 90 percent from its current level of 83 percent;

* Students will have to pass competency exams in primary subjects in the fourth and eighth grades and 12th grades;

* U.S. students, now generally low performers in math and science, will become the best in the world;

* Illiteracy will be wiped out and schools will be free of drugs and violence.

Since then, a National Goals Panel under the leadership of Governor Romer and Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina has won a nation-wide consensus on establishing national achievement tests and is now in process of trying to develop standards against which the students would be tested.

Mr. Bush has also increased funding for the Head Start program for low-income pre-schoolers to include all eligible four-year-olds. Head Start has been among the most favored of all domestic programs in the Bush administration, though critics say it would be much more effective if three-year-olds were served, too.

During the past year, Mr. Alexander said he has spent about "half my days" flying all over the nation, helping to launch "America 2000" programs at the community level.

A private corporation has also been formed to raise $200 million to finance the design of "break the mold" schools. So far, the group has collected nearly $50 million and recently selected 11 design teams from across the country to begin work, including Roots and Wings, a group based in Lexington Park, Md.

The administration has proposed to build 535 of "break the mold" schools with federal funds, one for every senator and member of Congress. But the legislators have refused to provide the $1 million in start-up money without new financing for the 110,000 existing schools in the public education system.

Congress has also flatly rejected Mr. Bush's school choice proposal, fearing the best students would be drawn to elite private schools while the public schools are left with those who couldn't get in anywhere else.

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