Tide of Mediocrity Hasn't Receded


,TC Reports decrying the sorry state of American educatio remind us of background music: They're always there, but we hardly seem to notice.

Critical studies of U.S. schools continue to flow, reporting that college entrance exam scores are dropping again, that American students trail much of the developed world in math and science, that high schoolers can't find Canada on a map. And yet, nothing changes.

Amid this elevator music, one note has resonated louder and clearer than the rest. A decade ago, a national commission published "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform," with rhetoric as bold as the title: ". . .the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people."

In an oft-quoted passage, the report warned: "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre education performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

"Nation at Risk" called for: more rigorous course content; more testing to see that students meet standards; increased teacher salaries and raised standards for entrance into teaching; "far more homework than is now the case" in high school; vigorous efforts to reduce absenteeism, and longer school days and years.

There were two surprises: 1) Most of the recommendations were implemented, and 2) it made little difference. America's schools are fundamentally the same as they were 10 years ago -- and they are producing fundamentally the same results.

In a series of editorials and op-ed articles this week, The Sun will examine what happened during those 10 years in elementary-secondary education. The "Stagnant Schools" series concludes next Sunday on this page with a look at the current agenda and suggestions for creating genuine and lasting reform in public education.

The decade since "Nation at Risk" has been a time of sustained, serious reform effort in public education. While the report is often credited with starting a school reform wave, in fact it provided impetus for changes already under way in the states. Maryland, for example, was well into its "Project Basic," a program launched by state Superintendent David Hornbeck to set minimum competency tests that are still required for high school graduation.

But while there have been bright spots of considerable promise, 10 years after "A Nation at Risk" virtually no one thinks the problems have been solved. Measures on various achievement tests show little change (although an emphasis on basic skills and minimum competency led to a reduction in the gap by which the achievement of white students exceeds black students).

The tide of mediocrity may not have risen in the past 10 years, but it hasn't receded either.

Why has so much effort by those concerned about education produced so little in the way of results?

Reform has had little impact for three reasons:

* The fallacy of finding a quick fix.

With much of the reform movement led by politicians -- businessmen such as H. Ross Perot, who successfully lobbied for reform in Texas, and governors such as Richard Riley of South Carolina (now secretary of education), Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (education secretary in the Bush years) and Bill Clinton of Arkansas (now in the White House) -- the tendency was to look for answers that were easily implemented from the top down.

In effect, the reformers were seeking a magic bullet, a simple fix which would force all other needed changes.

So high school graduation requirements were toughened. New tests were launched, for teachers as well as students. Seldom, though, did reformers get their hands into the inner working of schools: teaching methods, materials, grouping, scheduling, how schools and classes are organized.

The assumption was that new standards, new tests and publicity for the results -- imposed from above by governors and legislators and state boards -- would force schools to grapple with the details. This approach may have had some effect at the margins of school operations, but it has not led to fundamental reform.

* Barriers to institutional change.

In any institution, the status quo develops momentum. Even small changes can be difficult. One instructive example: A number of high schools in the Baltimore area this year considered offering class periods of double length. Instead of taking each course for 45 or 50 minutes a day for a year, students would take a course for 90 or 100 minutes a day for half a year.

Other than Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick County and Howard High in Howard County, most schools decided not to proceed. Even such a modest change brings daunting complications: What about students who transfer in at mid-year? Since college advanced-placement exams are given in the spring, would that handicap a student who took calculus in the fall? If students take band as a class, would the band have a complete turnover between fall and spring? Imagine, then, the objections to more radical reforms.

* Developments outside the schools.

Public schools are not insulated from other forces in society. Drugs, teen-age pregnancy, the economy -- many external factors determine which students show up at the schoolhouse door and how they perform. School officials cannot use society's problems as an excuse for giving up; they have to play the hand they are dealt and figure out how to turn problem students into productive adults. But neither can schools be held entirely to account for results shaped by so many factors beyond their control.

Tomorrow: Raising School Standards

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