Ten years after the publication of "A Nation At Risk," public education has made many changes and some improvements. By calling attention to perceived problems within American education, the report heightened public interest and raised the importance of public education in the political debate. Unfortunately, the premise of the report, I believe, is flawed.
The thesis of the report is that by allowing educational standards to drop, the nation was placing itself in an untenable economic situation. While I strongly agree that the public school system is the key to U.S. eco- nomic competitiveness, it was not the decline in standards that was the problem, but rather education's inability to adjust to an information age.
The committee which wrote "A Nation At Risk" (composed, I must add, of very able people) failed to see that improving the current system was not the answer -- rather the means to educational improvement would be a different system to address the needs of students who must adjust to an information age.
To illustrate this point, I refer to an excellent document about technology prepared by Bill Rust, Baltimore County Public Schools' coordinator of technology. Mr. Rust shows where public education is and the direction it must take. Some examples should clarify my point.
The current system emphasizes: (1) content, knowledge and facts; (2) passive learning; (3) little collaboration among students or among teachers, and, (4) traditional assessment models.
Mr. Rust proposes, and I strongly agree, that public education must emphasize: (1) the learning process -- learning how to learn, especially with the use of technology; (2) active learning; (3) interdisciplinary learning, and (4) evaluation of students through criterion-referenced tests.
Calls for a longer school day and year, more norm-referenced testing and rigid evaluation systems such as traditional letter grades, will not produce an effective educational system for an information society. Unfortunately, those are some of the recommendations of "A Nation At Risk."
While many of the practices of public education may have been questionable, even for an industrial society, they were not fatal. As preparation for living in an information society, they are ineffective at best. Students must be able to learn how to learn, to manipulate complex technologies, and to apply what they know in totally different situations. None of the practices of the past will produce this type of individual. Moreover, an evaluation system designed to evaluate masses of individuals in an "objective" way does not work in an economy that will have to rely on the talents of every young person.
Obviously, it is far easier to accept the recommendations of "A Nation At Risk" than the ones I am proposing. Doing more does not require fundamental change -- it is simple, if not effective. Actual systemic restructuring is challenging logistically, politically and instructionally. But if we as a nation are unwilling to undertake the effort, our children and their children will face an uncertain economic future.
Fortunately, there are optimistic signs. Many political, civic and, espe- cially, business leaders (who daily face the international economic challenge) see the need for radical change and are pushing for it. Many teachers, administrators, and Board of Education members are working diligently for these changes. (The Maryland State Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Education are leaders in these efforts.)
However, until every parent, teacher, community leader and citizen understands why these fundamental changes are necessary, the inadequacy of America's schools will continue to make this a country at risk.
Stuart Berger is superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools.