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10 Years Later, Still a Full Tide


For the past seven days The Sun has looked at "A Nation at Risk," a 1983 federal report that warned America's schools were threatened by a "rising tide of mediocrity." A decade later, the tide is still high, though there have been patchwork repairs along the vast bulwark of American education. At some points -- urban schools, for one -- there's been serious flooding.

What of the future? How can educators, parents and citizens turn back the tide permanently? We return to the three reasons we cited last Sunday to explain the poor results of the past decade.

* The fallacy of finding a quick fix.

"A Nation at Risk" prompted widespread action by state legislatures and boards of education, but reform has had little lasting impact. Raising standards didn't increase knowledge or proficiency.

It took a decade to figure out that performance is what counts, not the number of hours spent sitting in class.

Now educators are scrambling to determine what students need to know -- and to gauge them with instruments more sophisticated than tests of minimum proficiency. Schools should held strictly accountable for the results. They need help if they can't perform; schools should be taken over by the state if poor results persists.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program is an excellent start in this direction. New results -- and new performance standards -- will be released May 24; many educators will complain that they are too tough, that the state ought to enter this unexplored territory more cautiously. The standards will be submitted to public hearings, and that should be caution enough. The Education Department and state board are to be commended -- and encouraged to proceed without delay.

* Developments outside the schools.

To have any chance of meeting those enhanced standards, schools in Baltimore City and poor rural counties must be on a level financial playing field. Sadly, they are not.

Two weeks ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he would name still another commission to study the formula Maryland uses to distribute money for schools. The gap between rich and poor districts is widening, despite a raft of past study commissions. The difference in spending between the state's richest and poorest districts is now about $1 million a school. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has threatened to sue the state for a more equitable formula, but a preferable way is for the governor's commission to rewrite the state aid formula and send it to the General Assembly for approval. Citizens across Maryland should back this effort.

There is no greater risk to the state's economic future -- and to its security -- than a mass of uneducated citizens in its largest city. Money isn't the only answer, but given Baltimore's social and economic problems, it's difficult to create superior schools with inferior funding.

* Barriers to institutional change.

In an ironic twist, sweeping reforms have a better chance than tiny, incremental steps. Attempts at small reforms tend to get hung up in a structure that does everything else the traditional way. (Interdisciplinary courses in high school, for example, may be tough in a system based on departments and subject-area certification.)

Change is hard for anyone, especially educators. Sticking to familiar techniques isn't working in the classroom. It is also stifling the teaching profession, which will not become a genuine profession so long as teachers are trained and educated on the job by outmoded methods and insist on contracts modeled after blue-collar industries.

Teachers need to be better educated, better paid and better respected. Then they will be "professionals" in fact. One move in this direction would be enactment of state Higher Education Secretary Shaila R. Aery's proposal for a five-year teacher education program with a year's residency similar to that undergone by physicians.

There is no magic bullet in education. We've seen a plethora of programs that are usually small, not evaluated thoroughly and conducted under unrealistic conditions. Many have withered because they ran out of funds and the local districts weren't prepared to continue them.

Should we abandon experimentation because it has been so haphazard, as the Baltimore Teachers Union urged recently? Not at all; humans learn through experimentation. School officials have to do a better job coordinating programs, and the sponsors -- the foundations and universities and governments themselves should do a better job of sharing information and research results.

The federal government, which underwrote "A Nation at Risk" during the Reagan years, has done a lot of cheerleading in the past decade and has managed to keep education in the limelight.

Striving to be the "Education President," George Bush two years ago promulgated "America 2000," an effort to set "world class standards" for the schools and meet them by the year 2000. Most of the nation's governors signed on, and some of them made significant improvements. Now President Clinton, who emphasized education as governor of Arkansas, has proposed "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," which essentially takes up where "America 2000" left off.

The federal government, though, is only a cheerleader, not a change agent, not even a major player in American education. It cannot bring about genuine, lasting school reform. That has to happen on the local level.

We can bring genuine reforms to the classroom -- where they must reach to have impact -- when we involve principals, teachers and parents from the beginning instead of dictating from entrenched bureaucracies. Effective change in schools isn't bottom-up" in nature, nor is it "top-down." Rather, it is collaborative, a mixture of both.

Education reform is like Middle East peace talks. Any given round may ameliorate some of the problems, but is unlikely to produce a lasting solution to all of them. Still, there is no choice but to keep trying -- and to figure out each time why the last round didn't work as well as we thought it would.

Critics of school performance are fond of saying that we know how to fix schools, that we could do it if we only had the will (or the budget). We know some things seem to help, we can point to examples of individual schools improving, but despite a decade of intense reform there is no master plan.

We need to try more things, to think more, to think more creatively, to think more boldly. Eventually, change has to occur in every school in America, in every classroom and every student. Only when that happens will the tide be stemmed.

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