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State of the Schools: Both Dire and Hopeful


School's in for the year. But is it good enough for our kids, and the country's future?

Two radically opposed views have surfaced in recent weeks. One comes from Education Secretary Richard Riley, a former governor with unblemished credentials in fighting for children's welfare and school reform.

"Steady-as-you-go" on school reform, suggests Mr. Riley, pointing to the government's yearly "Condition of Education" report that shows American high school students are dropping out a little less and scoring higher on math and science tests than a decade ago.

But Louis Gerstner, the chairman and CEO of IBM, sees 44TC different world. Addressing the National Governors' Association in midsummer, he said that American education remains sick and unresponsive, that our schools require "a fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new performance-driven system."

For too long, says Mr. Gerstner, American business was blind to the problem because it was undergoing painful downsizing. "But now we're coming out of that, we're going out to hire people, and we find they can't even read or write."

Mr. Riley's more upbeat tone, his warning that "this is no time to retreat from our efforts to keep education a national priority," is understandable enough in face of the $3.8 billion in education cuts the House has already voted, plus efforts in Congress to abolish the Education Department altogether.

Some improvements the secretary cites seem very real. Since the "Nation At Risk" report in 1983, the number of high school students taking such tough courses as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus and advanced science has risen from 13 to 47 percent.

Mr. Gerstner, by contrast, suggests the nation has deluded itself with the "Goals 2000" objectives set by President Bush and the nation's governors (including then-Gov. Bill Clinton) at Williamsburg in 1989. About 1,600 days remain until the year 2000, notes Mr. Gerstner, and who seriously believes we'll achieve such goals as a 90 percent high school graduation rate, or making our students "best in the world" in math and science?

The reality, he says, is that "400,000 young people are still dropping out of U.S. schools yearly -- 400,000 of our most precious assets in our country." Multiply that figure by the six years since 1989, and "2,400,000 Americans [have been] doomed to a life of pain and poverty."

Mr. Gerstner wants to set performance measures requiring significant progress toward higher academic achievement -- not in 2000 but next year and every year. "Until we're prepared to penalize students, teachers and administrators for lack of performance, the system will fail." By talking of Goals 2000, "maybe we left ourselves air cover that was too high."

The IBM chairman told the governors to act like CEOs of their states, make a personal commitment to higher educational performance, and be as rough with obstructionists in the education system as any corporate chief. "Measure the progress against your goals, relentlessly and continuously. Confront and expel the people and the organizations that are throwing up roadblocks to the changes you consider critical."

But can governors really do that? They exist in a political world, competing with legislatures, fighting to balance budgets, often confronted with independently elected, sometimes quite powerful, state school chiefs.

What governors can do is use their bully pulpit to demand education reform and galvanize their business communities to take up the fight. What Washington can provide is advocacy and tracking -- like Mr. Riley's recent report.

But maybe we've come to a point where "bone-jarring" change has to be delivered locally.

Mayor Richard Daley persuaded the Illinois Legislature to oust the entire Chicago school board and give him four years of total command of his city's perennially lagging, deficit-plagued public school system.

The Daley management team has moved swiftly to reduce central office staff, privatize several services, establish a multiyear balanced budget. A new Office of Accountability and Outcomes will dispatch educational "SWAT" teams with full powers to assess what's wrong in a dysfunctional school -- call for retrained teachers, reduced class sizes, new textbooks -- or even close down a school and start from scratch.

Will other cities, and troubled suburban districts, take Chicago's path? Maybe so. Mayors see they're held responsible for failing schools anyway, so why not ally with civic and business forces calling for dramatically improved skills in school graduates? In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is demanding Daley-scale powers. Boston's mayor already appoints the entire school board.

Opponents detect patronage motives in all this. But if we expect mayors to emulate the IBMs of the world, to face down unions when they must, to force radical change for improved education, then why shouldn't they appoint their own people -- to do the job, and if they can't, replace them with managers who can?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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