The pony express

William Safire

April 26, 1991|By William Safire

Washington -- WHITE HOUSE chief of staff John Sununu, mileage champ in the Air Force's frequent flier program, sortied into town, saw the world scene turning sour and decreed: Let education rise to the top of the agenda.

The Department of Education promptly popped its plans for an "America 2000 strategy"; the media dutifully scheduled takeouts and Sunday TV shows; the Congress warily extended its cooperation. Attention was paid; now on to the next subject.


As Education Secretary Lamar Alexander says, "In an era of nine-second sound bites and 100-hour wars, we're talking about a nine-year crusade."

That means he is talking about more of a movement than a program; a use of the presidency to set a new direction, not use of the federal budget to subsidize education.

Schooling as we know it has reached its limit; as he puts it, "You can't force the Pony Express to run faster -- you need the telegraph instead."

Lamar was politically weaned by Bryce Harlow, last of the gentlemanly presidential advisers, and is steeped in practical experience with schools, as governor and university president in Tennessee.

He replaces an ineffective Bush appointee who was an example of the quota system in Cabinet-making following the turbulent era of Bill Bennett, who shook the torpor out of educrats in the Reagan era.

The stage has been set for a cool revolutionary.

His central idea is an old one whose time has come: parental choice of school, which will introduce cleansing competition to the stolid monopoly that is now the public system.

"The money follows the children and the children follow the good schools."

Competition, not monopoly, is the American way; we have seen it work and produce. In schooling, let bad schools fail; close them; guarantee their students access to successful schools.

Then revamp some of the failed schools, open them under new management to put competitive pressure on the others.

Another idea, put forth too tentatively because it involves new money, is to stop the foolishness of a summer vacation geared to the former needs of farm families to plant and bring in the harvest.

Our kids now attend school only half the days of the year; in the modern era, as schools become desirable places to spend time, children should attend school at least two days out of three.

We have a huge plant on expensive property sitting idle half the time; we've forgotten the swing shift, and sabbaticism has gotten out of hand.

Treat teachers like managers by paying them on the basis of time and merit; use multimedia learning games to pull students into the classrooms year round, with vacations spaced over the year to make efficient use of the new facilities.

Not all the new ideas are good.

A measurement is needed to determine which schools succeed; the secretary proposes "national voluntary assessment tests" at the end of fourth, eighth and twelfth grades.

Liberals don't like this national testing because it pits poor children who get little or no home education against better-off kids helped by supermothers who do spreadsheets with hospital corners. Although multiculturalism is overblown, nobody wants to perpetuate disadvantage.

Libertarians like me are suspicious of national testing of children because it leads to national teaching standards, centralized curriculums and, ultimately, a regimented population.

While striving for fairness, national exams would endanger democracy and diversity.

Create a supertest and teachers will teach to it and students will study to it. The hand that writes the test molds the mind, and we do not want that hand in Washington, D.C.

Less homogenizing ways can be found to let parent-voters measure comparative success in local schooling. Evaluate with private surveys comparing state surveys; count the master teachers, and let counties test teachers who choose fast tracks; count national scholarships won in each school, weighted for need.

We need not troop the nation's children into teleconferenced torture chambers on some legally designated doomsday of the ignorant. The SAT's are bad enough.

I wandered into a Microsoft seminar recently to see the new Encyclopedia Britannica on a compact disk. You plunk in the word "Mozart" and get not just an entry but sound, animation, zippy tie-ins.

Retire the Pony Express of yesteryear; the schoolroom of tomorrow will blow your mind.

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