When it comes to implementing education reform, the United States needs two things: immediate action and patience.
On Monday, yet another national report by yet another blue-ribbon panel offered yet another "wake-up call" for education. In general, the report found achievement levels in U.S. schools were about what they were in 1970, and well below those of students in other countries.
This isn't news. There have been several similar reports over the past decade, and most of the figures in this one had been previously published.
What is different is that this set of figures was pulled together in an effort to judge how the United States is doing in achieving six broad education goals ("By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn," "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement"). The goals grew out of the 1989 "education summit" between President Bush and the nation's governors. They form the basis of the Bush education plan -- a plan which offers a clear opportunity to move beyond alarmist blue-ribbon reports to reform and improvement.
The Bush plan calls for national testing, stepped-up research and the launching of experimental schools. Most school changes so far have been more-of-the-same reform, such as requiring more credits for high school graduation. The Bush plan offers the prospect of experimenting to an unprecedented degree with such areas as teaching methods, course content and school organization.
It is what is needed, but it will not produce quick results. It will take time to plan experimental schools and evaluate them. It will take time to develop new tests. Meanwhile, the students who will be the high school class of 2000 are already in the fourth grade; a significant number are already off to a bad start.
We shouldn't expect that "by the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to complete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship." We shouldn't expect that "every school in America will be free of drugs and violence." Although they are unreachable, the goals are useful as a standard against which progress can be measured.
Politicians like results that can be seen before the next election. In education, we must be careful not to lose hope as the year 2000 approaches and the national goals are not yet met.
Yet we should not delay in experimenting with sweeping reform. While the latest report cited a number of areas where statistics are inadequate -- there is, for example, no standardized way of measuring dropout rate -- changes can begin before such statistics are developed. We've had enough "wake-up calls."