10 Years Later, Still a Full Tide

May 09, 1993

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.

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