Fixing education

April 19, 1995

For a sense of how complex educating young people has become, consider the report on elementary education released last week by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

This study received plenty of media attention as the largest of its kind into elementary education. It criticizes the tendency of modern education to embrace a fad-of-the-month and suggests a "basic school" whose components we can agree on. But defining "basic" is the rub.

The Carnegie report calls for four things: Greater stress on reading and language skills; a focus on core civic virtues such as honesty and respect for others; more time for creative learning and teacher planning, and strengthening school communities by keeping schools and classes small. It sounds simple, but in the real world of education, it's not.

Take reading. Baltimore County has been engaged in a bitter debate between educators who adopted a "whole language" curriculum to instill a love of language to youngsters and some parents who believe children need a more rigorous, fundamental "phonics" foundation.

As for core virtues, look at the debate over "outcomes-based education" in Carroll County, where some parents misinterpret values education as a "mind control" plot.

Adequate planning time for teachers has been a source of friction between school boards and teacher unions around the VTC region. As for class size, booming enrollments, high construction costs and anti-tax pressures have left most systems in the Baltimore-Washington area struggling just to maintain current class sizes. (A recent issue of Business Week cites Maryland as having the third worst school crunch in the U.S.)

Among disturbing figures in the Carnegie study were the 40 percent of U.S. teachers who decried their lack of on-going training -- the worst among industrialized nations -- and the 23 percent who indicated they can't count on ample pencils and paper. Yet the most troubling disparity is the gap between teacher and parent opinions on the direction of education.

Today's parents, as a group, possess the contrasting traits of being more critical of their children's public education and yet more disengaged. Educators, however, too often regard parents as mere laymen or even obstructionists, certainly not as clients or partners. No business or family can thrive in a rigid system where formal communication takes place only two or three times a year. The pipeline of information between teachers and parents, perhaps the most important people in a child's life, should be more of a constant flow throughout the school year.

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