A chance for education

January 08, 2001|By Christopher T. Cross

WASHINGTON -- In 12 days, George W. Bush will take office and all indications are that education will be one of his signature issues.

During the campaign and election that would not end, Americans voiced their concerns and belief that education is a national priority.

While it is clear that education could be the issue that bridges the political divide, the debates over vouchers, class-size reduction, school choice and facilities must not obscure the proposals that can make an immediate difference in improving teaching and learning.

Given Mr. Bush's record in Texas, it is certain that a major effort to close the achievement gap between white, African-American and Hispanic students will be at the top of his list. It is also very clear that a major initiative in reading will emerge. These are important matters and deserve the highest attention possible.

Another important issue that may not get the same prominent attention is the crying need for a greater federal investment in sound research, good data collection and enhanced dissemination of validated research findings on programs and practices that produce documented results. The federal investment in this area is very modest by almost any measure. If education is to be a national priority, why are we not making the investment that is required to learn from our success and failures?

The federal government is uniquely suited to support and perform this vital role to inform educators and help them direct resources to educational programs that are effective and raise student achievement. In the fiscal year 2000, only $210 million was devoted to education research and development as opposed to Health and Human Services, whose budget was 86 times the education budget -- $18 billion. The result of an insufficient emphasis on research and development is the existence of an inadequate body of evidence, both in terms of the number of programs evaluated and the quality of the evaluations themselves.

As the new administration formulates its plans, it needs also to be cognizant of two major issues -- "federalization" and accountability. When proposing new legislation, Mr. Bush and the Congress must be cautious so that the policy they propose does not appear to take matters out of the hands and minds of voters, taxpayers and, most important, parents.

The impression, even if without merit, that somehow the Feds will solve a problem could be catastrophic. The federal government cannot teach a child to read. Education has been, and will continue to be, the primary responsibility of local communities, districts and states.

Related to this concern, but distinctly different is accountability.

The new administration should also be careful not to propose policies that will further the lines of authority and accountability. It is already confusing enough. Citizens are often uncertain as to where the buck stops -- with the school principal, the local school board, the local superintendent, the state legislature, the governor, the state board, the state legislature, the mayor or the county executive.

Rather than adding to the existing complexity, Mr. Bush might make a lasting contribution by convening all stakeholders and urging them to clarify roles and responsibilities so that parents cannot so easily be told, "It's not my problem."

Parents and communities need to remain involved with schools and not be given the message that education decisions are out of their hands. They need to know who is accountable for their children's education.

There is a great deal of promise in any new administration, be it at the federal, state or local level. In education we now have a golden window of opportunity. May we all urge care and caution as we embark on paths that will lead in new directions. The children of this nation, our future, demand nothing less.

Christopher T. Cross, a former president of the Maryland state school board, is president of the Council for Basic Education, a national nonprofit organization advocating high academic standards for all students in the nation's public schools.

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