Md. is graded in meeting goals

THE EDUCATION BEAT

Report: The state earns an `A' and an `F' and everything in between in following U.S. guidelines on improving schools.

April 23, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE REPORT was issued at the White House 20 years ago this Saturday, and it roiled the waters of education just as had the launch of Sputnik a quarter-century earlier.

The effect was intended. A Nation at Risk, the report of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, spelled out the dire condition of schooling in the United States in only 36 pages (plus appendices) of crisp, alarmist prose. America's educational foundations "are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity," the report said in its famous first paragraph. The second graph began with a memorable sentence:

"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

The report was so clear, uncluttered and direct, a reader in Hagerstown wrote The Sun that "our educational hierarchies will have trouble understanding it."

But not the media, and not Reagan, who had expected the commission to recommend school prayer, vouchers and elimination of the federal Department of Education. It recommended none of these and bitterly disappointed Reagan until he realized he could use the commission's findings as a Trojan horse in the 1984 presidential election.

I hauled out my blue-cover copy of Risk - 6 million were distributed - the other day and reread it. I realized how limited it was in scope and recommendation. Almost nothing was said about early childhood and elementary education, the nation's glaring deficiencies in reading or the physical condition of schools. Headed by David P. Gardner, president of the University of Utah, the commission was directed "to pay particular attention to teen-age youth." That it did.

Two decades later, a number of observers and members of the Commission on Excellence say there's been little progress, that there's nothing resembling an ebb tide in the offing. Certainly, that's true if we are to judge by the condition of the nation's urban schools.

But if we compare Maryland's record with the major recommendations of A Nation at Risk, some of our grades can be quite generous.

The report, for example, recommended strengthening the high school curriculum. (Long before the Internet, it called for a half-year of instruction in computer science.) In the early 1990s, Maryland did just that. It upgraded high school graduation requirements so that they're more demanding than those proposed by the commission. Here, Maryland gets an A.

Maryland schools and colleges also get high marks for responding to the commission's call for "more rigorous" course content and for tougher requirements for public college admission. Here, Maryland gets an A-, with only a slight deduction for the meaningless functional tests that are still being given 20 years later.

The commission recommended that "significantly more time" be devoted to learning the basics. School districts and state legislatures, said A Nation at Risk, "should strongly consider seven-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year." An F goes in this column.

In the two decades, schools here and elsewhere haven't budged from the 180-day year, and they've come up with evermore imaginative ways to waste time. Attendance policies lack clear incentives and sanctions. The typical school calendar is so interrupted by days off, many for religious holidays (like Easter Monday), that there's no sense of continuity.

Finally, A Nation at Risk posed seven sound recommendations for improving teaching and the professional lives of teachers. Maryland gets a C. Schools of education have raised standards, and incentives are available to attract outstanding students to the profession.

But the commission recommended teacher salaries that are "professionally competitive, market-sensitive and performance-based." It suggested "career ladders" that distinguish among the beginning instructor, the experienced teacher and the master teacher. It called for 11-month teacher contracts.

None of these goals has been fully realized. The vast majority of teachers aren't paid on the basis of performance. And teachers have a way to go to gain the respect enjoyed by other professionals whose jobs are far less important. The teaching profession is still at risk.

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