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Making the Schools Work

May 01, 1988

Education Secretary William J. Bennett argues that U.S. public schools have barely improved. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig insists that they are much better than they were. Both agree that the quality of education remains too low.

Both are right if they are talking about education for college-bound students. But their evaluations certainly do not apply to potential dropouts, who have scarcely been touched by reforms.

Too many students still cannot fill out job applications, let alone unravel the mysteries of science or savor Shakespeare. Too many teachers quit prematurely in frustration over discipline problems or depressing working conditions.

Bennett reassessed schools on the fifth anniversary of a landmark report, "A Nation at Risk," a report that helped launch education reform. Bennett's assessment is right when he said that reforms still must be made in course content, textbooks, minority access to a sound education, teacher preparation, and recruitment of good principals. He is wrong to keep saying that reforms are possible without more spending on schools by communities and state and federal governments.

Bennett reports that fewer than 5% of the nation's 17-year-olds read at advanced levels, that few students write well or even adequately, and that fewer still are familiar enough with books. American students still rate near the bottom in international math comparisons.

California has been trying to reform classrooms longer than most states, and the effort is starting to show results. Students are taking more rigorous courses to prepare themselves for college, Honig says, and they are doing better on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than they did five years ago.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, the reforms to date largely benefit students "who are able to listen to lectures and read books," a group that he thinks represents 25% of the student population. Assuming that he is right, schools must change dramatically for the other 75%. That will mean better prepared--and better paid--teachers, strong principals, and school boards that concentrate as hard on making school work as well in poor neighborhoods as they do in affluent areas.

Bennett's approach to school improvement is the old ruler-on-the-knuckles approach, never less useful than when he said recently that appeals for more money for schools are a form of "extortion, the false claim that to fix our schools will first require a fortune in new funding." Congress recently voted for an education bill that would strengthen remedial reading and math programs for poor youngsters and create programs to help local schools where academic failure seems permanent. Bennett should work to persuade the White House to support the program instead of spending so much time trying to improve his grade of "A" for Abrasive.

The first wave of reforms may be over. Compared to what lies ahead, they may have been the easy ones. The next wave involves changing credential requirements for teachers, recruiting more minorities into teaching and finding ways to keep students in school where they can learn. The nation's children indeed remain at risk until that job is done, too.

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