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A nation still at risk (San Francisco Chronicle) March 3, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Educational reform is a tough business to be in. Twenty years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education shocked the country with its “A Nation at Risk” report. This distinguished panel nailed its reform theses on the schoolhouse door, telling us that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in our nation’s schools threatened the “intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people” and “our very future as a nation.”

Now a new commission of 11 leading education scholars tells us that, on the 20th anniversary of that landmark report, our children are still at risk.

The Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, assembled by the Hoover Institution and funded largely by San Francisco’s Koret Foundation, has issued a 378-page report reviewing the state of American education today in light of the work of the commission 20 years ago.

Despite widespread acceptance of the “Nation at Risk” report, and considerable increases in education spending, the Koret Task Force concludes that very few important reforms have actually been implemented and almost no improvement in our schools has occurred. Much talk, a little action and few results — this is the sidetrack every reformer fears.

Of course, the road to reform is paved with good intentions. The commission told schools they needed to strengthen high school graduation requirements in the basic curriculum; adopt higher, measurable standards for academic performance; increase the time spent in school and on homework; and strengthen the teaching profession. Educators by and large agreed.

But the new Koret study concludes that few reforms were actually implemented. As a consequence student test scores show little change — slight improvements in math, returning scores to 1970s levels, and no change in verbal proficiency. The school year is no longer and homework is no heavier, through the Koret scholars did not interview my family about that. Graduation rates in the United States have actually declined during this period. Like the old saw, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.

Obviously nailing reform ideas on the schoolhouse door was not enough. As the Koret study notes, the 1983 report was stronger on diagnosis than prescription. But more than that, there are forces outside the schoolhouse that prevent major reforms within. Among these, the recent Koret report especially notes the role of teachers’ unions in blocking major reform.

A look at which reforms have been implemented and which have not seems to confirm that teachers’ unions have heavily influenced the process. For example, reforms the union favor such as spending and smaller classes have been adopted, even though the latter was not even recommended by the commission and the data in support of it is scant, at best. On the other hand, reforms the unions do not support — longer school years and pay for performance — have not been implemented.

The Koret Task Force aims its reform ideas more directly at the larger educational and political system, calling for transparency, accountability and choice. Transparency would allow parents and regulators to see results of school, teacher and student performance more clearly. Accountability would set and measure clear standards. And choice undergrids the other reforms by allowing parents to vote with their feet and send students to another public or even private school if they wish.

In California, the picture is mixed. On one hand, we are becoming far more rigorous in testing and providing reports on schools. On the other hand, we have succumbed to the temptation to reduce class size, an expensive reform in a tight budget environment that is not well supported by research. California voters have consistently rejected school choice initiatives.

Increasingly experts recognize that reform and improvement will not occur inside our schools without community and political will from the outside. In that sense, the Koret recommendations for reform, which include levers of change from the outside, may be more effective than tacking more theses on the schoolhouse door.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-5.

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