In 1957, the Soviet Union’s dramatic launching of a satellite called Sputnik raised sudden concerns for the state of American public education.
In 1983, it was a strikingly unspectacular event--the issuing of another government commission report--that sounded the alarm.
The report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, called “A Nation at Risk,” warned that America’s “once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovations . . . is being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools and colleges.
The panel’s conclusion, issued three years ago Saturday, just as the nation was emerging from a recession, set off a wave of school reforms that have swept across almost every state, surpassing even the post-Sputnik boost given to school math and science programs. Governors and state legislatures seemed to be competing to see who could enact the most sweeping new education law.
Businessmen, scientists and educators who were members of the commission gathered here Saturday to review what has happened in the years since, and said they have been surprised by the extraordinary response.
“I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I’ve been amazed at the extent of the reforms,” said former U.S. Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, who put together the panel that produced the report. The Bell report came at a time when legislators in California and elsewhere were already concerned about the quality of education, and its findings served as a catalyst for efforts to seek solutions.
The 1983 report complained that since the late 1960s, most high schools had offered a “cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts could easily be mistaken for the main courses.” In the years since its release, the Education Commission of the States has counted 41 states, including California, which have raised high school graduation requirements. Under the new requirements, students have had to take several more courses in English, math, history and science.
Salaries Too Low
Turning to teachers, the report said both the standards and the salaries of the nation’s instructors were too low to ensure top-quality faculties. At least 30 states, including California, have initiated new entrance tests for teachers, and 23 states have lifted the starting salaries. In California, a new teacher earned less than $13,000 a year in 1983, but this year a starting teacher would earn nearly $19,000.
Educators here said they see a number of signs suggesting that schools are getting better. National test scores for high school students, which had fallen steadily for 15 years, moved upward the last two years.
Teachers’ college officials say they are enrolling more and better students seeking careers in teaching. And states have shown a willingness to spend more--and in 11 states, raised taxes--to put more money into the schools. Without a tax increase, California’s public school budget has jumped by $5.9 billion over the last four years, a 41% increase, according to the Finance Department.
Quality of Education
Will this latest wave of school reforms make a lasting difference in the quality of American education?
Most school officials and education experts, with memories of several short-lived bursts of enthusiasm for improving education, say only that the schools appear headed in the right direction.
The “rising tide of mediocrity” of 1983 “has stopped rising, and in fact, has begun to ebb,” said University of California President David Gardner, who headed the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983. But he quickly added: “We need a decade of improvement, and we are but a third of the way there.”
In the early 1960s, the schools’ focus on turning out a brighter crop of scientists and mathematicians quickly shifted toward the Great Society era’s push to rescue the nation’s poorest children from the “cycle of poverty.”
Moreover, the present school reform movement could self-destruct over time because its most important element--schoolteachers--increasingly show signs of resisting it.
The American Federation of Teachers’ president, Albert Shanker, who has supported most of the reforms, complained last week that teachers are left out of too many decisions when “top-down reforms” come from the state capital to the classroom.
“If they did this sort of thing in the business world, it would be called overregulation,” Shanker said. “In education, it’s called reform.”
John Ellis, a school superintendent from Austin, Tex., said that state’s 1984 education reform law has attracted more money from the Legislature and more support from the public and has been accompanied by a new surge in test scores. But at the same time, he said, it has “sent teachers’ morale to an all-time low. They feel they have been made the whipping boys for all the problems of public education.”
View Gained Credence
That view gained credence, he noted, when legislators in Texas, like those in Arkansas and Georgia, decided to require all current teachers and school officials to pass a basic reading and writing test to hold on to their jobs.
“The jury is still out whether we will be able to sustain the reforms,” said Ellis, because teachers “have no visceral commitment to them.”
Los Angeles School Supt. Harry Handler also pointed to low morale among teachers as among the biggest problems facing the schools. With overcrowded classrooms, more non-English speaking students and a public demand for better results, “teachers are feeling more pressure and more frustration. It’s just a very tough job,” he said.
Handler told the conference that because of California’s school reform law, salaries for teachers in Los Angeles have gone up 31% in the last three years, to an average of $30,600. However, despite the gains, the salaries “are still too low for us to be fully competitive for talent in the Los Angeles job market,” he said.
Merit Pay for Teachers
Interestingly, one of the most controversial reforms suggested by the national commission--paying teachers based on “merit"--has been dying a quiet death.
A 1983 Florida law designed to give the state’s best teachers a $3,000-a-year bonus is “essentially dead in the water,” said Mark Musick of the Southern Regional Education Board. Teachers complain that the testing and evaluation system set up to pick the best was odd, arbitrary and unreliable, and the Legislature has decided to put the Florida program on hold, Musick said.
Bell, who along with President Reagan talked up the idea of merit pay for teachers in 1983, admitted Saturday that Florida’s plan, the first to be enacted, has been “a disaster so far.”
“I think the career ladder plans, like we have at higher education, are more promising,” said Bell, now a professor of education at the University of Utah. Under a merit pay plan a school would make an annual judgment about how much a teacher should earn, while a career ladder plan would permit a teacher to move up through ranks like an assistant and associate professor in a college, getting more money and more responsibility after each promotion.
Tennessee has been struggling against strong opposition from the state teachers’ union to put such a program into effect. Despite several “monumental mistakes” in setting up the system, a Tennessee school official said Saturday that she believed it would work in the end.
By contrast, California and Utah have been more successful in giving outstanding teachers more pay for more work. In these states, how the plan will work and who will be picked are decided in each school district--rather than by the state--and teachers hold a majority of the votes.
“Teachers will accept a program that enlarges the job, but not one with just merit pay,” said Michael Murphy, a University of Utah professor. “This way, it doesn’t say you are better than me. It just says you are taking on more of a job.”
“I think we’ve reversed the downward trend and we are making some progress,” Handler said. “But we have a long way to go.”