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Improve Education--Can We Afford Not To? : The Downward Trend Has Been Halted; Now State Needs Innovations in Excellence

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There is clear evidence across the nation that the business community is taking up the challenge to assist and improve the education system. Aside from altruistic, patriotic or social-responsibility reasons, business feels the pressure on its “bottom line” from the staffs of better-educated, better-trained foreign competitors. It is increasingly obvious that Yankee ingenuity and technological superiority are not the “inalienable rights” of Americans. We’ve enjoyed that privileged high ground for decades because those who came before us realized and emphasized the value and importance of education.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost that commitment. Almost half the 4.5 million students in our state’s public-education system will leave school as “dropouts” or barely literate “graduates.” They will fill the ranks of the underemployed and the unemployable. Worse, they will be primary users of the welfare and criminal-justice systems. The question is not whether we should make the commitment to improve our education system; it is: Can we afford not to?

What happened to us? Probably beginning with some of the fuzzy thinking of the early 1960s, we began to see a “watering down” of our education standards as well as the general weakening of many of our other social and moral underpinnings. We began to require and expect less of our students and our schools, and they didn’t disappoint us; they delivered less.

In 1983 California passed an education-reform bill, halting the downward trend. Test scores have shown some improvement, standards and expectations are being raised, and morale has improved.

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We now have our finger in the dike, but the water is still rising. As we move into the 21st Century, it is expected that 200,000 to 300,000 new jobs will be created each year, and a like number will be available as a result of retirements. Many of these jobs will be challenging opportunities providing good career growth and monetary and psychic rewards. But they will also demand creativity, initiative, innovative thinking and communication skills. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we had the means to break the cycle of unemployment, poverty, welfare and crime and failed to use it?

Education is the key. The California Business Roundtable has formulated a preliminary program for education to meet the challenges. The program is bold, but each component is practical and proven. It aims toward a quantum improvement in the quality of education. Continuing to pour money into the present system is not going to achieve the results that we need. Pointing fingers at teachers or parents gets us nowhere. Teachers are not the problem. They are a big part of the solution if we free them to innovate and to teach.

Briefly, here are the recommendations:

--Expand and focus schooling. All children aged 4 to 6 should have the opportunity for free preschool and early schooling. An equal and early start at education significantly increases the likelihood for higher achievement, higher employment and higher learning. Elementary and secondary education for ages 7 to 16 should concentrate on developing core competencies in essential learning skills. And at about age 16 students should be able to choose from several career options--college preparation, vocational/technical education, fine or performing arts and others.

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--Establish accountability based on local school performance and parental choice. The state should set performance goals for schools, require exit tests for all students at grades 6 and 10, and institute ways to hold schools accountable for performance.

--Establish school autonomy and empower parents, teachers and principals. Schools should be able to develop programs that suit their communities’ needs. Parents and community leaders should serve on school-level boards; teachers should participate in school management.

--Modernize instruction. That means giving schools the resources and incentives to restructure their operations so that technology can be used productively.

--Establish a multi-tiered teaching system with career ladders (assistant-teacher, regular-teacher and lead-teacher levels), upgraded entry standards, pre-tenure internship programs and strengthened criteria for teacher evaluation.

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--See California’s cultural diversity as an opportunity, not a hindrance. Non- English-speaking students should acquire full competency in English, and English-speaking students should learn a second language beginning in early childhood.

The problem is the system. It is loaded down by constraints, rules and bureaucracy. It creates attitudes that teachers and administrators cannot be trusted to educate and must be micromanaged. We have only to look in the economic sector to see that centrally managed systems just don’t work; that decentralized, demand-driven, free-enterprise-oriented systems are the ones that excel. It makes good sense to give our dedicated and capable educators the autonomy to innovate; reward them and hold them responsible for the quality of the end result. In the present system there are few rewards for exceptional results and little accountability for failure.

Scores of legislators, concerned citizens, business groups, unions, minority representatives and others have made valuable contributions to this effort of education reform. The Roundtable invites all groups to review the program and propose changes or alternatives so that together we can put forward a new vision for education.

Derek Bok, then president of Harvard University, once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Please, California, let’s not try ignorance.

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