Educational Reform Can Reach High Payoffs With Modest New Federal Help

<i> Bill Honig is California's superintendent of public instruction</i>

The educational reform movement is starting to produce results on a national scale. Test scores are rising, more students are taking academic courses and the dropout rate is showing slow but steady improvement. Our national leaders, particularly the President, have an opportunity to galvanize educators, increase the pace of reform and build on the progress occurring in our schools.

A national consensus has developed concerning education: We must educate more students to higher levels if they are to compete in the increasingly technological marketplace, and we must instill in them democratic and ethical ideals if our democracy is to remain strong.

Substantial agreement has also been reached that all students can learn, that student effort is as important as ability, and that the keys to improving our schools are higher standards, a strong basic curriculum for all children, adequate homework, a positive learning environment and support for at-risk students.

Most states have translated these goals into strategies that are producing results. Contrary to some people’s perception, most educators are committed to school reform. They are improving curriculum, training, textbooks and school leadership; building teams; and developing stronger accountability and assessment processes.

Our national policy has been much less well-defined. President Bush can accelerate the pace of educational reform by working cooperatively with educators, spending relatively little extra federal funds on a few initiatives with a high payoff.


First, we must establish specific performance targets and a national school accountability system. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has devised literacy, mathematics and writing scales that correspond with student ability to do “real world” work. Based on these scales, the President could set goals for the year 2000 such as increasing the number of seniors who read at the “adept” level from the current 40% to two-thirds; increasing those who can use math to solve “moderately complex” problems from 50% to 75%; increasing those who can write a satisfactory job application letter from 20% to 75%; and reducing the high-school dropout rate from 25% to 10%.

We can give schools the necessary information to determine how well they are doing so that they can commit to reaching an annual growth target, provide incentives for the best schools to become training centers and provide help for low-performing schools.

Many businesses invest significantly in human resource development, but education training budgets have been skimpy and training strategies outmoded. In tandem with programs to better train our existing teachers, we also need to improve recruitment, preparation and certification. We will need 2 million new teachers by 1999; no strategy will improve our schools’ performance more than attracting and retaining top-flight teachers. The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards should receive development funds to provide voluntary teacher certification. The National Teachers Corps, which once took college graduates and placed them to teach in inner-city schools while they earned teaching credentials, should be revived.

We must also provide leadership training for principals, who are the key to a good school, and improve technical assistance to school districts. The best schools are in districts that provide strong guidance to individual schools, yet training to help districts become effective is still in its infancy.

Before long, technology will exist to give teachers state-of-the-art curriculum support. For instance, California is working with National Geographic on curriculum software in geography. But generally, compared to business people, educators still use technology at a very low level. Because we are asking teachers to deal with more sophisticated material, we need to provide high-quality software that draws on the nation’s best minds to supplement regular classroom instruction.

Federal development grants would also aid in restructuring schools so that teachers can participate in creating successful learning environments. Currently, most teachers work in isolation, not as teams. Over-regulation, principal and teacher attitudes and lack of training and time prevent faculties from organizing school-wide improvements.

Finally, we must complete the equity agenda: We should fully fund programs for at-risk children and youth, and expand successful programs to prevent later failure. These include prenatal and neonatal health care, coordinated family services and business-school partnerships.

Of the $183 billion a year we spend on our public schools for kindergarten through high school, $12 billion comes from the federal government. Investing another 5%, or $10 billion annually in both state and federal funds, for five years would support these high-payoff programs, capitalize on existing efforts, leverage the system and increase student performance.