Can U. S. stay course on education reform?

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003

Education reform may be at a crucial turning point, judging from the views of one of the leaders of the movement.

Two recent columns by Chester E. Finn, Jr., president, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, reflect ambivalence.

In one, he is optimistic. In the other, he sees a long, hard road ahead.

Finn notes, "Everybody who wants it can get as much schooling as they can handle in the United States, and no cost through 12th grade and bargain prices thereafter. "Race, handicap, language, poverty, even immigrant status doesn't bar anyone from school or college," he said.

Another little-noted fact is that Americans don't follow the normal track. Some drop out, come back and finish, often over a period of years. The postsecondary education system also has accommodated itself to repair the failings of the K-12 system.

In addition, the nation is beginning to understand what works and why. Innovation is flourishing, with the assistance of the private sector.

Yet in another column, Finn notes: "We've spent billions on reforms of every sort. We've shrunk classes, hired more teachers, installed computers, built new schools, stiffened graduation requirements, added kindergartens, replaced textbooks, devised tests, written manifestos, conducted studies, held summits, set standards, created charter schools, experimented with vouchers, out-sourced school management, in-serviced teachers, hired non-traditional superintendents, and on and on.

"Dozens of governors have pledged to turn around their states' education systems. George W. Bush persuaded Congress to enact the boldest federal education law in history. Business leaders beyond counting have signed up for commissions, task forces and roundtables, all pledged to fix

the schools."

While a few states, such as North Carolina and Texas, are showing progress (without enormous expenditures), the reforms have not brought about a major turnaround as yet, and Finn expresses concern that public support will waver.

Echoing the message in (Florida) Gov. Jeb Bush's inaugural address recently, Finn said that "naught will come of this until millions of individuals actually alter their behavior, until thousands of institutions amend their ingrained practices, until the alternatives win the freedom to be truly different and those in charge pay as much attention to their effectiveness as to their existence."

That's a tall order, and he is right to wonder if Ameri-cans, culturally disposed toward quick solutions, will stay the course.

--Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

Jan. 15

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