Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell said yesterday he welcomed the recent emergence of education as a major issue in the upcoming elections.
Typically not a key campaign topic, education was thrust into the national political arena in April when a report was released by a Bell-appointed commission, which called for a halt to the "rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools.
"Many people have said to me, 'Well, isn't education being politicized?' " Bell said in a meeting with Montgomery County Board of Education members in which the report, "A Nation at Risk," was discussed. "My response has been that education is very critical in determining public policy and isn't it great that it's as high on the national agenda as it is at the present time.
"I hope that everyone: Democrats and Republicans, candidates for president and candidates for governor, candidates for the legislature and candidates for Congress and Senate will all be debating and vying for ways that we can improve the quality of American Education."
In an effort to turn education into a winning campaign issue, both parties have tried to carve out remedies to reverse the severe decline in the quality of American education as described by the National Commission on Educational Excellence.
President Reagan, who appears to have abandoned his campaign promise to abolish the Department of Education, jumped on the educational bandwagon this month and took his proposals on the road after Democratic presidential candidates went on an earlier offensive, attacking proposed cuts in federal funding for education. An effort by Sen. Edward Kennedy to get funding for a national education symposium failed last week when senators defeated the measure along partisan lines.
Bell met with the Montgomery board, his first local appearance to discuss the commission's report, at the invitation of retiring Superintendent Edward Andrews. In a wide-ranging discussion with the board in which several members criticized the rigid recommendations made in the report, Bell spoke at length about his proposals for creating "master teacher" positions--teachers with demonstrated talent who would be paid more than other teachers. He also spoke of the gap in achievement levels between minority students and other students.
In a remark that obviously irritated some board members, Bell said he felt all students are capable of achieving at a high level, but that minority students' achievement may be affected by their home and environment.
"I say the capacity to learn is there, but maybe the kind of support that ought to be in the home and in the environment and maybe their self-confidence isn't as strong as it ought to be," Bell said.
Odessa Shannon, the only black board member, said she appreciated Bell's remarks about the potential of black students but was concerned about an attitude that black parents may not expect as much from their children as do other parents.
"I think you'll find by and large that minority parents have the same expectations for their children. . . as any other parent," Shannon said. "Part of the problem, and it's not a minority problem, is those differentiated expectations once minority students arrive at school. And so the problem is what happens to that self-confidence that minority students come to school with?"
Bell's appearance in the county to discuss the report, which discussed declining test scores and called for much tougher standards, was of particular local signficance. Usually Montgomery County students score well above national averages, but recently more than a third of the county's ninth graders failed a math competency exam now under consideration as a state requirement for graduation.