OUTSIDE OF the teachers' unions and professional educators it is not difficult to find agreement that American schools and colleges are not as good as they should be. This discontent has generated any number of proposed remedies, but the two most prominently in vogue just now have to do with getting schools to return to a concentration on the basics, and emulating schools that have a record of producing students who score well on tests.
Along these lines there have been two recent developments. First, the Department of Education has named a National Commission on Excellence in Education to search out the best schools and find out how they have managed to maintain high standards. Second, the College Board has outlined proficiencies in 50 skills for colleges to demand of all students seeking to enroll.
The two ventures are closely aligned in theory. The 50 skills required under the College Board's system have to do with reading, writing and math, the same vital skills the back-to-basics people would have elementary and secondary schools concentrate on. Those are also the same skills that make for the good test scores distinguishing the model schools that the Department of Education's commission will be searching out. But whatever its source, the emphasis on basics is partly a backlash against a declining interest in test scores and in elementary skills that has been noticeable in schools over the past few years. The emphasis on basic skills is the the right cure for what ails the schools now.
As the educators rush to adopt skills testing, there is, nevertheless, reason to be a little cautious. Teaching basic skills is not the only responsibility of a school, and having those skills is not all that a college should ask of an enrolling student in the way of accomplishment. The basics alone do not make for an educated person. And in setting standards to be replicated nationally, the Commission on Excellence and the College Board must be careful to encourage local school districts to meet individual needs of schools in farming communities, as well as in urban centers. What makes for a good school in the city of Des Moines should not be determined in Washington or anywhere else but Des Moines.
With these few reservations, the move toward more requirements for students can be endorsed as the right direction for education.