For most of this decade, Americans have been hearing what is wrong with public education. A report released last Friday proposes to tell us what to do to make it right.
But the long-awaited, much-ballyhooed report of the Carnegie-Foundation-sponsored Task Force on Education and the Economy is unlikely to send anyone into exclamations of "By damn, they've finally got it right!"
The report is long on analysis both of public education as it now is and of the need for it to become dramatically better than it has ever been. But it strikes me as short (though it is unquestionably bold) in its prescriptions for the required transformation. It praises the "good beginning" Americans have made in their quest for a new era of educational excellence but warns that we have not fully comprehended two essential truths:
*That "success depends on achieving far more demanding educational standards than we have ever attempted to reach before," and
*That "the key to success lies in creating a profession equal to the task -- a profession of well-educated teachers prepared to assume new powers and responsibilities to redesign schools for the future."
But its proposed remedies are mostly gold-plated versions of the familiar boilerplate of educational reform: higher standards for teachers (with oversight by a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards); more teacher autonomy and the introduction of a new breed of highly paid experts which it calls "lead teachers" but which members of the profession are likely to pronounce "merit pay."
One of the task force's more controversial proposals, already operating in California, is standard practice at a number of universities and is under serious discussion right now at the University of Maryland: making teacher training a graduate-school function, with prospective teachers taking their undergraduate majors in the arts and sciences.
One proposal is apt to meet strong political opposition: the call for a "market approach" to education -- the widespread use of educational vouchers and vastly increased "contracting out" of services traditionally performed by school staff.
And one of them may face tough sledding in the hard-pressed legislatures: major increases in teacher pay to make the profession competitive with such pursuits as law, medicine and engineering, which have been attracting many of the brightest college students -- an average salary of $65,000 a year for "lead teachers." The task force pegged the additional cost of its recommendations at some $47 billion nationwide.
The 14-member panel, whose members include industry executives, New Jersey's Gov. Thomas Kean, education writer Fred Hechinger of The New York Times and Alber Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, makes much of the changing economy which has seen America losing jobs to Japan and even to such upstarts as Korea. But while the conventional wisdom is that the loss of jobs is due in large measure to the lower wages paid by America's new competitors, the task force sees the solution in equipping Americans for yet more highly paid professions.
"While it was once possible for people to succeed in this society if they were simply willing to work hard," the report says, "it is increasingly difficult for the poorly educated to find jobs. A growing number of permanently unemployed people seriously strains our social fabric."
No question of it. But is that problem a result of America's educational shortcomings, or is it more likely the result of our failure to adopt a full-employment policy?
It is clear that the United States would need to improve its public education, even if it had a full-employment policy. What is less clear is that the recommendations contained in "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century" will solve our pressing problem of a growing jobless underclass, or even the problems confronting the schools themselves.
Even in the extremely doubtful case that the public bought all the panel's recommendations, could we reasonably anticipate the imminent arrival of some educational millennium? I doubt it.
Are most of the task force's recommendations worth serious public attention? Well, yes.