So public school bashing, once confined to the ivory-tower halls of universities and other bastions of the intellectual elite, has gone corporate, and it's this change that has American politicians and educators alike scrambling for solutions. It's more difficult to ignore an economic threat than a perceived intellectual one. Indeed, school reform advocate Phillip Schlechty predicts that, if educators can't respond effectively to the challenge from business leaders, the public school system as we know it will be no more; it will be "privatized out of existence."
The proposed remedies for this problem are many and varied, as many and as varied as dozens of education reform groups, each with its own agenda, can make them. President Bush has pledged to institute standardized testing similar to his home state's must-pass-to-graduate Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Larry Rosenstock, CEO of the much-lauded and tech-savvy High Tech High in San Diego, says he would like to eliminate most, if not all, standardized tests. Some reform groups would have computers in every classroom; others say too many computers have bred a mentality of PowerPoint for PowerPoint's sake, where kids are so caught up in designing classroom presentations that they gloss over the actual content.
Only a modicum of logic and a few visits to different schools will show the average observer that no single approach will change American education the way today's businesses demand. Putting computers in the classroom can't help if teachers aren't trained - and willing - to use them, as CUIP has painfully discovered; a 1999 study showed that 1.3 million of the nation's 3 million elementary and secondary teachers feel only somewhat or inadequately prepared to integrate educational technology into their teaching. Discipline and standardized tests aren't enough if all teachers do is "teach to the test," especially if the test is little more than basic, as experts and Congress currently debate. It takes a baker's dozen of attributes for schools to teach children what they need to know for today's world, and technology is only one of them.
But when one examines a sampling of schools that do work, a few commonalities emerge. Successful schools are often small - say 400 to 600 students, compared with the 2,000-student behemoth high schools in many cities and suburbs, allowing for closer relationships and better understanding among faculty and students. They're using technology, yes, not for its own sake but as a learning and research tool. Many have all but abandoned traditional textbooks for a more smorgasbord-like approach to classroom readings. And many set students to work in small groups, rather than individually, and keep classroom lectures to a minimum in favor of hands-on work. The only thing pundits would call old-fashioned about these schools is their high expectations for student performance. Whether that's actually old-fashioned at all is open for debate.