Editorial: Grand ideas vs. the basics

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 26, 2006

As educators, officials and concerned citizens discuss how the Rowan-Salisbury school system will improve student achievement to meet No Child Left Behind goals, what would they think of mandating kindergarten for children as young as age 3 — or providing free continuing education for parents who lack a high-school diploma? How about turning the operation of school systems over to private contractors?

Those are among ideas touted in a new national education study that has recently made headlines in the New York Times, the Christian-Science Monitor and other high-profile media outlets. The report comes from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a blue-ribbon panel that includes former cabinet secretaries, scholars, school chancellors, governors and senators. Working from the premise that other countries are surpassing the United States in the quality of education workers receive, the commission’s recommendations are generating some buzz, especially among education groups worried about the impact on pensions and conventional school structures. Among the proposals:

* Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move on to a community college or trade schools for more training or to a university-level high school curriculum.

* Improve teacher salaries in exchange for reducing secure retirement benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours or for high performance.

* Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.

If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because some similar reforms are part of experimental high schools being established in several states, including North Carolina, by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of the commission. But while the commission’s ideas aren’t entirely new, the report provides new urgency to the need for structural reforms. “We’re calling for a complete shake-up from top to bottom,” said Charles Knapp, chairman of the commission and former president of the University of Georgia. “The recommendations are absolutely necessary if we want America to maintain its standard of living.”

In Rowan County, the immediate concern isn’t a future standard of living so much as the here-and-now need to raise reading, writing and math scores, particularly among subgroups of students who struggle to meet goals. That’s one problem with think-tank reports that roll out bold new initiatives. Some ideas are interesting and are worth considering in the big-picture thinking of how education needs to evolve. But for local districts struggling to meet goals at the elementary and middle-school level, solutions most likely don’t lie in grand new concepts but in better focus on the basics.