last word

Let the Real Debate on Education Begin

The attention paid to education during political campaigns is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the focus acknowledges  the vital role education plays in our society and promotes a national debate on the issue. On the other, the debate tends to be framed in over-simplified, emotional and symbolic terms that sometimes make it harder to develop real solutions to real problems once the election is over.

The debate over "national  standards" is a good example. There are legitimate pros and cons to national standards, although I think the national guidelines put together by entities like the National Academy of Sciences that specify what concepts students should  grasp at each grade level have been all to the good. But the political debate  over such standards tends to be framed as a contest between those who want to impose a national curriculum, riding roughshod over local concerns; and those  who believe in a curriculum developed in isolation by each individual school district.These polarized  caricatures are, of course, straw men. No one wants to simply override local control; the question is how much national guidance to provide. And in our 21st-century world, no school district is making isolated decisions. Textbook companies, test preparation companies, teacher organizations and all the other organizations  that greatly influence curriculum are national in their reach.

Instead of this grand but somewhat empty debate about national standards, we ought to be discussing the following: how to attract top students into teaching (I favor federal scholarships as one tool); how to develop new methods of teaching; how to ensure that both new and existing teachers are steeped in both the methodology and knowledge needed to educate students in their subjects; and how to determine the proper role of standardized testing so that we can hold schools accountable without distorting the focus of education into perpetual test preparation.

Another problem with the way campaigns talk about education is that they concentrate almost exclusively on primary and secondary schools, increasing the tendency to assume that institutions  of higher education have at best only a marginal role to play in improving our nation's education performance.

But we ought to be engaging in a fruitful and non-polemical discussion about what more our colleges and universities can do to improve pre-college education. Colleges and universities have been shifting their relationships with businesses dramatically in recent years. We ought to be thinking about whether, similarly, we can develop new, productive links between higher education and our public schools. Perhaps we need the educational equivalent of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to patent their research results, revolutionizing their relationship with industry.

Of course, many institutions of higher education are engaged in pre-college education, and a variety of federal programs have encouraged such involvement. But we need to think of what more  can be done to make improving and assisting pre-college education a natural  part of the mission of colleges and universities.

We could start by expanding  the kinds of activities that occur on a scattershot basis now--courses to bring  teachers up-to-date, particularly in science and engineering; sending professors  and college students into public school classrooms; mentoring and tutoring programs;  and joint efforts to develop new curriculum and teaching tools. These efforts,  of course, should take place throughout the university rather than being limited  to education schools or departments. Such a renewed, expanded and concerted  focus on education could help improve the quality of teaching at universities as well.

In recent years, colleges and universities have made an effort to renew the focus on undergraduate teaching,  which was increasingly being eclipsed by research and other concerns. But more  remains to be done, and anything that underscores the educational mission of  higher education can only help.

New trends, such as the expanding relationships with industry and the pervasiveness of the Internet,  can enhance education or detract from it. Our institutions of higher education need to ensure that such changes do not make the faculty more remote from students.

The time to act is now.  We need to take advantage of the limelight cast on education during the campaigns to grapple with such tough questions about education without being distracted  by simplified, symbolic debates. 

Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY)  serves on the Committee on Science.