The hard-hitting, 36-page report was titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, and its end-of-the-world tone was meant to shock. It pictured the U.S. school system freighted with frivolities, sinking below those of other industrial nations in a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.” The remedies urged by the 18-member National Commission on Excellence in Education were specific and achievable: a boost in secondary school education from the present six hours to seven hours a day and from 180 to 200 or 220 days a year; a toughening of college entrance requirements; higher teacher pay and a linking of raises to performance, not just seniority. Finally, it urged minimum basic requirements for a high school diploma: four years of English, three each of math, science and social studies, plus a half year of the “new basic,” computer science. The virtual unanimity achieved by the commission members (most of them educators) during their 18-month study reflected the patient efforts of chairman David P. Gardner, 50, president of the University of Utah. A Mormon graduate of Brigham Young University with a Berkeley Ph.D. in higher education, he served as vice-president of the University of California before assuming his Utah post in 1973. In August he returns to California as president of the nine-campus, 140,000-student UC, which is widely regarded as the nation’s finest state university system. While preparing to leave Salt Lake City, Gardner discussed the report with David Van Biema of PEOPLE.
The report says Americans are better educated than ever, yet our education system is failing. A contradiction?
The average citizen is somewhat better educated than the average citizen 20 or 25 years ago because the pool of people in school has been greatly enlarged, and therefore a lot of young people are better educated than their parents were. But the average graduate is less well educated than the graduate of a generation ago. In 1964 12 percent of high school graduates majored in the general track—which includes such “personal development” courses as driver education, health and “parenting” that tend to prepare neither for work nor for further education—while 88 percent were in either vocational or college preparatory courses. Today about 40 percent graduate in the general track. If we are doing better in educating people to minimum levels, we are not educating in ways that let us compete effectively in the world.
How do our schools rank?
One study compared our system with Japan, Canada, the Soviet Union, Sweden, France, West Germany and Britain. Out of 19 standard exams administered cross-culturally, we didn’t score first or second in any, and we scored last in seven. The average school day in those countries is seven hours; here it’s five to six. It’s not unusual for their school year to run 210 days; ours is 180. What they study is far more demanding than what we study.
Is this what you mean by America’s “unilateral educational disarmament”?
Why is it that the Japanese are building better cars than we are? Why are American machine tools being displaced by German ones? They’re doing better because they have people who have more competence.
The long-term implication?
Whatever advantage we have in the world is our scientific edge. The Japanese are investing heavily in education to give them the edge that we possess. They retain a higher percentage of their young people in school longer than we do, and they require tougher subjects. Japan, with half our population, graduates three times as many electrical engineers as we do. They expect—and get—high performance. We are asking less—and getting less.
Why is this crucial now?
In the Industrial Revolution, we were enormously successful. We went right by the British. The only problem is that now we are in a scientific revolution. We have not yet made the transition, and others are catching up.
How did we allow this to happen?
We all remember the great criticism of our schools in the ’60s by students. They declared that the courses were not relevant to their needs. Those were difficult times, and we accommodated the students. But we continued it through the ’70s. The result: More than half the high school courses taken today are electives. In Utah, for example, students sign up for parenting or cheerleading. In effect, we’ve been telling them what they study doesn’t matter as long as they’re happy. They’ll pay for that attitude all their lives.
They’ve gotten credit for cheerleading?
Sure, and what do the universities do when people come improperly prepared? Offer “remedial” courses, a euphemism for high school work, and give credits for them.
But haven’t Scholastic Aptitude Test scores gone up after a long decline?
They jiggled upward, and if they continue to go up at the same rate, it would take about 15 years to get back to where we were in the early ’60s.
Is the entire school system weak?
No. We found the elementary schools doing a pretty good job, and our graduate schools are without peer.
Some of your harshest observations involve teachers. Why?
My main worry is that those who choose the teaching profession now tend to come from the least able segment of our student body. Historically, U.S. education has been carried out by bright women who haven’t had other career options, except nursing. Now they have options. And males, generally, find the financial reward of teaching unacceptable. Sure, there are many able teachers. I don’t condemn the profession. I’m just reporting trends.
Where is the teaching problem worst?
In math and science. Industry is bleeding these teachers off. They are leaving four to five times faster than they’re being replaced. After 12 years a teacher makes $17,000 annually, while math or science majors right out of college go into industry at $18,000 to $24,000 a year. Of teachers given contracts to teach high school math last year, 40 percent did not major or minor in it in college. Same with science.
Along with higher pay, you call for a merit system led by “master teachers.” What are they?
Superior teachers. Some would prefer not to make such distinctions, but it’s imperative. We do it in higher education, where we have different ranks who are paid differently, as a function of competence.
This will cost money.
Yes. So will a longer school day and year. And we ought to spend more money on the gifted, as we have been spending on those who are less able.
Would any improvements be cheap?
It doesn’t cost any more to offer a course in English than a course in bachelor living. So you teach English. You have to apply priorities.
How much of your recommendations requires federal action?
Governments at all levels do have a leadership obligation. But we can’t wait for the federal or state governments or anybody else to take the lead. They won’t unless they think the people want it.
Well, right after Sputnik in 1957 we had the National Science Foundation sponsor a series of superb summer programs to bring math and science teachers up to speed, so that they could be effective in the classroom. Unfortunately, that’s gone now.
Do we need another “Sputnik scare”?
Americans are really quite different from most people. They start worrying about whether there is electricity or not when they turn on the switch and there isn’t any. Unless it’s an immediate problem of unmistakable import, we let it go. But once a problem is known, few societies have demonstrated a capacity for dealing as effectively as we can.
Will the typical kid be able to handle tougher standards in school?
Absolutely! I think they are as bright as ever in terms of raw intelligence, desire and so forth. Studies have shown that when they are asked “Do you believe your courses have been too hard, about right, or not very difficult?” we get as many “not difficults” as we do “about rights” and almost no “too hards.” I have no doubt that young people are willing to do more if we expect it of them.
You experimented last year with publicizing rigorous admissions standards for the University of Utah. What was the result?
Simple. The enrollment in math, science and foreign languages in Utah schools increased about 30 percent.
Will such recommendations as lengthening the school day make you a villain to a lot of kids?
Well, they may be unhappy while they’re in school, but my guess is they’ll be happy once they’re out.