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Tough choices in education

AFTER MORE than four decades as an educator, there is one question I just cannot answer: Why has so little changed in public education? We've made schools handicapped accessible, wired them for the Internet, lowered class sizes, and made school lunches more nutritious. Some communities have full-day kindergarten, many students are reading and writing earlier and better than ever, high schools offer advanced placement courses by the dozen, and vocational-technical schools have expanded to include everything from biotechnology to robotics.

On the surface there have been plenty of improvements, but when you dig deeper it's clear that little of substance has changed in public education since the days of Horace Mann, the Commonwealth's first secretary of education.

Foreign language is still taught by conjugating verbs and learning vocabulary words, not having conversations. The average class day is still just six hours long, leaving children on the street midafternoon. School calendars still follow the September to mid-June schedule that was set when children were needed to work the fields each summer.

And in Massachusetts, where many teachers find creative ways to engage students in high-level learning and prepare them for what they will face on the MCAS exams, too many use the state's high stakes test as an excuse to "teach to the test," leaving their students bored and unmotivated to learn.

Assessment tests like the SATs and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, show Massachusetts leading the nation. But international assessments tell a vastly different story: We are first in a nation that is lagging far behind internationally.

We have entered what can only be described as a crisis in American public education, and we seem to be sleeping through it.

I sit on the Commission of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and we tackled this issue in a recent report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times." In it we recommended dramatic steps not just to reform our schools, but to reinvigorate our system of education so that children learn more and graduate ready to compete with their peers from around the world.

An example: Toughen and expand Grade 10 assessments to include a tougher battery of tests comparable to what is given in other countries. Passing these tests would guarantee students entry into post-secondary education. This would serve the dual purpose of challenging our students to reach higher standards and giving them one more reason to plan for college after graduation.

When this was first reported, some misunderstood and thought I was looking to scrap the Grade 10 MCAS. But the opposite is true: To drive students to achieve at higher levels we need to hold them to high expectations by administering even tougher exams and providing more incentives to succeed.

Times and expectations have changed. College used to be an option for young people, but in the 21st century choices are limited for those without a college degree. Manufacturing jobs are going overseas, salaries for blue-collar jobs are low, and most white-collar jobs today require at least an undergraduate -- if not graduate -- degree. This, coupled with the rise in global competition and the demand for new jobs in the science, technology, and engineering industries, creates an urgent need for all students to strive to reach their full academic potential in school.

Some children need a longer school day and a longer school year. Ten schools in five districts lengthened their school days this year, and another seven schools in five districts are planning to do the same next year. Already we see change: more time for enrichment activities like arts and music, project-based learning such as forensics and meteorology, more time for core academics, remediation for students who need extra help, and advanced level studies for students who are accelerated learners.

In short, these students are learning more.

This may not be the answer for everyone, but it shows that in some communities, there is a willingness to take risks, try new things, and work to change and improve public schools. If we want to remain competitive, we need to work together to replace the old vision of public education with one that reflects the demands of the 21st century and is focused around higher expectations for all students, regardless or race, ethnicity, income level, or hometown.

In a society brimming with iPods, video games, designer sneakers, and the Internet, children today have no shortage of outside influences to distract them from learning. It is up to educators, parents, and members of the community to give them a reason to push aside all of that clutter and focus on reaching their true potential, in school and beyond.

David P. Driscoll is the Massachusetts commissioner of education.