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February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Overview / First Things First

      In the last year or so I have worried a lot about the apparent mismatch between what educators have been proclaiming as the school reform agenda and what we are told parents and the public want. The situation has been documented by Public Agenda, the group that last year reported the public's call for First Things First—safety, order, and basic skills—and recently followed up with Assignment Incomplete, in which they present findings from additional surveys and focus groups (Johnson and Immerwahr 1994, Johnson et al. 1995).
      The new report says Americans are “obsessed with the basics” because they cannot understand why so many young people lack the skills that everybody calls “absolutely essential.” Whereas the earlier study said people were ambivalent about national standards, we now find that they favor high performance standards in reading, writing, and mathematics—even for disadvantaged students and even if it would cause more dropouts—but that they see history and literature as less important, so are less likely to support ambitious content standards in those subjects.
      The Public Agenda authors seem genuinely interested in moving beyond the stalemate they portray, urging educators to “stop the debate over basics and standards.” They acknowledge that reformers may be right that tomorrow's citizens will need much more than the basics, but warn that educators erode their credibility when they appear to downplay basic skills. In fact, they say, the teachers and administrators included in their latest round of polling join with parents and the public in demanding that schools hold students to higher standards in language and computation.
      That finding, and other evidence, suggests not just a gap in understanding between educators and the public but also major differences within the profession itself. The American Federation of Teachers, in a move undoubtedly hailed by a large majority of AFT members, has adopted the “safety, order, and basic skills” agenda as its own. The issue, in my view, is not the goals of such an agenda but some of the measures that may be taken in the name of achieving them.
      For example, the Public Agenda findings indicate that most people condemn “social promotion” as unwise and irresponsible. By “higher standards,” they mean they want students who perform below par to be “held back.” But informed educators know from research and sad experience that, while retention in grade may be the best choice for some individuals, it has unfortunate consequences when practiced wholesale (Shepard and Smith 1990). If either social promotion or mass retention were effective, educators would not have continued to search for alternatives, such as the ungraded primary, the Joplin plan, continuous progress, untracking, and outcome-based education. But of course, that brings us full circle, because many people are suspicious of these practices.
      In this issue, Robert Slavin urges schools to take steps to ensure that children learn to read at the earliest opportunity, rather than waiting for them to fail and be classified as learning disabled. He names several innovative programs, including his own Success for All, that effectively provide for intensive early intervention. These programs teach basic skills, but in a way that seeks to avoid retention and placement in special education. True, they are expensive, but the benefits are surely worth the cost.
      Would everyone agree? Well, maybe not. Karen Harris and Steve Graham charge that some constructivists mistakenly shun all direct teaching of basic skills. Indeed, just as some members of the public dismiss innovative practices without understanding them, some educators can be unrealistic and doctrinaire. But I think most educators are looking for new practices that actually work. And surely the public is too, but only if students learn as well as we claim they will—if we can show, in other words, that we really are putting first things first.

      Johnson, J., and J. Immerwahr (1994). First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools. New York: Public Agenda.

      Johnson, J., et al. (1995). Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform. New York: Public Agenda.

      Shepard, L., and M. L. Smith (1990). “Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention,” Educational Leadership 47, 8: 84-88.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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