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AN INNOVATIVE PLAN FOR STATE EDUCATION

Faced with stiff foreign competition, business in America has begun to raise its sights, cut out excess bureaucracy and give more responsibility and authority to the hands-on people in the field. American schools are now going to have to take that same approach, and for the same reason: competition.

That, at bottom, is what is at issue in a public hearing being held Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the Buffalo Convention Center, focused on the "New Compact for Learning" proposed by state Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol. Sobol's compact offers the best hope in a generation for turning our schools around -- and it's time we get on with the job.

At last, we've known that we must sharply upgrade the education our children are getting. The reason: there is a growing gap between what our kids will need to know and be able to do in the workplace of the future, and what they actually are learning in school.

The old, low-skill jobs -- the kind that could be done by anybody with a minimal education and with a willingness to work -- are rapidly disappearing in America. Workers with low-level skills are available all over the world, and at much lower wage rates than in America.

At the same time, our high-school graduates don't compete effectively with those in other high-wage, high-skill countries, such as Germany and Japan. And this is true not only of our inner-city graduates and dropouts, as so many assume; it is also true even of the graduates of some of our very best school systems.

As the National Center on Education and Economy put it recently, America must choose between high skills and low wages. This situation is not the fault of the people working in our schools. It's simply that the world has been changing so rapidly that education hasn't been able to keep up.

But assigning fault for the problem isn't the issue. Fixing it is. And on that score, we've had some difficulty.

The approach which we've taken in New York and elsewhere has been to pile more and more requirements on the educational process. Require more hours in math class, more language classes, more hours of this or that.

But this approach hasn't worked -- at least, not as well as we had hoped. There are some improvements, but the system isn't changing nearly as rapidly as it must. Focusing on the educational process hasn't gotten us the results we need.

So Sobol has proposed that the state stop trying to impose top-down, bureaucratic rules about the process which local schools are supposed to follow. Instead, he says, the state should set high expectations for what students should know when they complete their schooling -- and should then give local school districts much more leeway in deciding just how to meet those expectations.

By no coincidence, this is also the basic model which the best American corporations have had to adopt, as they go through the wrenching changes involved in meeting the foreign competition. Don't tell people every detail about how to do a job; instead, set your expectations high, and then let the hands-on workers in the field decide how best to do it.

Sobol's plan rests on two basic assumptions -- both of them, I think, correct.

The first is that with less bureaucratic interference from Albany, the teachers and other professionals in our schools around New York State can turn the system around and meet the higher expectations which the future demands. Our professional educators are the key asset of our school system in New York, and it's time we gave them the freedom and the authority to do their jobs.

The second assumption is equally important -- that all children can learn. We can't write off whole blocks of children because they are poor or minority. We need all of our people to be prepared for the highly competitive world of the future -- not just an elite. And given the authority and the resources, the schools can do it.

The Business Council warmly supports Sobol's proposal and urge the state Board of Regents to adopt and implement it quickly.

DANIEL B. WALSH is president of the Business Council of New York State, Albany.

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