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Primary reform stresses the basics

A blueprint for primary education abandons experiment for a unified concept of the 'basic school', writes Lucy Hodges. A new attempt to reform American schooling - this time aimed at the primary years - has been launched by Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, one of the most respected education think tanks in the United States.

Mr Boyer's blueprint, laid out in a 195-page book called The Basic School: A Community for Learning, is to be tested at 13 elementary schools in 12 states across the continent, including Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa, Texas and Virginia.

"The plan we present in this report is not just another pilot project. It is not yet one more novel experiment. Rather, what we have done is to identify practices that really work and put them all together in what we call the 'basic school'. The piecemeal approach to school reform has been tried," said Mr Boyer.

Based on extensive research, visits to elementary schools and national surveys, the new initiative aims to set higher standards and to emphasise the importance of language - children being able to read with understanding, write clearly, speak and listen.

Mr Boyer does not believe American education is deteriorating. But too many schools are marginal, he says, with teachers working alone, and weak links between home and school.

There is confusion about what schools should teach, and how pupils should be assessed. "We also became concerned, while visiting schools, that a rigid daily schedule and poor resources often restrict learning, especially for the least advantaged," says the report.

Over the past 20 years the Carnegie Foundation has published numerous influential reports recommending education reform in America. The last one was Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation, in 1991, which outlined what the country should do to prepare children for school.

The new report picks up where that one left off. Boyer identifies four key elements of the "basic school": the school as community, a curriculum with coherence, a climate for learning, and a commitment to character.

Schools must have a clear and vital mission, with learning as the goal, he explains. When he and his staff asked heads and teachers about their goals, many were uncertain.

The "basic schools" have five specific goals: to communicate effectively; to acquire a core of knowledge; to be a motivated learner; to have a sense of well being; and to live responsibly.

Streaming by ability is rejected, but Boyer believes school should be a disciplined place. Headteachers should be lead teachers, who guide more by inspiration than directive. Teachers should work together and act as mentors for pupils.

Proficiency in language - broadly defined as English, mathematics and the arts - should be assessed along with core knowledge and personal growth. Class sizes should be small, preferably limited to 17, it says. Every classroom should have a television set and a videocassette player, as well as at least one computer for every five students.

Most essentially, each classroom should have a telephone, so that pupils can tap in to the new electronic highway. They should also be able to talk to their parents on this phone.

The Basic School: A Community for Learning, introductory price $10, plus shipping is available from California Princeton Fulfilment Services, 1445 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, NJ 08618 USA

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