Staff and safety top agenda

29th December 2000 at 00:00

TES correspondents review world trends in education this year and look forward to the issues making headlines for 2001

TOO many students, too few schools and teachers.

That summed up the state of American education this year, and it is a problem that shows no sign of abating in the year ahead. Other pressures are looming, such as an increasing shortage of qualified administrators, continuing concern about school safety, and a backlash against using standardised tests to measure the success of educational reforms.

But the news is not all bad. Searching for a middle ground, politicians seem inclined to pass some modest educational measures previously blocked by partisan posturing. Congress, for example, has just approved an 11th-hour measure to allocate billions of dollars for school construction and repairs.

Yet no money was approved for teacher training at a time when retirements are thinning the ranks of teachers just as record numbers of students are entering schools. Lured by higher salaries in other fields, replacement teachers have been hard to come by, particularly in low-income urban districts.

"The teacher issue, both quantity and quality, is probably the biggest problem," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. "We've seen some districts practically recruiting people off the streets. Parents want high-quality teachers, but finding them is extremely difficult."

Now good administrators are getting scarce, Ms Fulton said. Some school districts are reaching out to other professions - including lawyers, business executives, politicians, even retired military officers - to take control. Others are limiting the role of school princials to academic duties, stripping away time-consuming administrative responsibilities and giving those to assistants.

"The whole issue of recruiting, training, retaining and evaluating school principals is growing," said Stuart C Smith, associate director of the Education Resources Information Centre at the University of Oregon, which monitors trends in education management. He thinks that headteachers want to spend more time planning teaching programmes than on day-to-day management.

While there were few high-profile instances of school violence in the last year, schools are also focusing closely on safety, Mr Smith said:

"Fortunately, it's in a preventive mode rather than a reactive one," he said.

Meanwhile, anger over an increasing reliance on time-consuming high-stakes tests is also rising. Students who do badly in them cannot move up to the next grade and they are becoming a requirement of high-school graduation. "That's probably one of the most contentious issues," Ms Fulton said.

The politics of US education is also at a turning point. In several ballot questions in the November presidential election, voters approved higher local education spending, and resisted making government vouchers available towards the cost of private-school tuition.

Meanwhile, mindful of his narrow margin of victory, president-elect George W Bush is unlikely to attempt dramatic changes he proposed in his campaign; instead, more accommodation between Mr Bush's Republican Party and the opposition Democrats is expected.

"If there's one issue that has bipartisan support, it's education," said Ms Fulton.

"I've never known education to be so high-profile in a presidential election."

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