The "good old days" when education focused on basics and didn't allow illiterates to slip through the cracks never existed, says a prominent education writer and reform crusader.

Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform, is traveling throughout the country telling educators that Americans are unfairly blasting the nation's education system because they don't believe it measures up to the schools of 40 and 50 years ago. But the truth, Schlechty said, is that we demand more of today's schools than at any other time in history."Schools are being asked to educate a whole bunch of kids they weren't asked to educate before," he said. "In 1920, 80 percent of all students dropped out before graduating. Now, about 20 percent drop out."

Schlechty, who also serves as executive director of the Jefferson County Public Schools/Gheens Professional Academy in Denver, was in Provo last week to address the Utah Principals Academy during a conference sponsored by the Brigham Young University's department of educational leadership.

He told the principals that only 30 percent of the students who attend their schools are getting the kind of education critics say all students have a right to receive. They must be taught to think critically and be knowledgeable about their culture, but much of what students need to learn requires the help of involved parents.

"We've got a school system designed to educate children who have strong parental support, and who have some degree of fear of adult authority. School works for those kids now," he said. "We've got to invent schools differently for the kids who don't have that support."

One way to do that is to enlist the help of retired teachers to act as mentors for students who need extra support. "Just having someone ask you how you did in school that day makes a difference," he said.

Schlechty said he's not an apologist for the shortcomings of schools today, but it's not true that if we went back to old ways of educating more students would learn. There are just as many elderly people as teenagers in America who don't know their geography.

"Schools are not doing what the 21st century requires, but if we go back to what we used to do, we'd be further behind than where we are. We didn't do a good job before, either."

School leaders must innovate to provide better education, and ignoring the problems could prove more detrimental for students now than ever before.