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'Taking Personal Responsibility for Learning'

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As a nation, we have grudgingly conceded to the well-documented reality that, in general, American students are the beneficiaries of a mediocre to substandard education. We have exhausted the seemingly unquenchable desire to study "the problem" one more time to assure ourselves that the diagnosis is, indeed, dire.

Now, what America needs is will: the will to set high standards, not just for students, but for all stakeholders, and, more important, the will to enforce rigorous standards. As a teacher, I can say setting high standards is a relatively undaunting--and inexpensive--task. It is the moving of expectations from paper to practice that causes anxiety, too often resulting in the dilution of high standards. America must find the courage to maintain what works, change or eliminate what doesn't work, and adopt more effective methods of educating the nation's students.

Discussions about whether standards should be set nationally or at the state level are hollow without meaningfully discussing what actually happens in the classroom. The focus must be on raising the expectations of teachers, students, and the general public.

First, the teachers. No one should be more entrusted with setting educational standards than professionally trained educators--an assertion that many people, to my constant amazement, dispute. If my house were on fire and I had a choice, I would opt for a trained firefighter to fight the blaze. Likewise, the nation's students are best taught by professional educators. But we educators must be willing to meet high and rigorous standards ourselves. If teachers are serious about promoting a universally competitive educational system, they must pay immediate, serious attention to enforcing rigorous standards for the profession as well as for students.

There is no question that meaningfully raising student standards will require changes in practices and attitudes. Teachers, like everyone else, are frustrated by an outmoded system. They clearly understand that change is not a burden to be borne by students alone.

Many education pundits erroneously portray teachers as tenured union puppets. Such portrayals must cease, for no one is served by such destructive fingerpointing. Teachers are not inflexible yes-men for unions. Nor are unions as militant and entrenched as they are portrayed. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have demonstrated in various ways their commitment to radically improving teaching and learning in this country.

Just as teachers must exhibit their will to set high standards and hold students to them, so must parents. Parents must find out what their children are learning, question the quality, demand more challenging curricula, and unequivocally require their children to attend school. Students, in turn, must conduct themselves appropriately in school, take tough classes, and accept personal responsibility for their behavior and learning. As a consequence, graduation from high school will be an event that celebrates real accomplishment.

Schools must find the will to eliminate some of the taken-for-granted choices in curricula and replace them with non-negotiable, mandatory courses. Clearly, a part of students' growth should involve making choices and exercising responsibility. But those choices must be preceded by, or at least accompanied by, clear guidelines. For example, allowing students to be monolinguistic amounts to academic malfeasance. Foreign languages must be a routine component of the curricula, beginning in the elementary grades. Similarly, challenging courses in other areas should be mandated, not left to choice. Adults must demonstrate the will to require such absolutes without apology.

The general public, too, must do what it takes to ensure tougher academic standards. Education, especially public education, should be the common stock in which all Americans invest. It is the height of irresponsibility to stand on the sidelines calling plays and crying foul, while avoiding full involvement. Although teachers hold responsibility for setting standards for themselves and their students, education is not the exclusive domain of teachers.

Education is the public's business. Anyone who can tutor a student, make sure a student attends school, act as a role model, or lend personal or financial support should do so. Members of the community must summon as much will to help meet rigorous standards as they do to demand rigorous standards.

Finally, any determination to raise standards must be coupled with adequate time and access: time to remedy academic deficiencies and access to opportunities to meet high standards. Our insistence on tough standards for students must be fair and responsive to students' needs, not to adults' needs to be in control. If teachers, parents, and the public set tough standards for themselves, students invariably benefit.

But we must have the will to enforce, not just to set, world-class standards--in spite of the pain and upheaval that will result. If America can face up to the discomfort and agony of academic growing pains, it will quickly realize that it is able to set--and live up to--academic standards to become a world-class competitor.

See the next commentary in this special report,

Diane Ravitch.

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