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Opportunity To Learn or Opportunity To Lose?

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The movement to raise academic standards is headed for troubled waters unless the states rechart the route of school reform.

Imagine a good suburban high school at the beginning of the school year. Students are assembling in a classroom, excited at the prospect of learning Japanese. That will help them understand another culture and might help them get into a better college. And who knows? It might later give them an advantage in terms of getting a well-paying and exotic job with a large, multinational corporation.

Then, their teacher introduces herself and explains that, although she herself does not know Japanese, she will encourage them to try very hard to learn the language. Gasps of disbelief come from the students, aghast at the prospect of having to learn a difficult foreign language on their own, with the teacher only serving as a cheerleader. Even less pleased are the students' parents, who promptly besiege the principal, the superintendent, and the school board with complaints about the idiocy of expecting students to learn another language with a teacher who is ignorant of it.

Fictional? Absurd? Who would tell a student to make it on his or her own with little help except for some cheerleading?

As silly as it may seem, that is precisely the path we are now choosing for our public schools as states raise their standards for education, while not providing teachers or students with the assistance they will need to meet these more rigorous benchmarks. Forty-nine states are now in the process of writing higher academic standards or implementing them in their state assessment programs, and yet very few states are providing the extra help that the schools will need to meet those more challenging requirements.

In other words, we as Americans--in the form of the states--will be cheerleading for students to do better, to try harder, but without giving them the tools they will need to perform to those higher expectations. This is not fictional, like our high school Japanese class. It is only too real, and if we continue down this path, many students will fail when--with some help--they could have succeeded.

Asking more of students, especially high school students, is good--in fact, very good. For too long, American students have been held to low standards; and this cannot continue if we want our country in the next century to have good citizens and productive workers. So, the argument is not against raising standards in the public schools; rather, it is that putting higher hurdles in place for students is only the beginning of what needs to be done.

States and many local school districts realized years ago that American education had to become more rigorous, and so, beginning in the 1980s, they increased their required coursework for graduation from high school. Students responded to these greater demands by enrolling in additional mathematics and science courses and taking more-demanding subject matter. In 1982, only 14 percent of high school graduates took what was called a "basic curriculum" by the reform report A Nation at Risk, but by 1994, over 50 percent of students were taking such coursework. Enrollments in algebra, geometry, and physics went up. Meanwhile, the dropout rate of 16- to 24-year-olds decreased from 13.9 percent to 11.5 percent in 1994. The point is that students responded positively to greater demands by taking more courses and more-difficult coursework.

In the 1990s, though, business and political leaders were not satisfied with that progress, because they did not see big increases in national test scores. Consequently, state governors and the CEOs of large corporations demanded that academic standards had to be raised higher in the schools if real progress in student achievement was to be shown. What they asked for resonated with the public, which believed, according to many public opinion polls, that the quality of the public schools had to be improved. State legislatures and boards of education responded and are now raising the standards for students' academic performance.

Most states, however, are not following through on providing the assistance teachers and students will need to meet these higher expectations. Three recent reports surveying the states have raised disturbing signals that the movement to raise academic standards is headed for troubled waters unless the states rechart the route of school reform.

The states seem to have decided that telling students and teachers to do better is an important thing they can do, but that providing aid to help them with that task is not very significant.

The annual report of the American Federation of Teachers on the progress states are making in writing and implementing higher standards found this year that, although 49 states were using higher academic standards to drive reform, only 13 states were requiring local districts to provide academic intervention for students who fail to meet the standards. The AFT, which is a strong proponent of higher standards, concluded that "the rest of the states seem to be assuming the problem will take care of itself."

The Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which closely monitors the progress of standards-based reform in nine states, echoes the findings of the AFT: "While all of our states made some attempt to address equity issues, their efforts for the most part were fragmented or loosely connected, if at all, to standards reform." All students were being held to higher standards through inclusion in state testing programs, but there was no agreement on how to help all students meet those expectations, especially in schools and districts with large numbers of "special needs" children. Another troubling sign in those states was that representatives of such children, or teachers participating in programs to assist them, were often only marginally involved in the development of the state's standards and assessments.

The Council of Chief State School Officers in its 1997 report on state development of mathematics and science content standards also found that states were doing very little to ensure that all students mastered these standards. "First, the standards typically outline a comparable curriculum for all students moving through K-12, but the panel did not find good examples of a vision of how current school curriculum and school organization will need to change to reach this goal." Second, the panel found few states that had criteria to measure whether the goal had been accomplished. It seems that all the attention was on writing the standards and little thought was given to how students were going to meet these expectations.

Early in the debate on raising academic standards, during the early 1990s, concerns were raised that the bar would be set higher for students and then additional assistance would not be provided to help them to succeed. Critics of this movement said that test results were already known on who did not do well in school, most predictably students in schools and districts with high concentrations of poverty, and that little then was being done to help them. Consequently, they predicted that the same would happen with this movement to raise academic standards.

These criticisms were brushed aside as the complaints of educators who were always looking for excuses for not doing better or of teachers and liberals who always wanted to spend more on the schools. In the part of the debate that occurred around the federal aid program to raise standards, the governors prevailed in opposing amendments to Goals 2000 that would have required states to address the issues of teacher preparation, student assistance, and facilities as they raised aca-demic standards for students.

Our job now is to dedicate ourselves to a long-term strategy of giving all students the opportunity to succeed, not the opportunity to lose.

The governors, who were supported by President Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, and major business leaders, argued against such "opportunity to learn" amendments on the ground that the provision of education was a state matter, not a federal concern. In 1996, the new Republican-led Congress sealed the governors' victory by sweeping clean from Goals 2000 the mere mention of opportunity to learn.

Today, it is clearly understood by all that the provision of education is a state and local matter. But in exercising their responsibility for the education of children, the states seem to have decided that telling students and teachers to do better is an important thing they can do, but that providing aid to help them with that task is not very significant.

It is not too late to return to our senses. No business leader would expect his or her employees to adopt a new plan of manufacture or sales without in-service training to learn their new responsibilities.

Yet today, more than half of high school students taking physical science are taught by teachers who are out of their field of specialty, as are 27 percent of those taking mathematics and 21 percent of those taking English, according to the 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. These proportions are much higher in high-poverty schools and in lower-track classes. The commission noted that in schools with the highest minority enrollments, students have less than a 50 percent chance of getting a science or math teacher who holds a license and a degree in the field that he or she teaches.

How can we expect teachers to do better when they are not adequately prepared to teach the subject matter? Moreover, no one would expect a high school student to succeed at football without first having gone through intensive physical training and coaching on the plays. How can we expect our students to do better academically without the same kind of extra assistance?

Better teacher training for a more demanding curriculum is essential, as are supplemental aids for students. The American Federation of Teachers' report on standards recommends several ways that states can help students be better prepared for demanding coursework: after-school programs, one-on-one tutoring, Saturday schools, and summer schools. The AFT points to these as targeted intervention programs for low-achieving students, which should start in the early grades and be supported by state aid.

If a state is considering making its new, more demanding assessment program "high stakes," in the sense of denying grade promotion or a high school diploma unless the student passes, it may especially want to consider such supportive strategies--if for no other reason than to ward off legal challenges to the constitutionality of such testing. These tests will be asking more of students when the school system may not be giving them an adequate opportunity to learn the material.

The country needs to raise the academic standards in its schools. The good news is that we are well on our way to doing that. The bad news is that we don't yet realize that it will be a long and arduous task to follow through on helping teachers and students raise academic achievement. Our job now is to dedicate ourselves to a long-term strategy of giving all students the opportunity to succeed, not the opportunity to lose.


John F. Jennings is the director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

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