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Satisfaction Garanteed

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Shoppers love a guarantee: "Buy this VCR, and if it breaks within two years, just send it back, and we'll fix it for free.'' Such assurances instill customer confidence, not just in the product but in the manufacturer, as well.

An increasing number of school districts and a handful of states, seeking to restore public and business confidence in education, have borrowed this marketing technique and are now issuing "warranties'' on their high school graduates.

Under such policies--which many observers dismiss as lowcost public relations gimmicks-- schools promise to take graduates back for remediation if their employers find them lacking in certain requisite skills.

According to Melodye Bush, an information specialist at the Education Commission of the States, at least 50 school districts have adopted the guarantees since the idea surfaced in the late 1980s. Two states, West Virginia and Colorado, have decided to implement warranty programs on a statewide basis, and a number of others, New Jersey and Indiana included, have policies under consideration.

The concept attracted new attention last November, when Superintendent William Anton of the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that his district, the nation's second largest, would guarantee the skills of its graduates starting with the class of 1994. The New York City public school system, the country's largest, is considering a similar initiative.

Such moves are a "frontal assault on the erosion of confidence'' in public schools, says Theodore Mitchell, a visiting education professor at Stanford University. "Externally, it restores confidence that schools are paying attention to the quality of education. Internally, it really causes teachers, principals, and others to take a second look at the kid on his or her way out the door.''

Mitchell notes, however, that a warranty is a "risk-free promise'' for schools. "It would take a very remarkable employer,'' he says, "to choose to send [a] kid back to school and bear the cost of labor forgone, rather than just fire him and get someone else.''

Already, a diverse range of communities have embraced the warranty approach, from Wayzata, Minn., an affluent Minneapolis suburb that sends 80 percent of its graduates to college, to Rockford, Ill., where 70 percent of students graduating from the Harlem Consolidated School District's only high school enter the workforce immediately.

Some districts offering the guarantees do not promise anything beyond a student's basic ability to read, write, and perform routine mathematical calculations. Others have drawn up explicit checklists of the skills covered, including a more sophisticated repertoire of abilities, such as computer mastery.

Similarly, while some policies guarantee all graduates, others mandate that, in addition to course requirements, students meet minimum attendance and behavior standards in school to be covered by the warranty. The "expiration dates'' range from one year to a lifetime.

Since even the oldest warranty programs have only been around for several years, little research is available to document their effectiveness. In the absence of such data, critics argue that the programs are at best an empty public relations gesture in a time of stringent budgets.

Teacher leaders in Los Angeles have been especially fierce in attacking Superintendent Anton's warranty initiative. Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, issued a statement characterizing the plan as a headline-grabbing "Frankenstein's monster'' and the "ravings of someone out of touch with reality.''

The plan contains "lofty goals,'' but lacks any indication of how they will be met or who will finance them, the union's communications director, Catherine Carey, says. Warranties, she adds, are a "pie in the sky.''

But the teachers in the much smaller Plymouth-Carver, Mass., district had a different reaction when a warranty policy was introduced there in 1989. Jane Russell, president of the local teachers' union, says her members viewed the policy as a "vote of confidence'' in the district's teachers.

Bernard Sidman, PlymouthCarver's superintendent, has a simple response to naysayers who label warranties a publicity stunt. "What is wrong with a little positive PR,'' he asks, "when in reality there is something we can be called upon to deliver if someone wanted us to?''

Many school officials contend that the warranties help motivate students to study harder, but in some districts, students are not even aware the programs exist. Denise Forster, a senior at Minnesota's Wayzata High School, had never heard of her district's program, approved nearly five years ago, until a guidance counselor asked her last month if she wanted to be interviewed about it. "I just found out about it today,'' Forster says. Nevertheless, she thinks it's a positive program that gives students "something to fall back on.''

Much of the blame for the decline in the United States' economic performance has been placed on the failure of education to keep pace with changing demands of industry, and some educators see diploma warranties as a means of addressing this criticism. Most administrators, however, do not cite local dissatisfaction as playing a pivotal role in the development of their warranty programs. In fact, administrators generally say they offered warranties because they felt confident about the existing condition of their schools.

Mike Moses, the superintendent of schools in Lubbock, Texas, is an exception. "Employers of our vocational students were concerned,'' Moses says. In response, Lubbock decided to attach a "promise'' to its vocational graduates. "Basically, this was an offer of cooperation,'' the superintendent says. "We are willing to go the extra mile to demonstrate to employers that the schools recognize that they have a responsibility in helping ensure a quality workforce in this community.''

So far, few school systems have encountered more than two or three "redemptions,'' if any, of graduates deemed unsatisfactory by employers. The Prince George's County schools in Maryland have certified some 9,000 graduates, probably the largest number by any one regional program, since the policy took effect with the class of 1989, and they have only received two complaints, according to the program coordinator. Both were regarding the graduates' attitude or appearance, not their academic skills. In both cases, the former students chose to leave their jobs rather than return to school.

Despite the paucity of redemptions, most schools currently offering warranties have mechanisms for remediation in place should the need arise. The majority allow students to continue working during retraining, which is provided either through evening adult-education classes or independent tutoring.

Although most observers agree that it will take several more years to evaluate the impact of the warranty concept, some administrators say that they have already noticed results. "I don't hear local complaints anymore about accountability,'' says Sidman of the Plymouth-Carver schools. "That alone is worth it.''--Meg Sommerfeld

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