Education Opinion

Alternative Education Cannot Be Left Behind

By Jackie Kraemer & Betsy Brown Ruzzi — October 10, 2001 8 min read
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A quarter of our students remain largely untouched by the standards-and-accountability movement.

In rewriting federal education programs this year, President Bush and Congress have pledged to “leave no child behind.” To make good on that lofty and admirable promise, the nation must include a growing number of students who leave traditional schooling behind for one reason or another before earning a high school diploma. It must ensure that efforts to boost academic achievement reach students who take part in alternative education—a group that thus far has been left largely untouched by the push to raise standards, measure results, and strengthen educational accountability.

At least one in every four students quits before receiving a traditional high school diploma. The numbers are even higher in our urban school systems. In Chicago, for example, a third of students do not graduate from regular high schools. Across the country, more and more students are turning to alternative education programs—either those that provide another route to a regular high school diploma or those that offer the chance to earn an equivalency diploma through the General Educational Development exam, or GED. The percentage opting for a GED has jumped by more than 5 percent in the last 12 years. The percentage earning a high school diploma in the traditional four years has dropped commensurately.

Increasingly, alternative education programs are feeling the demands of higher standards and greater accountability. Over the past two years, more states have begun to require students in alternative education to pass the same high-stakes exit exams as those in regular programs. The GED exam is undergoing its first major revision since 1988, with a more demanding math section emphasizing statistics and data analysis being added.

These are positive developments for what too often have been considered second-class educational offerings, an opportunity to demonstrate the real value presented by alternative education. There should be no question that alternative education students be asked to meet the same high academic standards set for students in regular programs—first, so that the students are not handicapped when they enter the workplace or postsecondary education and, second, so that the public is assured of the quality of this growing part of the education system.

While the goal is worthy and should be non-negotiable, the current capacity of many alternative education programs to satisfy it has to be questioned. Most do not use the standards set by states for regular education (if they use explicit standards at all). The programs generally cobble together what is readily available by way of textbooks and test-preparation materials to create their curricula.

Any attempts to raise standards for alternative students cannot simply follow the model created for regular schools; this would turn alternative programs into clones bound to fail with students who have already left traditional settings. The challenge, then, is to ensure that alternative education has the resources—human, organizational, and academic—to respond to higher standards in ways that are not antithetical to its mission and structure.

The investment in human resources, not surprisingly, must start with teachers. The quality of teaching is as important to alternative education programs as it is to regular schools. However, the issues affecting teacher quality—preparation, compensation, professional development—are even more pressing in alternative education. In GED programs in particular, a single instructor usually covers all the subjects. This instructor must be able to deliver rigorous content and help students gain conceptual understanding, in many cases with little or no personal background in the subject.

The mind-set must be that what's important is the fact that students pass the test, not when they pass it.

Compounding this issue is the lack of access of alternative educators to the professional development provided by local school districts; most receive no professional development at all. If they do have a chance at professional development, it is rarely about academic content and usually not ongoing.

At the same time, alternative education programs experience high turnover of teachers. In some Boston alternative schools, staff turnover has approached 50 percent annually. One reason for the attrition may be the competitiveness of salaries. Starting teachers in Sacramento’s Job Corps program, who must hold state certification, make $27,071 a year, compared with the $35,962 earned by starting teachers who hold the same credential in the local school system.

Another part of the investment in human resources involves preserving the special relationship between alternative education instructors and the students they teach. Students come to alternative education for many reasons, but all need more support and encouragement than regular schools can offer.

After years of failure in the traditional system, many students are deeply suspicious of the system’s willingness to help them. Alternative programs have to build a fragile bond of two-way trust between students and staff. Imposing higher standards without warning could disrupt this bond and increase student skepticism. In addition, many alternative programs go beyond academics to devote attention to the “whole person” through social services and career advice. Many alternative educators fear that the demands of higher academic standards will force them to jettison crucial support programs in order to focus more on preparation for graduation exams (this is less so in GED programs, where the test has always been the goal). Those applying higher standards need to recognize these differing priorities and alter how and when students are evaluated around the special features in the school.

Time is a critical organizational resource as alternative education programs begin to struggle with more rigorous requirements. The simple truth is that young people who opt for alternative education may need more time to reach the standards that translate to success in the workplace and postsecondary education. For alternative education programs, the desire to provide support beyond academic preparation, combined with higher standards, may require expansion of programs into extended-day and summer sessions.

In the cases of programs that result in high school diplomas, state and local officials need to create flexible conditions for testing. The mind-set must be that what’s important is the fact that students pass the test, not when they pass it. A large percentage of alternative students do not start in September and finish in June, and many move in and out of programs as their personal circumstances change.

States and school systems should avoid the easy route of simply extending accountability systems to cover alternative programs. Judging students on their progress toward common standards and rewarding them along the way will encourage them to continue their hard work. It would acknowledge that alternative education students have a long way to go to meet standards, and that many start from farther behind than traditional students. Using benchmarks to reward students can motivate marginal ones much more than threats of not graduating.

With adequate investments and appealing incentives, alternative education could provide an invaluable example to regular schools also seeking to raise standards.

Giving a test once a year is unlikely to be adequate for students who come and go in alternative education programs. For the same reason, states should find ways to “bank” students’ test results so that those who leave for a period of time can return and pick up where they left off without having to retake sections of the state test.

Finally, alternative educators need time to adjust their programs, which generally use materials, lesson plans, and even topics and courses different from those of regular high schools. All must be adapted to new standards and the assessments that accompany them.

The academic resources required to move alternative education to high standards are almost nonexistent today. Publishers and curriculum developers naturally focus on the much larger audience of those at grade level. Many programs draw heavily on “drill and kill” worksheets that are cheap and easy to reproduce, but do not address the conceptual understanding found in more rigorous standards. Good materials for 18-year-olds who read like 6th graders are rare; these students can easily be humiliated if forced to use children’s books.

In addition, most instructional materials do not reflect the vocational emphasis that many alternative programs use as their hook to interest students. Within a school system, these issues usually are resolved by curriculum specialists who select or develop the right materials. Most alternative education programs lack such experts, particularly programs run by community organizations.

While the need for these investments is clear if alternative education programs and the students they serve are to measure up to new standards, the sources for these resources remain murky. Parents of alternative students tend to be among the least vocal and connected. Most alternative education programs stitch together dollars from a variety of often unstable funding sources. In many districts, alternative programs receive less than the full per-pupil funding enjoyed by other schools, with districts holding back for overhead or assuming that federal Title I or other compensatory funds will supplement local dollars. As a result, those who run alternative programs often spend more time raising money than focusing on new academic requirements. In fairness, federal, state, and local governments must find ways to strengthen funding for programs that are serving ever-larger numbers of children.

With adequate investments and appealing incentives for schools and students, alternative education could provide an invaluable example to regular schools also seeking to raise standards. In many ways, alternative programs are uniquely positioned to deliver standards-based instruction.

The best alternative programs have always searched for ways to make learning relevant and applicable to life outside of school. The conditions in which they operate require flexibility and an openness to innovation and new approaches. In the end, the pledge to reach all students with high standards will rise or fall on the performance of alternative education programs that serve a quarter or more of those who must be educated. Our economic prosperity and our democratic ideals deem it so.

Jackie Kraemer is a senior associate and Betsy Brown Ruzzi is the director of national affairs and development for the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy.

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