Education Opinion

‘Comprehensive’ Strategy Can Improve Schools

By Bill Honig — February 28, 1990 18 min read
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In his recent State of the Union Message, President Bush focused needed attention on educational quality and established national performance targets for the year 2000.

Setting targets is a good first step. But a successful strategy to improve student performance demands much more. A winning approach would be based on the methods of districts or states that have improved performance. It would require educators to define specifically the kinds of subject-area content and skills students must learn if the nation is to compete internationally. It would necessitate determining the best ways to teach each subject to a diverse student population. It would mean developing better testing, undertaking heavy investment to bring teachers up to speed, and giving educators the necessary technological tools to improve their productivity. Finally, this strategy would provide schools and districts with planning and implementation grants to translate these ideas into reality and make structural changes to move from a rule-driven system to a performance-based one.

President Bush proclaimed in his State of the Union Message that we must improve educational quality and establish national performance targets for the year 2000.

The most obvious approach for reaching these goals would be to initiate a strategy based on the methods of districts or states that have improved performance. But a successful approach would also involve much more. It would require educators to define specifically the kinds of subject-area content and skills students must learn if the nation is to compete internationally. It would necessitate determining the best ways to teach each subject to a diverse student population. It would mean developing better testing, undertaking heavy investment to bring teachers up to speed, and giving educators the necessary technological tools to improve their productivity. Finally, this strategy would provide schools and districts with planning and implementation grants to translate these ideas into reality and make structural changes to move from a rule-driven system to a performance-based one.

Some of these changes can be achieved by altering policies, some by changing the way schools do business, and some by providing an infusion of developmental capital. But similar comprehensive strategies worked when this nation decided to put an astronaut on the moon, win World War II, and eradicate polio, and there is no reason why they will not work now.

Incredibly, such a pragmatic approach has not been taken seriously by our leaders. Too many of them are in the grip of a crippling conventional wisdom, which goes something like this: In 1983, A Nation at Risk was published, warning us of impending catastrophe if we did not improve the quality of education. Since then, some noises have been made about reforms and states have pumped a huge amount of new money into schools, but nothing has really happened. Educators have been either unwilling or unable to respond effectively. Student performance has improved marginally, if at all. Consequently, putting more money into this failed system is a waste.

But what if the conventional wisdom is dead wrong--not about the gap between our students’ performance and that of the rest of the world, but about the ability of our public schools to improve? What if many educators did implement the ideas of A Nation at Risk, with the result that national performance over the past six years has improved significantly? What if, in some states and districts, progress has been much greater than during the last spurt of improvement in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s? What if educators are just as willing as the business community and politicians to commit to radical changes in how schools operate? And what if supporting the right mix of educational vision, performance standards, and investments in teacher training, technology, and team building would produce further improvements--a case of targeting capital to a willing and able cadre of reformers?

Consider the following:

In California, from 1983 to 1988, 12th-grade test scores improved one whole grade equivalent in mathematics and one-half grade in reading. For three-quarters of a million junior-high-school students, the gains were even more impressive. From 1986 to 1989, 8th graders improved an average of one-half grade for all subjects. During this period, these students grew 2- years versus the normal 2 years--a 25 percent increase in performance, or 8 percent per year. This improvement is better than the recent, much heralded 4-percent-per-year manufacturing gains.

Another way of looking at this progress: The average Japanese 8th grader was approximately 2 years ahead of the American 8th grader in math in 1986. In California, we shaved 25 percent off that gap in 3 years.

And out of a senior class of 250,000 in California, 50,000 additional seniors now take a third year of science; over 40,000 more take a fourth year of English, and a similar number a third year of math.

The pool of seniors from which we draw most of our professional and business talent--those who score above 450 on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and above 500 on the math portion--has grown by 28 percent in verbal and 32 percent in math from 1983 to 1988. One out of five seniors now reaches these levels. Thirty-six percent and 42 percent more, respectively, score above 600 on the verbal and math tests.

In California, these gains have been made despite a pronounced demographic shift among test takers. In addition, substantially more students--another 13 percent--are taking the tests, a factor that normally lowers scores.

During the past 5 years, ethnic minorities have increased from 35 percent of the test takers to 45 percent. This phenomenon results in the seemingly paradoxical situation that occurred in the state this year: Combined scores went down 2 points, but each major ethnic group’s scores went up.

In addition, the number of Advanced Placement courses taken and passed during the past 5 years has more than doubled, to over 50,000. And the dropout rate has shrunk by 15 percent in the past 3 years.

These improvements have occurred even though our schools have had not only to accommodate an annual enrollment growth of 140,000 students but also to deal with deteriorating social conditions. The number of youngsters living in poverty has doubled since 1979, as has the number of limited-English-proficient students.

Nor are these good results limited to California. Nationwide, a recent U.S. Education Department report found that the percentage of high-school dropouts has shrunk by one-third since 1979, and that the rates for blacks are almost comparable to those for whites. Nearly one-half of the dropouts eventually graduated or received a graduation equivalent.

The pool of college-bound students scoring above 450 on the verbal or 500 on the math portion of the s.a.t. has grown by nearly 15 percent in 5 years, and scores above 600 have increased by 23 percent in both areas. Some commentators argue that even though there has been some improvement in the past 6 years, combined verbal and math scores are still 77 points below what they were in 1963. Actually, one can make a good argument that schools are performing a little better now than then. In that year, only l6 percent of the graduating class took the test; in 1989, 40 percent did--a much less elite group.

According to recent research on adjusting s.a.t. scores for the percentage of students taking the test, a 1 percent increase in test takers will lower combined scores by 2 points. Thus, two-thirds of the gap results from the rise in the percentage of test takers. The remainder is more than accounted for by demographic changes in the test takers. As confirmation, when the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test was given to a representative sample of 11th graders in 1960, 1966, 1974, and 1983, verbal and math scores were stable. Of course, scoring a little higher than we did in 1963 is not good enough for the realities of the l990’s.

The number of Advanced Placement courses taken nationally has nearly doubled since 1982. Between 1982 and 1987, the number of graduates taking chemistry grew by 45 percent, to nearly 1 out of 2 students, and the number taking physics expanded by 44 percent, to 1 out of 5 students. The average number of high-school credits earned rose from 21 to 23. College-going rates have increased to an all-time high of 59 percent, up from 51 percent in 1982.

In terms of achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that in 1988, virtually 100 percent of 17-year-olds reached the 2 basic reading levels. It also found that the number who did not reach the 3rd or intermediate level declined by 27 percent from 1980 to only 14 percent, and that the number who read at the “adept” level necessary for advanced technological jobs--the next-to-highest level--increased from 38.5 percent to 41.8 percent. Problems appeared at the advanced level in reading, for 13-year-olds, and in writing.

In math, almost every 17-year-old reached the first 3 levels, and the number able to handle moderately complex problems--the 4th level--grew between 1982 and 1988 from 48.3 percent to 58.7 percent--a 22 percent increase. In science, the number who did not reach the 3rd level shrank from 24 percent to 14 percent, and those who reached the 4th level grew from 37.5 percent to 44.6 percent, or a 19 percent boost. Students who reached the top levels grew by 20 percent in math and 14 percent in science, though only a small percentage of students attained these goals. These results were achieved even though the number of students still in school increased by 9 percent as dropout rates fell.

The crucial question, of course, is: What caused these gains?

In California, we believe the answer lies in how we approached the reform effort and the steps we are taking to ensure its success. First, a reform strategy must be comprehensive and strategically aligned, and it must spring from an understanding of what needs to be learned and how best to teach it. We started with the belief that virtually all children can learn to think, understand democracy and the culture around them, and become prepared for the changing job market. We worked hard to obtain agreement that our young people needed a more demanding curriculum to meet these goals. We reached a consensus that the ability to abstract, conceptualize, and problem-solve is becoming increasingly important, even for traditionally blue-collar jobs; that academics, broadly defined, are the best vehicles for teaching such skills; and that instructional methodologies stressing the integration of theory and application and encouraging cooperative learning are crucial to success.

Second, using experts in each field, we defined the kind of curriculum and instruction necessary to reach these higher goals. We obtained consensus without watering down the bite of reform. These agreements were embodied in our state framework and curricular guides, which are widely available and used. The guidelines are sufficiently precise to have a definite point of view--for example, reading instruction should include literature books--but open enough for teachers to figure out how best to organize instruction.

Third, we changed our state tests to reflect the altered curriculum. We now test in science and history, evaluate writing samples, and assess for higher levels of understanding in reading and math. We also instituted an accountability system that set specific targets and gave each school and district information on how it was doing. We publicize the results annually.

Fourth, we devised implementation strategies in each curricular area to get the word out on what the changes were and the reasons for them. For example, in shifting to a more literature-based English curriculum, we developed training through the University of California at Los Angeles Literature Project and created numerous documents to support our efforts.

Fifth, and crucial to the whole enterprise, a tremendous effort was made to get superintendents and board members to buy into this vision of reform and devote substantial dollars during tight fiscal times to staff development. Unfortunately, in many political circles, the obvious strategy of heavy investment in teacher development smacks of a boondoggle. But without that investment, large-scale improvements will not occur.

Schools devote pathetically few resources to staff development, and education remains one of the lowest capitalized enterprises in the country. In California, we designed training programs consistent with our revamped curriculum. Because of limited funding, however, only a small fraction of teachers have been able to participate.

Sixth, California spends nearly $300 million a year for site planning and implementation through our “school improvement program.” This effort provides resources for teachers and principals, with the community’s advice, to take the general reform ideas and devise specific approaches.

Seventh, we put into place strategies aimed at improving the quality of instructional materials (four years ago, California rejected all proposed math texts), enhancing leadership of principals and superintendents, and involving parents (we entered a partnership with the Quality Education Project that has trained nearly 200,000 parents and their children’s teachers in the state’s lowest socioeconomic areas about how to help their children learn).

We formed strong working relationships with the business community, higher education, and law enforcement; we have initiated hundreds of partnership programs. We are revamping each special program--such as vocational education, bilingual education, and programs for children at risk of failure--so that each becomes more supportive of the regular program. We also embarked on a multimillion-dollar program for introducing technology.

The impressive gains produced by these aligned initiatives can be seen in our junior highs. In 1985, when it was apparent that 8th-grade performance was lagging, we produced a report calling for strengthening academics, increasing attention to students, and making organizational changes in schools. Almost every California junior high and middle school is attempting to implement these recommendations.

To further their efforts, a Carnegie Corporation grant established a support network of 100 middle-grade schools. We also obtained from the legislature and governor $5 million for planning grants of $30 per student for one-third of our junior highs--this year, all will receive funds--and local districts devoted substantial resources to middle-grade improvement. We also strengthened our testing program.

The comprehensive approach worked better than we ever expected--a 25 percent increase in achievement in three years. Thisstrategy provides a blueprint for other efforts.

If the conventional wisdom is way off base and many educators not only are prepared to improve schools but have already started to do so, what are the national policy implications?

President Bush can endorse programs that are producing results. In addition, our national leaders should invest selectively in those strategies with a high potential for leveraging the whole system. The issue should be: What can the nation buy with additional investments, and how much return can we expect from those expenditures?

Following are the highest-payoff targets of opportunity:

Set goals and strengthen assessment. Performance targets should include increasing the number of seniors who can read at the “adept” level to 60 percent, use numbers to solve moderately complex problems to 75 percent, and compose an adequate piece of persuasive writing to 50 percent, based on scales developed by naep.

We should also aim at improving students’ proficiency in science and history, increasing the number who attend college, and lowering the dropout rate to 10 percent. And standards should be developed for the 5th and 8th grades.

National goals must be brought home to each school and translated to annual terms. If a typical high school has 300 seniors, 120 of whom are at the “adept” level, the school must educate another 6 students a year for 10 years as its share to reach these national goals. We all can do that.

In addition, assessments must be changed from mainly multiple-choice, factual-recall questions to performance-based tasks such as writing and problem-solving. Though more expensive than current methods, performance assessment drives instruction in the right direction.

Invest sufficient capital in staff development. We must train teachers already in the classroom to teach a more sophisticated curriculum. And we need to improve our recruiting, preparing, and certifying of teachers; provide leadership training for principals; and improve technical assistance to districts.

Develop and incorporate technology. The technology will soon exist to give teachers state-of-the-art curricular support. We need a massive software-development and training effort that would draw on the nation’s best minds. This project would require an initial investment of funds, but it could pay huge dividends.

Restructure schools. We should unleash educators’ talents to tackle important issues and improve student performance. Once we agree on standards and ways of measuring them, we must move out of the schools’ way to allow teachers and principals to do their jobs. We should study communities that are restructuring, encourage districts to replicate successful projects, and provide developmental grants that foster team building.

Encourage parent and business partnerships. If parents read to their children, assure that they do their homework, and stay on top of their performance, students’ achievement will soar dramatically. Effective parent-involvement programs have been developed that cost only $10 to $15 per child.

Of the thousands of business-school partnerships, the most promising attempt to change the incentive structure within high schools. Before hiring, businesses should ask for students’ grades, or give additional pay or faster employment tracks for good academic performance.

Complete the equity agenda. We should fully fund programs for at-risk children and expand programs that prevent later failure, such as prenatal and neonatal health care, preschool, and coordinated family services.

These strategies will not require huge increases in funding. Currently, the United States spends approximately $195 billion annually on public schools. Twelve billion dollars of this amount comes from the federal government--1 percent of its budget. If we provided an additional 5 percent of the $195 billion--$10 billion a year--and invested it in the right activities for 5 years, we could substantially improve our schools’ productivity and influence the future well-being of our country. A return worth hundreds of billions a year is not a bad payoff for a $10-billion-per-year investment.

Some argue that we already spend a higher percentage of our gross national product on education than other countries and that we can fund any needed improve-4ments by making choices within current expenditures. These arguments are fallacious. The recent report of the Economic Policy Institute confirms that the United States ranks 14th out of l6 developed countries in the percentage of g.n.p. devoted to precollegiate education.

Historically, our priority for schools has fallen drastically. We presently spend 4.1 percent of our g.n.p. for public and private precollegiate education; in 1970, we spent 4.7 percent. Even after adjusting for a 10 percent drop in student enrollment, the 0.6 percent decline would total $10 billion additional a year, more than enough to fund needed reforms if we were willing to treat our children the same in 1990 as we did in 1970.

But the percentage-of-gnp argument is specious anyway. If, by spending an extra $10 billion, you could get 5 to 6 times the investment back in improved productivity, comparative percentages of g.n.p. become irrelevant.

The second canard, widely believed but easily disproved, is the charge made by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that the education “blob” has siphoned off the bulk of the new money for schools and prevented resources from reaching the classroom. The fact is that precollegiate education is leaner than almost every other public and private enterprise in this country.

In California, we initiated cost-accounting measures to determine if the system was over-administered and to search for ways to improve productivity. The leverage-buyout experts who advised us stated that we had developed more accurate accounting data than most companies.

We allocated every expenditure and person in the state school system to a hypothetical average school of 600 students and 52 employees. We found only two-and-a-half administrators per school--a supervisory ratio of 20 to 1, lower than every industry except funeral parlors. We found that 59 percent of all money is spent in the classroom for teachers, aides, and books; another 4 percent is spent for pupil-support services and staff, such as counselors and librarians; l9 percent is used for transporting children, serving meals, and managing property--all at considerably lower rates than comparable services in the private sector; 7 percent is allocated for site management; 5 percent is for instructional support, such as curriculum specialists; and 6 percent is spent for state, district, and county administration.

The advice educators should be giving our national leaders is clear. We are willing to be held accountable. We are proud of what we have accomplished so far. Yet we know we have much further to go.

Our plea to our leaders is to be intelligent enough to make an honest appraisal of what has occurred in our schools since the reform movement was launched. Give us a modicum of respect for what we have accomplished so far, and initiate proposals that build on the effort already made. We know that not every school, district, or even state is participating in the movement. But there is a widespread cadre of educators willing to work cooperatively and implement additional reforms that, in 10 years, will transform our nation’s schools into the world-class system our children deserve.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Comprehensive’ Strategy Can Improve Schools


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