Education Letter to the Editor

States Tackle High School Reform

February 28, 2006 6 min read
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To the Editor:

It seems politicians have suddenly discovered that we’re suffering from a rigor deficiency in high schools. Driven by the economic competitiveness of the increasingly “flat” world, numerous states, you report, are considering mandates for more-rigorous core curricula and increased graduation requirements (“States Target High Schools for Changes,” Feb. 8, 2006). Moreover, recent federal legislation puts the U.S. secretary of education in the business of setting standards for recognizing, in the words of the bill, a “rigorous secondary school program of study” (“Bill Pushes ‘Rigorous’ Curricula,” Feb. 1, 2006).

Let’s be sure that high school reform doesn’t result in more of the same formulaic and predictable seat time that can already make high school the least-engaging part of a teenager’s day. Graduating with more credits won’t do much for a student’s employment prospects unless high school reform redefines who’s doing the thinking in the classroom.

A competitive workforce is made up of people who can think independently in complex and ambiguous situations where solutions are not immediately obvious. Meaningful high school reform must include a commitment to a redefined learning environment that gives students the knowledge, skills, and tools to function as 21st-century professionals who can effectively collaborate to gather, evaluate, analyze, and share information.

Peter Pappas

Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

The problem with politicians’ making education policy, as depicted in your article “States Target High Schools for Changes,” is that they almost always address the symptoms, not the disease, and often do so for less-than-altruistic reasons. Reforms such as upgrading curricula, forcing students to take more core subjects and pass skills tests in key subjects, and developing dropout programs have already been tried, and have failed in several states.

The governors managed to make one good recommendation: dealing with education problems early. Students don’t graduate from elementary school with skills that meet No Child Left Behind and individual school district requirements, only to then lose them over the summer. In reality, far too many students exit elementary and middle schools without the skills needed to perform beginning high-school-level work.

My wife has taught mathematics in several Chicago high schools for many years. Every September, she receives students who don’t know the multiplication and division tables, let alone the requisite pre-algebra skills they were expected to master to graduate from elementary and middle school. She routinely spends half a semester getting the students to a point where they have a chance at high-school-level math.

The key variables in student performance at any level are students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, their interest in learning, and the presence of either educated parents or parents and guardians who place a high value on education. For decades, the governors of Illinois have annually told the state’s residents that they have “increased funding of education to record levels,” yet Illinois remains 49th out of 50 in the percentage of state funding for education. This is a classic example of the sound bite superseding reality for political, not educational, gains.

The bottom line is that high school is far too late an entry point to address skills deficits. Governors and local politicians should concentrate on the socioeconomic needs of education, and leave classroom issues to principals and teachers.

Tom Sharp

Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

In “States Target High Schools for Changes,” the lack of a silver bullet is mentioned. While there may not be a simple solution to the problems in our education system, there is a single prerequisite to solving them: recognizing that they are being willfully ignored because of the selfish interests of two of the largest anti-change forces in education today: the education schools and the administrative cadre.

It is as if these governors and education insiders are in collusion to make sure that the devastating lack of skill among the education leadership is kept a secret from most of the public.

It should be clear to anyone who cares to look that all the other reform initiatives will have a limited effect because the quality of leadership in education is simply abysmal. In my research for writing a book on education, I found that the superintendents and principals I talked to were maintainers of the status quo.

Education entities are being run in a manner that the leadership researchers Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton have called the “country club” style: There is a very high concern for people (adults, not students) and a very low concern for performance. The use of political correctness, ostracism, coercion, blaming others outside the education fiefdom, victimhood, and other techniques effectively smothers the truth so that the reality of poor performance is never allowed to see the light of day.

Until education leaders learn to apply a more-balanced, team-style approach to management (as recommended by Mr. Blake and Ms. Mouton), one in which concern about performance is equal to and balanced with the concern for people, poor performance will continue. Team-style management is a much more open and productive approach that values truth, resulting in much better performance and higher morale among the team.

Fix the leadership; the positive changes will follow.

Paul Richardson

Colorado Springs, Colo.

To the Editor:

I read with a mixture of amusement, anger, and sadness your front-page article about governors’ wanting high schools to become more rigorous. I was amused because finally someone has caught on that the vaunted private school and home school “statistics” about high student achievement have never been tied to the mandatory high-stakes testing that beats us bloody in public education with an ever-rising “bar.”

I also felt angry because here in Illinois, the politicians who have cried for more rigor over the past decade are the same ones who have systematically looted the teacher pension funds to the tune of $4.8 billion, and most recently have begun to steal from the health-care funds for retired teachers. How dare irresponsible elected officials pontificate about rigor to teachers working 10- and 12-hour days—the very people whom they want to work harder?

Now there is talk of amending the Illinois state constitution so that no legal contract will exist to pay retirees, despite state promises. It is the state equivalent of United Airlines declaring bankruptcy so it can shed all pension obligations, and we’ll see more of it in those states listed in the article. Of course, the legislative and judicial pension funds in Illinois have not once been touched, even for 10 cents.

Reading your article, I was sad because both old-timers, like me, and new teachers in their 20s have lost all faith that the state, let alone the nation, truly cares about public education in general, or their hard work in particular. Newcomers to the profession know that there will be no pension for them no matter how many years they invest in teaching. A decade from now, who will we find who will want to build a career teaching the nation’s children?

B. Bandy

Downers Grove, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as States Tackle High School Reform


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