A Modest Proposal To Restore Educational Standards

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Seven years ago, Modesto City Schools was a typical California school system: poor but hip. In the name of innovation and relevancy, we suspended all common sense and embraced the fashionable twaddle of John Holt, Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, Jonathan Kozol, Edgar Friedenberg, and others. We came pretty close to substituting the Seven Deadly Sins for the Eight Cardinal Principles.

Rather than be thought rigid in a period when flexibility was the highest virtue, we first relaxed our standards; and when that didn't do it, we abolished them completely. We began to feel guilty and proceeded to pull up our roots to examine them for rot. Homework, honest grading, demanding courses, required classes, earned promotion--up they came and out they went. We leveled the field so all could pass through without labor or frustration. No longer would anyone be able to blame us for everything from bed-wetting to the military-industrial complex. We were all "affective domain."

Grades became bloated and revealed more about the teachers who gave them and the principals who tolerated them than the students who received them. Social promotion and unearned diplomas moved undeserving students up and out and blessed them with counterfeit paper.

The result of all of this was that we got what we deserved: All the good things went down, and all the bad things went up. In just about eight years, 1967-1975, we had managed to take some respectable bar graphs and turn them upside down.

Today we have them going in the right direction again, and we are getting better each year. Last year nearly 80 percent of all our students were at or above grade level in reading and math on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Our college-bound seniors are scoring 25 to 30 points above the national mean on the verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. On the California Assessment Program, a state-mandated testing program for all California schools, our district is exceeding, by as much as 30 and 40 percentile points, its expectancy bands on every area of the test at every grade level tested. Ninety-seven percent of our seniors pass a full battery of six competency tests (writing, reading, math, science, social science, and health) and complete a required sequence of courses in one of three prescribed graduation plans.

In the critical area of what we call the Fourth R: Responsibility, we have reduced vandalism and truancy. Our elementary schools reached 99.2 percent average daily attendance (either in school or legally excused) last year. Our high schools were slightly better than 89 percent average daily attendance, approximately 7 percent above the state average. And we simply do not have serious discipline problems on our campuses. Assaults on teachers do not exist.

It is important to add that Modesto City Schools do not have a student population genetically engineered in heaven. We are the fifth fastest-growing community in the United States. We have a very high percentage of students who come from welfare homes: The percent of students from homes that receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children places us at the 82 percentile in California. We have a large and increasing number of students who do not speak English or whose English is limited. The socioeconomic index of our parents (a figure based on how they make a living--professional, skilled, unskilled, and so forth) places us only at the 34 percentile in California. I mention this only to give you some perspective. We still receive these figures from the sociologists at the state Department of Education, but we have stopped taking them seriously as predictors of performance. After all, it was a lot of pop psychology and instant sociology that got us in trouble in the first place.

The progress from where we were to where we are began in 1976. The program, "Academic Expectations and the Fourth R: Responsibility," was not offered, nor is it offered here, as a cleverly innovative panacea. It was a modest proposal to get us back on the high road from which we strayed in the mid-1960's. It was designed to restore educational standards and the confidence of our clients.

We began in what may seem to some an unorthodox manner. We publicly documented our "shortcomings" (a euphemism for failure). Specifically, we framed the issue as follows:

  • The incidence of conflict, disruption, and crimes in the nation's schools is growing at an alarming rate. This has been accompanied by a steady decline in the academic performance of students.
  • The public is becoming increasingly concerned.
  • There is no reason to believe that Modesto will be exempt from either the problems or the public's reaction.

We then proceeded to provide data to verify that, in fact, the last of those conditions was virtually upon us.

Once we had established that we were in trouble, we presented our Board of Education with a statement of principles. We had two purposes in mind. First, we wanted to get our board on record in support of a significant change in philosophy and direction. In effect, [we were thinking] if you can't buy the principles, you'll faint away when you see the program we have in mind. Knowing full well that boards are more receptive to ideas than to practices, we expected and received their unanimous endorsement.

Second, we wanted to give a clear signal to students, parents, and staff that we were about to sweep away a lot of conventional wisdom, and we were going to do it all at once. No safe little pilot programs, no endless studies, no big committees seeking "input" and 'feedback," no tinkering at the edges. One grand swoop. After all, no guts, no glory.

I would like to mention a few of those principles to give you a sense of the tone we wished to set:

  • It is essential that a public institution clearly define itself, to say unequivocally what it believes in and stands for.

In many school districts there is considerable confusion--not just in the public's mind, but among educators themselves--over this matter of what we are about.

So we laid it all out in plain English: This is our program. This is what we expect in behavior and in academic performance. This is what happens to those who meet our standards. This is what happens to those who fail to meet our standards. At regular intervals we'll tell you how we are doing. At the end of the year we'll tell you how we did, the district as a whole and at each school and at every grade level. And these are the people who are in charge and responsible, at the district level and at each school. This process not only defines the institution for its clients, but for its employees as well. It has been a useful guide to collective bargaining. We'll talk about anything on the union's agenda, but we won't barter away our principles--what we believe in and stand for.

It also addresses one of the best-kept secrets in America: Kids want adults to act like adults. One of the best things we have going for us in education is that kids have a low tolerance for ambiguity. They want to know who's in charge. They want to know what's expected and the consequences. And they want to know that what's right and wrong today will be right and wrong tomorrow--even if 10 parents show up at the board meeting and say it isn't so.

  • The development of responsible adults is a task requiring community commitment. It cannot be left solely to the public schools.
  • We wanted to make two points with this statement, both of which led to specific programs we had in our package. At one level we wanted to remind the community that schools are not the only public institution receiving tax dollars for the purpose of helping children. We let them know that we were not getting the cooperation we needed. Instead of all the buck-passing, we were going to start expecting police, the district attorney, the juvenile judges, the probation officers, and the social workers to work with us. In short, we were tired of the all-purpose brush-off: "That's a school problem."

    On a different level, we were challenging the community to provide recognition to outstanding students. As with most communities, there was a good deal of pretty mouth-music about the kind of young people we should encourage, but the real recognition was limited to star athletes. It is a kind of prolongation of adolescence on the part of adults who should know better. And the impressionable young are left with the impression that Saturday's hero is more important than the Monday-through-Friday good citizen and scholar. In effect, were were asking the community to help students get their priorities straight by getting their own straight.

  • The principal task of the public schools cannot be achieved if a disproportionate amount of time and resources must be given to maintaining order.
  • We wanted it clearly understood that there comes a point at which the schools must be able to say, "These few make it impossible to teach the many, and they must go." If we can't guarantee the safety of a child's person and property, we can't possibly provide the kind of environment a child must have in order to learn--and that's our principal task. So after we've done all that can reasonably be expected of us, get ready community, we're going to show some of them the gate.

  • Parents must consistently support the proposition that students have responsibilities as well as rights, and schools have an obligation to insist upon both.
  • Let's face it, when parents are suing schools to force the promotion of kindergartners, it's time for a little perspective. In examining sample codes of students' rights and responsibilities provided by the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University, we found an interesting consistency. Nearly every code had a specific and comprehensive compendium of student rights, including detailed appeal procedures and committee structure. The section on student responsibilities was often no more than a single paragraph written in general terms: "Student rights also entail responsibilities." We had in our plans a little program which would link rights and responsibilities in such a way that if you didn't meet the latter you lost some of the former.

  • High performance takes place in a framework of expectations.
  • It's a useful proposition to let people know what is expected of them. It is equally important that there be no confusion about the consequences of failure to meet those expectations and about the rewards if they are met. If mediocrity and excellence or disrespect and civility are not received with significantly different consequences, the distinctions between them will soon be lost on impressionable minds. Standards without reward and consequences are not standards at all. So we wanted to let folks know that we understood that the trick was to have the integrity and courage to enforce our expectations after they were set.

  • There is nothing inherently undemocratic in requiring students to do things that are demonstrably beneficial to them.
  • We wanted to make it clear that we did not count it an impulse to decency or democracy to allow children, in the parlance of the day, "to do their own thing." No matter that John Holt wants children to decide what they will learn; no matter that at Summerhill a little discipline is seen as a manifestation of a dark authoritarian strain in the teacher's personality. In Modesto, we'll decide those things.

    This will also be our justification for a character-education program in the elementary schools--systematic teaching of consensus values; restoring the teacher to a position of moral authority.

  • Finally, in order for a program to succeed, it must be left in place for a reasonable period of time and be assured of continued support despite periodic criticism and the lure of faddishness.
  • We expected criticism from those with honest concerns about the direction we were taking as well as from those who greet any new example of common sense with incredulity. But above all, it was a challenge to our board. We knew there would be those long nights when parents came to protest our citizenship program, the ineligibility of football players, or the sons and daughters who didn't graduate.

    It has been a useful principle that we have rolled out on more than one occasion when some board member seemed about ready to go over the side.

    Next came the program, and just as the statement of the problem led the board to the principles, the endorsement of the principles ensured the adoption of the program.

    My quick overview of our program is limited to the high-school level. However, it is our contention that it is our total program that has made the difference. By the time our students reach high school, they have been exposed to eight years of clearly defined expectations. A basic tenet of all that we have done is that there must be no gaps in accountability for students or staff.

    We do not believe that those components designed to deal with behavior can be separated from those dealing with academic performance. For example, although we have a very specific program for reducing truancy, it may well be that the realization on the part of students that they can't pass the competency test unless they attend school on a regular basis is the best anti-truancy program of all.

    These are the major pieces of the program we initiated in 1976:

  • A Specialized High-School Graduation Plan. Upon entering the ninth grade, students, with the approval of their parents, select one of three graduation plans: academic, vocational, or general. Each plan carries with it a set of special course requirements beyond the general education courses required of all students. For example, students in the academic plan are required to take advanced-level math and science courses and a fourth year of English. While a student's choice of plan is not irreversible, any change of plan requires a parent conference and written consent.
  • This was obviously our antidote to the proliferation of electives in the 1960's and the students' smorgasbord approach to the curriculum. It may be of interest to note that, despite the predictions of our in-house cynics that students would take the line of least resistance and select the less-demanding general plan, 40 percent of our students choose the academic plan, 40 percent choose the vocational plan, and only 20 percent elect the general plan.

  • Competency-Based High School Graduation: The annual assessment of competency in reading, writing, and math. Every student is tested every year irrespective of his performance the previous year. Year-end criterion-referenced tests are administered in math and reading late in May. Writing is assessed by taking full-length essay samples based on a given topic.
  • Students below "competency level" in any area are enrolled in an appropriate remedial class following a parent conference.

    During the junior year, all students are required to take a battery of competency tests in the six general-education areas required of all students regardless of their choice of graduation plans. Those areas include reading, writing, math, science, social science, and health. If a student fails any area, he or she is required, following an appropriate remedial course, to retake the test the following year. If the test is failed a second time, the student cannot graduate from the regular high-school program. Such students may enroll in the evening high-school program and retake the test until they pass. They then receive an evening high-school diploma.

    No student is granted a diploma without accumulating a specific number of units, completing one of the graduation plans, and passing all six competency tests.

    All of the competencies and graduation plan requirements are spelled out in handbooks distributed to every parent in the district. They are required to sign and return an acknowledgment of receipt. Posters with the specific subject-area competencies are displayed in every classroom in the district. And parents are annually informed of test results and necessary remediation both by mail and in parent conferences. Careful documentation is kept on every student and periodically reviewed by the counselor, parents, and the student. We think it important to keep our expectations in front of everyone. We have yet to hear from anyone who claims he or she did not know about the program and the responsibilities it entails.

  • Conduct Codes: In the area we have called the "Fourth R," we have done a number of things. Written student-conduct codes set forth student rights, responsibilities, and specific infractions and their consequences. The codes have been developed for grades kindergarten through six, and seven through 12. They are written in very specific terms and, we believe, restore a proper balance between rights and responsibilities. The section dealing with infractions focuses on school rules. There is no attempt to repeat the criminal code. However, it clearly states in the codes that acts that are crimes outside of school are considered crimes in school, and they are treated similarly.
  • As with our academic expectations, the handbooks are distributed to every student in the district and require written verification of receipt from parents.

    The conduct codes for junior and senior high-school students include our Citizenship Accountability Program. Using standard criteria, each classroom teacher assigns a quarterly citizenship mark of outstanding, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory. The marks appear on the students' report cards alongside their academic grades.

    The criteria are in areas we wish to treat differently than discipline: tardiness, bringing materials to class, failure to met deadlines, failure to complete assignments, and others.

    If a student receives two or more "unsatisfactory" marks in a single quarter, certain privileges such as participation in any public performance representing the school, including athletics, are withheld for the following quarter. Each quarter constitutes a fresh start, and students may regain their privileges by improving their citizenship.

    This has been an interesting program. It has more phases than the moon:

    First phase: staff cynicism and students who do not believe that you mean it or have the courage to enforce it (both the cynicism and disbelief increase as you move up the grade levels).

    Second phase: business-as-usual until the consequences come crashing down. For example: In the first quarter of the citizenship program, 40 percent of the students received unsatisfactory citizenship marks. Fifty-six percent of the ninth grade failed the math-competency test the first year.

    Third phase: panic! We can't retain all those kids. We can't expel all those truants. We can't remove all those fullbacks, song leaders, first trumpeters, commencement participants.

    Fourth phase (almost indistinguishable from the third): threatened retribution and retreat. It's easier to junk the program and can the assistant superintendent who got us into this mess.

    Fifth phase: Remind the board of how it was before, the unanimous commitment to the principles (especially the one about leaving it in place despite periodic criticism), and their rhetoric about excellence. Assure them that if they ride it out, the kids will shape up, and they'll be heroes. The no guts, no glory argument.

    Sixth phase: You get a split vote from the board--and the kids get the message that the adults are going to act like adults this time.

    Seventh phase: The results begin to change dramatically, the program is no longer an orphan (or the illegitimate offspring of the assistant superintendent), the media start saying nice things, and you get a lot of fat consulting fees for workshops.

    A few other aspects of the program:

    During the hours between the opening of school and the first lunch period, police officers pick up students who are on the streets or in public places without a legitimate excuse and deliver them to a centrally located drop center. Parents are called and must pick up their child and deliver him or her to the school.

    This is coupled with a systematic procedure of working with students and parents. However, if a student is truant--either all day or a part of the day--eight times, he is expelled for the remainder of the semester. His parents must petition for re-admission the following semester.

    Two asides: It is a myth that to expel students for truancy is merely to give them what they want. Our experience is that they plead with us not to expel them, they all petition for re-admission, and the marginal truants give it up as a way of life.

    It is also interesting to note that the community was lukewarm to the idea of police picking up truants--until we demonstrated the significant decline in daytime crime that accompanied it.

    In a related area, we have established a community consortium for dealing with youth problems. A standing committee of key administrators from the schools, the probation department, the mental-health agency, the welfare departments, the police department, the juvenile courts, and other agencies meets once a month. The committee's role is to provide a forum for airing concerns, defining responsibilities, and exploring areas of greater cooperation. We have come a long way from the backbiting and buck-passing that characterized our relationship prior to the consortium.

    Finally, we established a student recognition program called "Excellence is a Community Affair." It provides incentives and rewards for outstanding achievement and improvement in the two areas of our program: academic performance and responsibility. In addition to the tangible awards presented to students by members of the community, the local newspaper now provides a regular weekly column listing outstanding student achievements in speech, art, music, academic competition, student government, attendance, school service, outstanding citizenship marks, and other areas.

    Those are the broad outlines of our efforts to define ourselves and some of the programs we hope match our goals. We do know we are better off than we were, and we are going to get much better.

    Vol. 01, Issue 15, Page 17-19

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