Harsh Reality at Graduation Season

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This is graduation season. It is a time when high school seniors are handed a diploma, the certificate that should be their ticket to a promising future. It is a time when their parents breathe a proud sigh of relief.

We are fooling them, at least most of them. The harsh reality is that generally our schools are not teaching what is required for success in our increasingly complex global economy.

We give them diplomas rather than knowledge and skills that would help them land a good job. Even for those going on to college, far too many will face remedial courses to teach them what they should have already learned.

This, of course, is not the Norman Rockwell speech that most of the more than two million graduates and their parents will hear. The truth will catch up with them later, a lot like a credit-card bill. We are experiencing what amounts to an educational dry rot that is only partially visible. By the time the damage is readily apparent, it is too late.

There is irony here: The majority of American schools are getting better. Many teachers are working harder. But the improvement is too slow, the gains too small. It is not enough for a relative few kids to do well, to learn to think and perform at world-class levels. It has become a cliche‚ to talk about all kids succeeding. It has also become necessary.

For the past three years, I have chaired the Business Roundtable Education Task Force, a group of corporate leaders who run America's largest companies. Five years ago, the roundtable committed itself to a 10-year, state-by-state transformation of our schools. This fall, another corporate leader will take my place, but the roundtable's commitment will continue. It must for this nation to prosper, for all of us to succeed.

Over the past five years, we have made progress. We have had setbacks. We have learned a lot. We know now how difficult it is to build and sustain coalitions in support of high-performing schools. We know now how necessary it is to engage the public in jargon-free language as to why we need to make significant changes and what those changes are. We have frustratingly learned how important it is to have patience.

We have adjusted our agenda based on what we have learned over the past five years of pursuing education reform. Our starting point was understanding that past efforts that merely tinkered around the margins were insufficient and did not work. The roundtable companies are firmly committed to making fundamental, comprehensive changes to our nation's public schools.

Last month, we turned our learnings into a revised agenda. It is called "Continuing the Commitment: Essential Components of a Successful Education System." (See Education Week, 6/14/95.) This new version is the equivalent of a business improving its products and services through a process of continuous quality improvement. It is a nine-point agenda for change based on the fundamental belief that all children can and must learn at ever higher levels--from students who now drop out of school to those considered to be high achievers.

Our nine components are:

  • Standards. A successful system expects high academic standards that prepare students for success in school, in the workplace, and in life.
  • Performance and assessment. A successful system focuses on results, measuring and reporting student and system performance so that students, teachers, parents, and the public can understand and act on the information.
  • School accountability. A successful system assists schools struggling to improve, rewards exemplary schools, and penalizes schools that persistently fail to educate their students.
  • School autonomy. A successful system gives individual schools the freedom of action and resources necessary for high performance and true accountability.
  • Professional development. A successful system insists on continuous learning for teachers and administrators focused on improving teaching, learning, and school management.
  • Parent involvement. A successful system enables parents to support the learning process, influence schools, and make choices about their children's education.
  • Learning readiness. A successful system provides high-quality pre-kindergarten education for disadvantaged children. It also seeks the help of other public and private agencies to overcome learning barriers caused by poverty, neglect, violence, or ill health for students of all ages.
  • Technology. A successful system uses technology to broaden access to knowledge and to improve learning and productivity.
  • Safety and discipline. A successful system provides a safe, well-disciplined, and caring environment for student learning.
  • This is not an la carte menu, but nine interacting components that are a comprehensive and integrated whole. I believe that leaving any one of them out of a reform agenda will sharply reduce the chances of success.

    But we do believe that one component--high standards--is the most central of the nine. One of the main problems with American education is that, unlike our international economic competitors, we have no agreement about what students need to know when they graduate from school. We tell students how many years they need to attend school and how many courses they need to take, but we do not have clear expectations about what they should know and be able to do. The result is that American students are not performing as well as their counterparts in other nations.

    The standards-setting work under way in more than 30 states has been amplified by last year's passage of the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which the Business Roundtable continues to support. By providing assistance and incentives, Goals 2000 offers every state the opportunity to pursue comprehensive reform.

    Roundtable member companies are working with coalitions across the country in pursuit of just such comprehensive reform based on these nine components. We have formed successful partnerships with governors, legislators, and education and business leaders to enact significant reform in a number of states. More than 40 states are implementing or considering comprehensive reform efforts similar to the roundtable agenda. These nine essential components have become a valuable basic framework for reform, a framework that states and communities are finding adaptable to their unique circumstances.

    At the same time, we are working nationally to make the public aware of the need for change and to advise individuals about what they can do to make change happen. The roundtable, in conjunction with the National Governors' Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the U.S. Education Department, and the National Alliance of Business, has created a public-service advertising campaign for television, radio, and the print media that shows just how poorly American kids are doing compared with their counterparts abroad.

    Known as "Keep the Promise," the campaign encourages the public to call a toll-free number, (800) 96-promise, to find out how they can help improve schools in their community. About 1,000 people call each week in response. They receive a booklet called "Moving America to the Head of the Class: 50 Simple Things You Can Do." We want every citizen to understand the urgency of the problem and feel motivated to act.

    Our agenda emphasizes the values of personal responsibility and hard work. To prepare students for a demanding future, schools must exemplify these values, but school reform is not another something to be dumped onto teachers alone. No education system can guarantee that every student will succeed without the student's own consistent, dedicated effort. Persistent effort, combined with initiative and imagination, must characterize the lives of students, teachers, and administrators.

    The business community must demand that, but also must support it. We have come a long way from seeing school reform as a series of partnerships with individual schools. More and more companies are now actively engaged in reforming the entire system of education. We have no choice but to insist that widespread change occur.

    American corporations are too often accused of looking at the short-term bottom line. In education, we are looking at the long haul. We do not think of education as just a high priority. We see it as nothing less than an issue of economic, political, social, and cultural survival.

Vol. 14, Issue 39, Pages 51, 60

Published in Print: June 21, 1995, as Harsh Reality at Graduation Season
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