Student 'Warranty' Programs Have Fallen Flat

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It seemed like a good idea at the time: If a district didn't adequately prepare its graduates for the workplace, employers could send them back for remediation, free of charge.

Stanley S. Litow

Dozens of school systems--including Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest--began offering such guarantees in the late 1980s and early 1990s to show they were serious about holding themselves accountable for students' academic achievement.

Their efforts, however, have largely fallen flat.

As far as anyone in Los Angeles can recall, no employer has ever taken the district up on its offer, even though it has 15,000 graduates a year.

The same is true in West Virginia, where a guarantee has been in effect since 1995 at every public school. Yet state officials don't know of a single graduate who has undergone remediation.

"All I've heard is there really was no follow-up. Kids don't want to go back to high school," said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States who tracked schools' warranty policies in the early 1990s.

Accountability Measure

Warranties for student achievement were among the first of a recent spate of efforts to increase school accountability, Ms. Christie said.

"Schools said, 'We're willing to put ourselves on the line, and if we're not preparing them to the standards that you think we should be, we'll take them back,'" she said.

In many cases, such policies were adopted in response to businesses' concerns that high school graduates weren't ready for the workplace.

The New York City district, for instance, piloted a guarantee program at six high schools in 1992 because "businesses who wanted to hire graduates of New York City public schools were finding them wanting," said Stanley S. Litow, a former deputy chancellor in the country's largest school district.

No businesses took advantage of the program, and it was never extended beyond the six schools, said Mr. Litow, who is now the vice president of corporate community relations for IBM.

The warranties generally work as follows: Districts guarantee that their graduates have basic academic skills. Some of the guarantees cover graduates for a year; others are for several years or an unlimited amount of time. If an employer isn't satisfied with a graduate, the company can send the student back to the district for part-time remediation through tutoring or adult education classes.

"I kept hearing about Lee Iacocco warrantying automobiles. I thought: 'We're doing a pretty good job. If he can warranty a car, why can't we warranty our students?'" said Bernard Sidman, the superintendent of the 9,000-student Plymouth, Mass., schools, which established a warranty in 1989.

A Few Sent Back

None of the Plymouth district's graduates has ever been sent back for remediation. But employers in a few other districts have taken advantage of the policy, albeit on a very small scale.

One employer has held the 12,300-student St. Joseph, Mo., district to its guarantee since it went into effect in 1988, recalled Donald Ransom, the director of administrative services for the school system.

A manufacturing company sent back a former special education student who was having trouble reading labels and putting them on the right trucks used for loading materials, Mr. Ransom said. The district gave the graduate extra reading help even though it technically hadn't guaranteed its special education students.

"Once he learned the names [on the labels], he was fine," Mr. Ransom added.

In the 5,300-student Montrose County, Colo., district, at least two students have undergone remediation since a guarantee was instituted in the late 1980s, said Roger Lake, the district's director of educational programs.

The Colorado National Guard sent back a student who couldn't read quickly enough to complete an exam in the allotted amount of time, Mr. Lake said. A local McDonald's restaurant also returned a student for remediation.

The guarantee is still on the books in Montrose County, but interest in it has "kind of died," Mr. Lake said.

Educators now try to show accountability in other ways, he said.

"Standards and assessments is the key thing across the nation now," Mr. Lake said.

Guarantees ran a similar course in Los Angeles, according to James Konantz, the district's director of career development.

"The policy evolved," he said. "The students weren't real excited about the warranty idea. They said things like, 'Gee, that makes me feel like a refrigerator.'"

The 682,000-student district put the guarantee into effect in 1994, and it still states in a brochure circulated to students that it will provide retraining to graduates within one year of graduation.

But the school system now focuses instead on having students compile portfolios to demonstrate their skills to potential employers, Mr. Konantz said.

You're Fired

William Daggett, the president of the Albany, N.Y.-based International Center for Leadership in Education, said warranties didn't turn out to be practical for employers.

"Schools came up with the guarantee idea in an attempt to satisfy business," said Mr. Daggett, who, as an educational consultant in the early 1990s, advised numerous schools about such policies. "The reality is when business has someone who is not performing, rather than sending them back to be retrained, they're going to hire someone else."

Still, Mr. Daggett added, the policy has merit.

"Even though students didn't come back, it still caused the [school] staff to worry that they could," he said. "The key is not sending students back. The key is making sure they're prepared when they graduate."

Mr. Litow said employers probably didn't send students back to New York schools during the district's pilot program because "the youngsters they hired either had the skills, or they could get them the skills [through on-the-job training], or they felt they were so far from them that they had to let them go."

Plymouth's Mr. Sidman has a more optimistic explanation why employers haven't taken his school system up on its guarantee: All his district's graduates have the skills they need, he said.

Still Worth Trying

Although the heyday for guarantees is over, the idea still has appeal for some school leaders.

The 140,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., schools approved a warranty policy for its vocational students in May, and in North Platte, Neb., Superintendent James Merritt is asking the school board to adopt a guarantee for all the district's 4,500 students this summer.

While acknowledging that the proposed policy is partly for public relations, Mr. Merritt said it only makes sense for him to offer the opportunity for businesses to hold the school system accountable. He added that guarantees also force employers to be constructive about any complaints they might have about graduates' skills.

"Rather than going out and talking to all their neighbors about how bad the schools are doing, employers can pick up the phone and call us," he said.

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 5

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Student 'Warranty' Programs Have Fallen Flat
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