Establish an 'Academic Bill of Rights'

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President Clinton's proposed Education Accountability Act has sparked the expected debate over whether Washington should play the role of Big Brother or Daddy Warbucks in the ongoing saga of public school reform. Whatever side one picks, there's no question the education standards movement is gaining momentum. With one eye on the pupils and the other on the polls, elected officials of all persuasions delight in proclaiming the end of social promotion. Many states have instituted tough new standards, assessments, and sanctions for flagging students and schools. Those states that haven't yet are scrambling to catch up with the crowd.

The trouble is that politicians and school administrators are going about the business of improving things exactly backwards. The head of the Virginia School Boards Association hit the mark when he said: "The state insisted on testing first, training teachers second, and purchasing new books and teaching materials third, which is the exact opposite of what we need to do."

No sensible corporation would revolutionize its product line this way. Of course, corporations must know where the bar for beating the competition is set. The next logical steps are to design prototypes, retool plants and manufacturing procedures, transform the work culture, retrain workers, and exhaustively test new products, all this before mass-producing the new products for the market.

Fairness dictates that the standards movement also proceed sensibly, not recklessly. It's time to call timeout in the pell-mell push for education accountability. Time for a smarter sequence of plays. And time to learn some helpful lessons from history and other American institutions.

This is a momentous time in the history of American public education. When I was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, public schools were expected to educate a small percentage of supposedly bright kids extremely well. Schools paid scant attention to those who struggled scholastically--as long as they didn't disrupt class. If they acted out, it was off to reform school without so much as a due-process hearing. Youngsters who weren't into school could stay on until they turned 16, then drop out and join the Army or work at a nearby factory or back on the farm.

That's the way society wanted it, because the output of schools meshed with the needs of the American economy for a handful of well-educated managers and hoards of willing blue-collar workers with strong backs and a solid work ethic. As best I recall, nobody published test scores and dropout rates back then.

What we expect of public schools has changed radically. We say all children can learn--and they can. As a matter of equity, we expect schools today to educate all children well. And they should. American industry needs accomplished workers and energetic entrepreneurs for our economy to maintain its competitive edge globally.

Without offering excuses for their inadequacies, the fact of the matter is that society today insists that urban and rural public schools do something that no education system anywhere in the world has ever done. Schools are now expected to educate all children well, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, primary language, family circumstance, or socioeconomic status. That's an awesome assignment. But like it or not, urban and rural public schools must master this assignment if they're to survive.

All of the ferment, the pressure, and the reforms focused on urban education are starting to pay off. Districts from New York City to Chicago to San Francisco have begun reporting gains in reading and math scores. This progress is critically important because it helps restore public confidence in urban schools. Still, let's be clear about the challenge urban and rural schools face: Modest gains in test scores may help politically, but inching ahead won't prepare urban and rural children adequately for the unforgiving world that awaits them after graduation from high school. It's a world without the welfare safety net. A world, in other words, where academic preparation is the best preventive measure against poverty.

The achievement gap that afflicts urban and minority children looms as a pervasive barrier to success. It's a distressing reality in urban schools and even in some suburban districts. Equally alarming, the College Board reports that the gap between urban and suburban students on the SAT has begun widening again. And William Bowen and Derek Bok show, in their recent book on affirmative action, The Shape of the River, that the performance gap even spills over into college.

Linda Darling-Hammond notes in The Right to Learn that evidence from countless school reform experiments confirms the fact that urban black and Latino children can compete academically with white youngsters when offered education of comparable quality. But, as she hastens to add, minority students are caught in an unconscionable trap between lofty standards and lousy schools. I say it's unconstitutional as well because states and school districts are responsible for both.

How can urban children possibly meet high standards when, according to the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, as many as half their teachers have little background in subjects like math and science? What chance do the children have of meeting high standards when only one out of five urban teachers even believes that his or her pupils are capable of doing well in college? What chance do the children have when they and their teachers are warehoused in mammoth schools that are anonymous, dilapidated, and, to make matters worse, pedagogically obsolete?

What chance do black and Latino children have of meeting exacting academic standards when they're systemically excluded from challenging courses geared to those standards? According to the Education Trust, high-scoring white and Asian-American students are twice as likely as high-scoring black and Latino youngsters to be assigned to college-preparatory courses.

The only way to extricate urban youngsters from this trap is to establish an "Academic Bill of Rights" for children based on what research tells us will significantly lift the achievement levels of those who chronically lag behind. In my view, every American child has a right to:

  • Quality preschool education that gets them off to a solid start;
  • Qualified teachers who genuinely believe their pupils can learn;
  • Access to challenging courses that help them reach their fullest potential;
  • Schools that are organized and outfitted for teaching and learning instead of maintaining order; and
  • Constructive after-school and summer programs that promote academic and social development while keeping students out of harm's way.

I've no illusion that these rights will be recognized, much less become reality overnight. Nor will the impact, once they're implemented, be felt instantly. So public schools confronted with stiffer standards must search simultaneously for strategies that will catapult urban youngsters ahead in the near term.

Were there sure-fire answers to this daunting challenge, the achievement gap would have narrowed already, if not closed entirely. That's why K-12 educators should look outside the usual boxes for promising clues. For starters, I suggest they turn to their counterparts in the postsecondary worlds of higher education and, heresy of heresies, the U.S. military. Both have estimable track records in hoisting the academic performance of minority youngsters who have performed below par and below their potential.

Take, for example, the pioneering work of Uri Treisman of the University of California, Berkeley, and now the University of Texas at Austin. He was puzzled by why black undergraduates frequently trailed white students in math. So he devised an intervention that entailed getting black students to study in groups, where less able and confident learners were exposed to a rich environment of thinking, learning, and problem-solving strategies.

Mr. Treisman's methods produced dramatic results. Black students under his tutelage caught and sometimes even surpassed their white counterparts academically. Other efforts, such as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Program, and the minority engineering program at the University of Colorado, have dramatically narrowed or even eliminated the achievement gaps between black and white undergraduates.

When taught in settings attuned to their needs, with able educators who genuinely believe in them, urban youngsters can perform on a par with their more advantaged suburban peers.

According to Carole Morning of the Higher Education Extension Service, historically black colleges and universities report similarly striking results. For instance, Clark University in Atlanta successfully shepherds black students through its master's programs in math, computer sciences, and the sciences and on to Ph.D. programs at research universities. The university accomplishes this even though the entering SAT scores and exiting Graduate Record Examination scores of their students often are rather low.

In The Shape of the River, Messrs. Bowen and Bok note that successful college programs have several characteristics in common. They typically: hold high expectations, with an emphasis on meeting intellectual challenges instead of receiving remediation to reach minimum standards; encourage participants to work in groups as a source of mutual assistance and support; and involve parents and keep them informed so they can lend continuous support.

Many undergraduates who soar thanks to these programs are products of low-performing school districts. Emulating these methods in elementary and secondary education might give them a much earlier lift academically.

Public schools should look as well to an unorthodox source in the postsecondary sector--the military. When I was growing up in the 1950s, the Army routinely worked wonders with aimless teenagers who had dialed out of school. Apparently, they responded well to the structured lifestyle and discipline, the predictable opportunity ladders, the mix of educational and physical activity, and the sheer intensity of the experience. Then the military went upscale and stopped accepting school dropouts. This shut off a well-worn escape route from the farm and inner city alike.

In 1991, the National Guard reopened the pathway by launching its Youth ChalleNGe Corps. The mission is strictly domestic. Young people who've dropped out of school get to spend six months on a military base. There they are immersed in an intense human-development regimen, ranging from responsible citizenship, preparation for the General Educational Development exam, and job readiness, to community service and learning to succeed in complex institutions. The results thus far are mighty impressive: The ChalleNGe Corps has graduated 13,000 young people in six years. More than 9,000 of the graduates have obtained their GED diplomas. The GED-attainment rate exceeds 70 percent, about equal to the national average. And the retention rate is 91 percent for the most recent class. That actually exceeds the national high school completion rate.

An assessment of the corps' 5,000 most recent graduates, as of June 1995, shows that 43 percent were employed, 22 percent were attending college, 14 percent were pursuing vocational education, 12 percent had returned to high school, and nearly 9 percent were serving in the military.

The ChalleNGe Corps reaches a mere fraction of the dropout population. Given its strong track record, it should be expanded exponentially. What with all those "weekend warriors" and mothballed military bases, there's capacity aplenty already in place to take the corps to scale.

Bringing the concept closer to home, school districts and the National Guard could jointly establish nonresidential variations of the corps that would embrace essentially the same philosophy, curriculum, and regimen. National Guard officials envision these as academies that run from about 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. This kind of partnership has precedent. Last fall, the Massachusetts National Guard and the Springfield (Mass.) Urban League launched a charter school.

A third place worth prospecting for clues is a systemic demonstration under way in urban districts themselves. It's an initiative of the College Board known as Equity 2000. The board, which straddles the worlds of secondary and higher education, persuaded a half-dozen districts to "operationalize" the adage that "all children can learn." In this instance, they're to learn algebra and geometry.

To my mind, Equity 2000 is the most audacious urban school reform initiative undertaken to date. Why? Because the focus is districtwide instead of hot-house experiments in a handful of schools. Because the academic subject it's tackling is one of the toughest. And, most important, because the participating districts and the College Board must close that exasperating gap between lousy schools and lofty standards. Imposing stiffer math standards doesn't suffice. To succeed, the districts must figure out how to retool the attitudes and skills of teachers and guidance counselors, restructure curricula and schedules, provide supplemental reinforcement for sluggish learners, and persuade--and equip--parents to do their part.

The College Board reports that the results to date in the six districts are encouraging. From its inception in 1991 through 1997: Ninth grade enrollment in Algebra 1 or higher increased from 50 percent to 87 percent of all students. It jumped from 45 percent to 86 percent of African-American pupils; from 40 percent to 87 percent of Latino students; 63 percent to 95 percent of Asian-American students; and 59 percent to 85 percent of white students. Enrollment in geometry or higher soared from 39 percent to 67 percent of students in the pilot districts. The lift occurred among all students, and the proportions were actually highest among African-American and Latino youngsters.

Although the passing rates declined a bit, vastly more youngsters were enrolled in algebra and geometry by 1997. As a result, nearly 4,000 more 9th graders actually passed algebra by the end of 1997 than were even enrolled in the course at the start of Equity 2000 in 1991. Much the same is true of geometry.

To be sure, many students have yet to master the subject matter. Even so, Equity 2000 proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that vastly more urban youngsters can handle those tough courses that they've seldom been allowed to take. Given the higher standards being set by states and the higher stakes for urban students, these patterns of exclusion are unconscionable and, the evidence shows, indefensible.

A final source of clues to improved achievement lies in the research on school facilities. Low-income and minority youngsters tend to fare better in small schools (up to 800 students or so) than in large ones. Good teachers doubtless benefit, as well. Yet urban students by and large are consigned--actually, "sentenced" might be more apt--to mammoth schools with enrollments of several thousand.

America routinely mothballs obsolete facilities, be they factories, prisons, or military bases. These days, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is even demolishing those horrid high-rise public-housing projects that were obsolete the day the builders broke ground. So before President Clinton and Congress decide to provide federal aid to fix the leaky roofs on massive, pedagogically obsolete school buildings, let's pause to assess whether there's a more productive use of precious federal support for school facilities from a child's perspective.

And if state governments can float hundreds of billions in bonds to build new prisons, why can't they also issue bonds to decommission antiquated schools? Convert them to condos or demolish them if there's no alternative use. Then use federal aid to help erect a new generation of smaller, state-of-the-art schools that are truly pupil- and teacher-friendly.

The moral of these illustrations is simple. When taught in settings attuned to their needs, with able educators who genuinely believe in them, urban youngsters can perform on a par with their more-advantaged suburban peers. If urban public education is to enjoy the continued respect and support of parents, then the schools must help children reach their fullest potential. Parents, taxpayers, and employers must be content with nothing less.

The public education establishment says it's fighting for its life against the advent of vouchers and so-called education savings accounts that spell doom for public schools. But the battle that really counts for now is the civil war within public education. I speak of the struggle between the forces of renewal and the forces of inertia. Urban public education has no future unless the forces of renewal prevail and the children win.

Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League in New York City.

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Pages 54, 76

Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Establish an 'Academic Bill of Rights'
Web Resources
  • Hugh B. Price writes a weekly column on various issues (not necessarily about education), "To Be Equal," for the National Urban League.
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