Kerry Unveils Plans on Graduation Rates, Teachers

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Election 2004Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts turned his attention last week back to K-12 education, unfurling two campaign proposals that seek to blend extra federal support for schools and higher accountability demands.

The presumptive Democratic nominee for president said that he would take steps to substantially increase graduation rates over five years. In addition, he would provide better pay and preparation for teachers, while requiring high standards and seeking to ensure that schools replaced poorly performing teachers.

"It’s time for a new bargain with America’s teachers and children," he said May 6 at Colton High School in Colton, Calif. "I will offer teachers more, and I will ask for more in return."

Sen. Kerry also had some barbed words for President Bush on education. He reiterated his complaint that the White House hasn’t supported adequate spending for education. And he criticized the Republican administration for what he deems a failure to enforce key provisions on graduation rates in the No Child Left Behind Act.

"This administration is not paying attention to graduation rates and is hiding the fact that more than one million kids drop out every year," he said two days earlier at Longfellow Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M. "We cannot let empty rhetoric and misleading test scores count as real results."

Mr. Kerry, who joined a bipartisan Senate majority that approved the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, wants to impose an extra level of accountability that would require schools and districts to show annual progress in boosting graduation rates for disadvantaged and minority students.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, expressed some surprise last week at Sen. Kerry’s rhetoric on tough accountability.

"Senator Kerry and his lobbyist allies have spent the last six months trying to water down accountability requirements in the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act," he said in a statement last week.

Sandy Kress, the president’s former education adviser, said Mr. Bush is committed to reducing dropout rates.

He argued that, beyond the graduation-rate measures in the law, the No Child Left Behind Act contains an array of provisions that will help tackle the problem.

"Reading First is all about preventing a future generation of dropouts," he said. "And then, checking year to year to see if children are up to grade level, ... having interventions in the schools, corrective action, giving teachers training." He also noted that Mr. Bush this year has proposed a $100 million "Striving Readers" initiative to help older students read.

Graduate-Rate Demands

Sen. Kerry spent much of last week focused on K-12 education, with a three-day swing through New Mexico and California that concluded on May 6. While the senator recently made some announcements on higher education and national service, last week’s proposals were his first fresh round of precollegiate policy ideas since December, when the Democratic nomination was still up for grabs.

During his visit to Longfellow Elementary in Albuquerque on May 4, he lamented the nation’s high dropout rates, saying that almost one- third of students do not graduate from high school, and that the figures are even worse for some minority groups.

He outlined several proposals to help states and districts, such as expanding federal support for breaking up large high schools into smaller schools-within-schools, financing a national initiative to better align academic standards in high school with the knowledge and skills students need to succeed, and supporting state programs that withhold driver’s licenses from young dropouts.

In making his case that President Bush hasn’t been firm on the issue of dropouts, the Kerry campaign cited some recent reports.

A December study by the Washington-based Education Trust found that, contrary to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, some states didn’t report any data on dropouts in 2003 and that many didn’t break the data down by student subgroups. The study also concluded that some states reported graduation rates that were far different from—and more optimistic than—those in an external analysis using what some experts deem a more reliable method.

A February report by groups including Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute argued that most states have set "soft" goals for improving their graduation rates that don’t provide meaningful accountability. The report also criticized the Education Department for not requiring in Title I regulations that schools and districts show progress for graduation rates not only overall, but by various subgroups of students, when gauging "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.

"To apply [subgroup] accountability to testing and not to apply that to graduation is really misguided," Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who co-wrote the report, said last week.

Mr. Kerry would demand "uniform and accurate" graduation data from states and districts, a campaign document states, and would require subgroup improvement on graduation rates.

A Kerry aide argued that the law was ambiguous on the matter of subgroup graduation rates, but that the Bush administration should have made it a clear requirement through regulations.

"Consistent with the intent of the law, the department should have done that," said the aide, who asked not to be named. "It’s a question of whether the department is going to show leadership or not, and it hasn’t."

Asked to comment on the senator’s criticisms, Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said, "The regulations strengthen the graduation requirements set in the statute, while providing flexibility to the states to set target graduation rates."

Undermining His Goal?

Several experts on graduation rates praised Sen. Kerry for homing in on the issue last week.

"I think it’s great that he sees this as an important issue," said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute in New York City.

But Mr. Greene suggested that the senator could undermine his goal of reducing dropouts, depending on what his intent was with an earlier campaign proposal to move away from a heavy reliance on standardized tests to measure student improvement under the law. Mr. Kerry has argued that the current testing demands in the law for showing adequate progress are unrealistic.

"I’m worried that he may be trying to soften the testing requirements while toughening the graduation requirements," Mr. Greene said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kerry also announced new teacher proposals last week with a price tag of $30 billion over 10 years.

Sen. Kerry said he would offer increased pay of up to $5,000 to teachers in high-need schools and in subjects experiencing shortfalls, such as mathematics and science. He also would support mentoring programs that link new teachers with veterans.

At the same time, he would require rigorous testing of all new teachers and call on all states to have or develop fast, fair procedures for improving or replacing teachers who did not perform adequately in their jobs.

Vol. 23, Issue 36, Pages 25-26

Published in Print: May 12, 2004, as Kerry Unveils Plans on Graduation Rates, Teachers
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