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School & District Management Commentary

Mediocrity: Deplorable, Yes. Until We Consider the Alternative

By Rona Wilensky — March 21, 2006 7 min read

Batten down the hatches! The governors have come back from last year’s National High School Summit and are actually proposing fixes for the nation’s high schools. (“States Target High Schools for Changes,” Feb. 8, 2006.) Those efforts generally fall into three categories: forming commissions, improving the collection of data, and the hands-down favorite, changing high school core curricula and/or graduation requirements to more closely align with four-year public colleges’ entrance requirements.

Jonathan Bouw


What all these initiatives have in common is that they cost relatively little and generate just enough controversy to make the governors look like they are doing something. They are the elements of a perfect political program, which of course is not the same thing as being the elements of a perfect school reform. This is especially the case for proposals that demand that students take and pass more and harder courses. Such proposals certainly meet the test of political viability, but do they serve students, schools, or even the nation? I say no.

Why would I make such a claim? The answer lies in the dramatic difference between the relatively simple act of raising standards through a stroke of the pen and the much more challenging and expensive work of making it possible for all students to reach those standards.

Raising standards without a systematic program for ensuring that all students have the support to reach them will produce two predictable outcomes: higher high school dropout rates and lower college-entrance rates, especially for students who are poor or of color or both.

The policy analysts and education reformers who favor the raising of standards will readily admit that raising standards is merely the starting point of the long, hard struggle to get all students truly prepared to meet those standards. Alas, those of us who have worked for governors are all too familiar with their relatively short attention spans. I can virtually guarantee that once your governor has signed a bill raising graduation requirements, or, as is the case in my home state of Colorado, allowed his commission on higher education to raise four-year colleges’ entrance requirements, his or her attention will quickly turn to other pressing political matters on the state’s agenda.

These newly crowned education governors will declare victory, claim credit for cracking a hard political nut, and leave the scene well before the body count begins. Why, one of them might even become our next education president! But it’s a sure bet that nobody will be at home when reformers come asking for the significant resources needed to prepare all students to meet the new requirements. Has our experience with the federal No Child Left Behind Act left any doubt about the truth of this assertion?

One important data source for the proposals that seek to increase high school graduation requirements is a recent ACT report, “Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work.” The study is the result of a detailed examination of both the ACT test results and the coursetaking patterns of ACT-tested seniors from the class of 2004. There are three salient findings in the report:

First, only 22 percent of the ACT-tested high school graduates met all of the ACT’s benchmarks for a high probability of success in first-year college courses in biology, English, and mathematics. Second, of the students in the study who completed calculus, 74 percent met the benchmark for success in college math, compared with only 13 percent of those who just took Algebra 1, geometry, and Algebra 2. And third, of the students who took biology, chemistry, and physics, 45 percent met the benchmark for success in college science, compared with only 19 percent of those who took general science, biology, and chemistry.

The study concludes that if all students were to take even just one more mathematics course beyond Algebra 2 (two, including calculus, would be better still), along with biology, chemistry, and physics, dramatically more students than the current 22 percent would be academically prepared for college.

The data clearly show a correlation between coursetaking and college-readiness, but the policy proposals based on the data claim causation.

Suppose there is another explanation for the connection between high test scores and coursetaking? Suppose coursetaking is merely a surface proxy for deeper factors that explain achievement? Suppose advanced coursetaking in math and science is itself the result of other factors, and it is those factors that allow students to engage in and benefit from that advanced coursetaking? And suppose the absence of those factors might make passing advanced courses more difficult, if not impossible, for many other students, and might even mitigate the benefits to be gained by such coursetaking?

The fact is that we all know the deeper factors that affect academic achievement. They are, in short, the privileges of white middle- and upper-class students. To understand the real barriers to achievement that must be overcome for all students to meet the proposed new requirements, let me list those privileges, which too many of us in the policy world take for granted: the privilege of growing up in families where parents are well-educated; where there are resources for adequate, or even excellent, health care and nutrition; where housing is good and neighborhoods are relatively crime-free; where enrichment in the form of travel, activities, organized sports, and accessing cultural resources such as museums and theater is de rigueur; and where at-home, dining-room-table tutoring from parents and siblings is supplemented whenever necessary by hiring specialists.

There is, in addition, the privilege of attending schools that are well-maintained, safe, and staffed by highly experienced teachers with graduate degrees who share these children’s family backgrounds and who teach a curriculum reflective of those families’ history. There is the privilege of well-stocked school and public libraries and the privilege of private computers with high-speed Internet access. And lastly, there is the privilege of being encouraged and supported from preschool onward to focus only on your own academic and social success, secure in the knowledge that the adults around you don’t need your help to keep the family functioning, and that the society you are preparing to join will welcome you as one of theirs. I offer the proposition that it is these attributes which truly characterize the students whom the ACT program defines as college-ready.

Privilege and achievement. This is not just the real correlation in education, it is the real causation. It is also the one we don’t like to talk about because we have not yet mustered the political will to do anything about it.

Instead, our federal government mandates nonstop testing, and now the governors want to require increased coursetaking. In both cases, the bar gets raised without providing support to those who need a leg up.

I have an alternate policy proposal. Let’s consider changing high-school-graduation and college-entrance requirements after we put in place the resources and policies that distribute to all students at least some of the privileges described above. Let’s change the rules of the game after we make sure that all children arrive at kindergarten as ready to learn to read, write, and problem-solve as the sons and daughters of the subscribers to this newspaper. Let’s change the expectations for high school graduation after we know that students enter 9th grade as ready to succeed in advanced math and physics classes as their best- prepared peers. Anything less is bad faith with the very people these policies claim to benefit.

Changing graduation and/or entrance requirements before we have made and kept such commitments to all our students will not only increase failure but may actually exacerbate the inequalities already rampant in our society. The advantage of our current mediocre standards is that they offer students without privilege the possibility of acquiring the pieces of paper—high school and college diplomas—that currently open doors to economic opportunities.

Behind these doors, most jobs don’t need employees who can do calculus (or even Algebra 2), or employees who know physics. The jobs of today and of the future need people with substantive literacy and critical-thinking skills, mathematical problem-solving skills, significant interpersonal skills, and the capacity to persevere. And whether it is sensible or not, these jobs also demand those pieces of paper that policymakers are about to put out of the reach of the many students without privilege. The skills needed in real jobs are not perfectly distributed in our current world. In fact, high school reform would do well to focus on increasing their prevalence. But they are more widespread and can be more readily achieved than proficiency in advanced mathematics and physics.

Raising requirements looks like a stand against “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” but without the simultaneous commitment of will and resources to achieving equity, it is most likely to have the perverse effect of locking those without privilege out of opportunities for which they are truly qualified. To avoid such unintended consequences, let’s be a little more realistic about what it will take to get all our students to meaningful and high expectations. n

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Mediocrity: Deplorable, Yes. Until We Consider the Alternative


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