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The Real Debate On Student Achievement

December 15, 1999 5 min read
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Rarely do student-debaters have the chance to research and debate a subject area in which they have such a personal stake.

Every year, tens of thousands of high school students enter contests in competitive debate at meets hosted weekly on the campuses of high schools and colleges across the country. These contests, held under the auspices of individual state interscholastic organizations as well as the National Forensic League, culminate each summer in a national championship tournament pitting the nation’s best high school debaters against one another.

This rich tradition of formal debate has given enterprising high school students a set of academic challenges not always available in the regular classroom setting. Debaters learn to work well as a team and to develop skills in communication, research, and critical thinking. This year, they are putting those skills to work deciphering the pros and cons of a topic that should be of particular interest to educators. The national high school debate topic is this:

Resolved: That the federal government should establish an education policy to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.

Students researching this topic no doubt are encountering the same complexities that have frustrated the professional education community for many years. As they try to develop their affirmative cases to support the resolution in favor of an education policy to improve achievement, they will discover that solutions are more elusive than they might have expected. Several issues in particular will complicate their year of debate.

First, they will find that many factors external to the school have a significant impact on students’ achievement. They will be able to cite many researchers who contend that indicators such as home environment, factors in the community, and poverty rates provide better predictors of achievement than specific educational programs. Policy discussions aimed at the improvement of academic achievement, they will find, must take into account the changing characteristics of our multicultural society. There are no simple answers, they will learn, and there never have been.

A second problem the debaters will encounter concerns how precisely the cause-and-effect relationships between program interventions and claims of improved student performance can be measured. Over the past two decades, research will show them, educators have adopted and implemented an extraordinary array of programs purporting to be the solutions that will produce better schools. Do any of them work?

What the debaters will discover is that a large barrier exists when seeking to attribute causality to any specific program or reform effort: the very nature of public schools. Subjecting children to the kinds of rigorous scientific testing that would be required in other disciplines to support claims of effectiveness is unrealistic. As W. James Bradley and Kurt C. Schaefer point out in The Uses and Misuses of Data and Models, The controlled experiment is an ideal in the social sciences that is rarely attainable. In schools, there are many variables, most of them uncontrollable. What we tend to find in the evaluation of school programs is that the assessments rely more on correlative data and anecdotal claims than on proven causality.


Many other factors also intervene, particularly in secondary schools, that make it virtually impossible to extrapolate program and policy claims to schools in general. As a result of the accountability movement of the last decade, schools have typically implemented multiple strategies in an effort to improve student achievement. The Texas Education Agency’s division of high school education, for example, established a program of secondary-level mentor schools to act as a resource for school improvement. Those schools had been successful on state accountability indicators, and they provided other districts with information on school organization, curriculum and instruction, assessment and evaluation, professional development, student support, and community-of-learning issues. The fewest number of reform strategies implemented by any of the 40 mentor schools was eight, and the average number was about 20. Obviously, it would be difficult to isolate any single reform effort and attribute to it a specific percentage of increase in student performance.

A final issue the debaters will have to tackle is whether or not even the most successful programs can be applied to schools generally. Programs that appear to have had a positive impact on achievement in one school, or one district, may not work well in another setting and for a variety of reasons. A district may not have the financial or technical resources needed to implement and maintain a computer-based instructional program, for example. The skill levels of administrators and teachers are sometimes a key factor in successful reform efforts. In unsuccessful schools, stakeholders may not have supported the initiatives, due perhaps to religious concerns, economic objections, or a host of other reasons that may, or may not, be well- founded.

Governance issues are critical, the debate teams will find, to an institution that derives much

of its authority from locally elected school boards. Indeed, they may discover that the imposition of an education policy by the federal government would evoke a political backlash from those concerned for parental rights and community involvement in school decisionmaking.

These and other intricacies should make the 1999-2000 debate resolution an exciting and keenly pertinent topic for high school students. Rarely do they have the opportunity to research and debate a subject area in which they have such a personal stake. Likewise, educators will have a rare opportunity this year to visit with these student-debaters as they gather their evidence on important school-related topics and debate the issues central to schooling, governance, and social progress.

We just might find that we can benefit from the analysis and perspective of some of our best and brightest students, as they join us in searching for answers that will help improve student achievement.


Blair Lybbert is the director of staff development in the Cedar Hill (Texas) Independent School District. He is a former high school debate coach and holds the National Forensic League’s Double Diamond Coach award.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Real Debate On Student Achievement


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