Bill Pushes ‘Rigorous’ Curricula

By Michelle R. Davis — January 31, 2006 8 min read

A new college-grant program slipped into a pending federal budget bill could ultimately influence course offerings at high schools across the country and has stirred a debate about creeping federal authority over curricula.

The legislation would create a $3.7 billion annual program of grants aimed at students from low-income families who have taken a “rigorous” high school curriculum. The bill would give the U.S. secretary of education the authority to determine which high school curricula fit that definition.

“This has the potential to be one of the greatest sleepers of the year in terms of the impact it could have,” said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that has pushed to improve high schools. “It could be very exciting, or it could be of great concern.”

The proposal, which was tucked into a massive budget-reconciliation bill passed by the Senate in December, drew criticism last week after it was highlighted in a Sunday, Jan. 22, front-page story in The New York Times.

But U.S. Department of Education officials were quick to say that they did not see the legislation leading to an increased federal role in school curricula.

Holly Kuzmich, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had no plan to sift through the curricula of thousands of U.S. high schools.

“We’ll talk to states and try to be as flexible as possible,” she said about carrying out the provision if the budget measure gains final approval in the House.

Ms. Kuzmich said she envisions a scenario in which each state would define what constituted “rigorous” coursework.

Modeled on a “state scholars” program from Texas, the grants would seek to encourage high schoolers to pursue college-level studies in mathematics, science, and certain foreign languages. The measure is a variation on an “enhanced” Pell Grant idea President Bush proposed in his fiscal 2006 budget a year ago. That plan would have given low-income students who took part in the State Scholars curriculum an extra $1,000 per year in college aid.

But the twist in the latest proposal—one many in the education community didn’t see coming—is the provision that would let the education secretary determine which high school curricula passed muster for students’ eligibility for the grants.

Supplementing Pell Grants

The budget-reconciliation bill would trim federal spending by $40 billion over five years in a range of areas that includes student loans. It went through several versions and was approved Dec. 21 by the Senate 51-50, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The House was expected to give its final assent to the bill soon after returning this week from its holiday recess.

People familiar with the process say that in the last-minute scramble before the holidays, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., inserted the provision that would create the new college grants. The grants are for students who already qualify for federal Pell Grants, which can be worth as much as $4,050 a year.

The new grants would be divided into two categories:

• Academic Competitiveness Grants would range from $750 to $1,300 a year for college freshmen and sophomores who had completed a “rigorous” high school program. Freshmen would have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average in their college coursework to be eligible for the following year.

• The National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grants would award up to $4,000 a year to college juniors and seniors pursuing majors in math, science, or a language “critical” to national security, as determined by the U.S. director of national intelligence.

The text of the bill getting the most attention says that a “rigorous secondary school program of study” is one that is “recognized as such by the secretary.” That wording has given some lawmakers and school lobbyists pause.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a member of the influential Republican Study Committee, a caucus made up of more than 100 conservative House Republicans, said he agrees with the underlying intent of the proposed grants. But Rep. Terry said he doesn’t want the Education Department to start directing the local business of education.

“It would frustrate me that the federal government … could come in and override what the state of Nebraska or any other state has set to be the proper secondary school program of study,” he said in an interview.

But it’s unlikely that conservatives will oppose the bill on those grounds, since the provision is only a tiny part of the massive budget measure.

Others also raised concerns about the measure’s language.

“We are very troubled by the provision,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. “[T]here seems to be a new philosophy of top-down, centralized control.”

Defining ‘Rigorous’

The federal government was never meant to interfere with the content of school curricula. The General Education Provisions Act, a federal law that broadly sketches the mission of the Department of Education, specifically bars the department from involvement in curriculum.

The No Child Left Behind Act adds further limits, saying that federal officials may not “mandate, direct, or control” a state, district, or school curriculum or program of instruction.

One definition of “rigorous” the secretary would likely consider is that used by the State Scholars Initiative, a Boulder, Colo.-based program funded by the Education Department that seeks to encourage students to take a more challenging core of classes. The program has its roots in the Texas Scholars program, started by a private, non-profit organization in 1992.

The initiative, with 14 participating states, has strict standards for what constitutes a rigorous course of study, said Terese S. Rainwater, the program director: four years of English; three years of math, including Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry; three years of science, including biology, chemistry, and physics; 3½ years of social studies; and two years of the same foreign language.

By using a model like that one, or by choosing from several others, “we don’t see it as any intrusion into curricular issues,” Ms. Kuzmich of the Education Department said.

Another issue raising concerns is whether students graduating from private schools would qualify for the new grants. The legislation describes qualified high schools as “a rigorous secondary school program of study established by a state or local educational agency.”

But Ms. Kuzmich said that was an oversight in the Senate and the intent is to allow private school students to participate.

Through the Back Door?

President Bush made high school improvement an issue since his 2004 re-election campaign. The president has said he hoped to build on his first-term success in winning passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools and districts to meet annual educational goals or face sanctions. That law requires testing students in reading and math in grades 3-8, but only once in high school. Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, schools must start testing science as well.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Bush called for testing students each year in grades 9-11 in math and reading. But Congress made it clear early in Mr. Bush’s second term that it had little interest in pursuing the idea. Now, some critics say, the Bush administration has discovered a stealthy approach to bringing about changes in high schools: the provision that Sen. Frist added to the budget bill.

“This is an outrage,” said David L. Shreve, a lobbyist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “If you can’t get your claws on high school reform through the straightforward process, then you go through the back door, through the budget.”

Even some House Republicans, such as Rep. Terry, were surprised.

“I knew there was this new grant program for low-income students,” he said. “What has not been thoroughly briefed to us is [that the secretary would decide] what a rigorous secondary school program of study would mean.”

The academic-competitiveness grants could force high school improvements, said Mr. Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education. The key will be in how the education secretary defines “rigor” in high school programs, he said.

Mr. Wise, a former Democratic governor of West Virginia, voiced concern that the states might have too much leeway.

If the program is modeled on the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows each state to create its own tests and education plan, it could prompt “another race to the bottom,” Mr. Wise said, in which states would set the bar low so that students in most high schools would qualify.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the Senate education committee, expressed the worry that students in high schools without programs deemed rigorous would be left out.

“This program also punishes low-income students who do not have access to certain courses through no fault of their own,” he said in a statement.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve Inc., a Washington organization that promotes high academic standards, believes the grant program could provide the incentive for high schools to improve and for students to take tougher courses. But practical challenges could create barriers, he said.

“The danger is, … if there is unequal access to a rigorous curriculum or if the definition of rigorous is watered down, … that would be a disaster,” said Mr. Cohen, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton.“It would leave even more people unprepared.”

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