Citizens for Effective Schools

Bush's education "blueprint" bound to be inadequate

by Gary M. Ratner
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA
(published by a Dow Jones & Co., Inc. subsidiary)
September 6, 2001

Printer-friendly version

Gary M. Ratner is founder and executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc., a non-profit organization focusing on improving public schooling.

The goal of the president's education "blueprint" is broadly supported: that all disadvantaged, and other, students should "meet high academic standards."

The current Senate-House disputes over the details, such as how to measure adequate student progress, when to impose federal penalties, and deregulation and funding levels should not be allowed to obscure a much more important issue. Although experienced educators know how to substantially achieve the goal, including in cities like New Bedford, no version of the "blueprint" would come close to doing it. Its approach, increasing accountability, does not address the fundamental need: providing effective teaching, challenging curriculum and family support for all students.

The goal is essentially National Education Goal 3, that all students should learn at least at grade level, as measured by "proficiency" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They need the analytical, problem-solving and communications skills to function economically, politically and socially in this complex era.

The current gap is huge. About 70 percent of all public school students nationally are not proficient in reading on the assessment and about 80 percent are not proficient in mathematics. Among black and Hispanic students, about 90 percent are below grade level in reading and math. Of poor students, 60 percent do not even have "basic," rudimentary skills in either subject.

What the blueprint proposes, to overcome this huge challenge, is essentially just federal reinforcement of the states' decade-old "standards, assessments and accountability" movement. States would receive federal financial rewards and deregulation if their students' test scores improved and risk losing some federal administrative payments if not.

But history shows that approach is wholly inadequate. Although 49 states have participated, it has only marginally increased proficiency. Even accountability's flagship, Texas, on which the Bush plan was modeled, had no significant gain from 1992 to 1998 in reading, with 70 percent of Texas' public school students still below proficient. Though math proficiency increased several points from 1992 to 1996, about 75 percent of the Texas students still are not proficient.

More of the same will not work. To accomplish the president's goal would require a fundamental change in American public education: providing all students with rigorous academic preparation like that currently given to far fewer than half. But it is impossible to do that now. As the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future has found, "Most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning demanded by the new reforms - not because they do not want to, but because they do not know how, and the systems in which they work do not support them in doing so."

Most teachers now lack the subject matter knowledge to teach a challenging curriculum and instructional skills to teach effectively at the proficient level. Most administrators do not know how to teach teachers to provide the engaging and high-level instruction students need to become proficient.

Federal rewards and penalties would further increase pressure on teachers to raise students' test scores. Based on teachers' responses to state accountability measures, predictably they would concentrate even more on drilling students in memorizing test-related information and test-taking skills. But merely intensifying pressure on employees to improve performance does not succeed where they lack the required knowledge and skills.

Imposing federal accountability would do nothing to enable teachers to become effective when teaching a challenging curriculum. Closing failing schools and reopening them with new leadership or offering tutors would do nothing to meet the need to raise more than a million teachers to competence.

Experienced educators know that there are three conditions that principally improve learning: effective teaching, challenging curriculum and family support for high achievement. These conditions are now lacking for tens of millions of American public school students. If we are serious about maximizing the possibility of all students succeeding, we must provide these conditions for all students.

Specifically, as to curriculum: Abolish dumbed-down courses and "general" tracks and institute a challenging curriculum, at least at the assessment's "proficiency" level, for all regular classes.

As to existing teachers: Eliminate, except for master teachers, those traditional professional development workshops and courses unrelated to immediate teaching needs. Replace them with sound and intensive coaching by master teachers, joint lesson preparation with fellow teachers, and in-depth training in subject matter knowledge and best practices in teaching skills, thereby directly improving classroom instruction.

Make improving instruction school management's central principle, increasing the professional development budget many-fold, paralleling Anthony Alvarado's successful New York City district reform. Seeking union partnership, institute procedures to remove all teachers unable or unwilling, after appropriate training and performance opportunity, to effectively teach regular students at grade level.

As to future teachers: Establish financial and professional development incentives, recruit only academically capable high school students and career changers into education schools and other teacher training programs. Provide intensive education college preparation for principals and superintendents in how to change teachers' attitudes, knowledge and behaviors to become effective at the "proficient" level and how to work with parents and communities to lead fundamental school reform. Extend student teaching in all education schools to 30 weeks minimum, closely supervised by knowledgeable instructors integrating research and experience.

As to family support: Expand programs to educate parents and guardians of all non-proficient students about the specific content standards their children must meet and what they should do at home and school to motivate and support elevated learning. Enlarge federal comprehensive literacy and other public and private programs to deliver adult education and parenting skills to enable families to give such support. Broaden adult mentoring and tutoring activities, like Big Brothers, to provide surrogate motivation and support where families cannot.

To reach the goal, President Bush needs to go beyond the "blueprint." He needs to use his presidential powers and bully pulpit to lead the states and school districts to make these systemic changes so as to provide competent teaching, challenging curriculum, and family or surrogate support for all public school students nationwide.

© 2008 Citizens for Effective Schools