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
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
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.