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Topic: Don't Dumb Down Education Standards
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Don't Dumb Down Education Standards
Posted: Jan 4, 2000 11:21 AM
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From USA Today, January 3, 2000 [Opinion Page]


Don't dumb down education standards

By Louis V. Gerstner [CEO of IBM]

There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that British royal archers of the last
century would wait until the queen had shot an arrow at a target, then run
to draw a bull's-eye around where it struck. That dramatically improved the
queen's archery score, but not the quality of the queen's archery.
Unfortunately, a number of people today believe it's possible to employ the
same slippery strategy to the issue of academic standards in our public

Simply put, we're beginning to see backsliding toward the low level of
expectation that created the crisis in our schools. Forty-nine states have
set appropriate educational standards and are putting rigorous tests in
place to measure achievement. But when the first round of testing proved
something we already knew -- that many kids are unprepared to get over the
higher bar -- some officials, beset by public pressure, are rushing to
"dumb down" the tests, delay them or, worse, walk away from them altogether.

These now are isolated decisions. But unless we speak up in support of
students, there's a real danger that today's isolated events will spread.

Rather than standing strong and pressing forward with our commitments to
our kids, we could start drawing arbitrary bull's-eyes of our own. That's
expedient. Yet it would be unfair to American schoolchildren, who
outperform most of their international peers on fourth-grade math and
science tests but by the 12th grade trail behind students in other
developed nations.

If only one high school sophomore in 10 passes the new math test, as was
the case in Arizona, the answer is not to make the test easier, as some
parents, teachers and administrators have asked the state's Board of
Education to do. The answer is to focus on making changes to curriculum and
instruction so more kids can succeed and to provide extra help for those
who need it. If only 7% of Virginia schools currently meet demanding new
accreditation standards, we should do whatever it takes to strengthen the
schools, rather than back off the standards, as the Virginia Board of
Education seems poised to do.

In Massachusetts and New York, states with tough new exams that high school
students must pass to graduate, high initial failure rates led both state
boards to draw their own bull's-eyes. The first Massachusetts students to
face its new graduation requirement will need a score just a single point
above "failing." In New York, a score of 55 out of 100 on the state Regents
English exam will get you through. If these scores remain in place beyond
the transition year, we'll be cheating our children.

From shouting to unity

Even these isolated instances are troubling, especially on the heels of
this fall's National Education Summit, which ended with President Clinton,
governors and education and business leaders unified on a reform agenda
that would have triggered shouting matches a few years ago.

Most important, the consensus was that, without a commitment to standards,
all else is wasted motion. Summit participants pledged to develop specific
plans, within six months, to do what's necessary to get our kids to the
higher standards: changes in teacher training, more rigorous curricula,
better assessments that drive quality instruction and accountability.

Our kids aren't lagging behind much of the world because they aren't
bright. We're behind because of complacent adults in and out of the school
system. Yet predictably, in states where the governors are pushing to act
on their commitments, special interests are sounding the call for retreat.

Bear the pain, get the gain

Those governors deserve our support. There's ample evidence that when
officials have the guts to bear the pain of the transition from low
standards to high standards, it pays off. In Texas, in the first round of
testing with a new algebra exam, only 27% of the students passed; but that
number shot up to 45% three years later. Chicago has mandated summer school
for students who don't pass new standardized tests. Most of the kids who
came up short on the first round of testing met the promotional standards
after completing the summer program. Higher standards coupled with more
funds for teachers' professional development helped students in New York
City's District 2 outperform those at schools in wealthier suburban areas.

We don't have to dumb down our tests. We don't have to fall back to the
status quo. The kids will deliver if we adults have the will to see our
commitments through with urgency. As their parents, as future employers and
as concerned citizens, we must give our kids the chance to achieve at
world-class levels.
Louis V. Gerstner, the CEO of IBM, organized the National Education Summit.
To comment to USA Today:

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One reaction to Gerstner's OP-ED piece follows.

[From the listserve.]

I hope everyone read the USA Today OP-ED piece by IBM CEO Louis Gerstner on
Jan 3, 2000. It is very discouraging that people in high places with
influence are so negatively lopsided about public education.

Gerstner implores states to not back off on high-stakes tests, not matter
what the consequences. "Bear the pain, get the gain." Getting tough and
failing millions of kids is the answer. That will teach them. Gerstner,
and many like him, continually lay all of society's ills at the doorsteps
of public schools and blame schools EXCLUSIVELY for failing kids. It's
incomprehensible to me.

When most kids fail a test, as happened in Arizona and Virginia, most
sensible, reasonable people would have to ask if the tests were fair and
reasonable. But Gerstner doesn't even acknowledge such a possibility. He
blindly assumes the validity of these high-stakes tests.

Gerstner has been CEO of IBM now for quite a few years and IBM has never
made a net profit of 50% since his arrival. I wonder if Mr. Gerstner would
mind if we placed a similar, arbitrary "accountability" requirement on him
to make a 50% net profit. otherwise, resign.

Maybe, if the shoe were exchanged, he might feel differently.

He is like so many people, seem to embrace headlines without question, if
the headlines support their case. Example: The percentage of Texas kids
passing the TAAS math test went from 27% to 45% in 3 years. As Peter
Schrag recently pointed out in the , perhaps that
is too good to be true.

Mr. Gerstner--what about arbitrary passing rules? OK for schools but not
for you? Can you walk your talk?

Marty Solomon


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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