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 schools.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 www.AmericanProspect.com , 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?
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) E-mail: email@example.com