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July 10, 2003

The Empire Strikes Back


The struggle to make public elementary and secondary schools accountable for the education they dish out kind of resembles “Star Wars.” Right now, for those who have come in late, we’re in the episode entitled “The [Education] Empire Strikes Back.”

Recent developments include the state of Texas relaxing its third-grade reading standards when it became evident that thousands of students would be held back, Georgia deciding to reschedule its End of Course tests for a year (and converting them to diagnostic tools from graduation requirements), New York State voiding the results of its math exam after a high failure rate and Alaska’s decision to delay its high school exit exam for two years because the state’s education system “needed more time to do the job correctly."

The latest counter attack by the Education Empire occurred in my own state of California, where the State Board of Ed voted on July 9--unanimously no less-- to defer its high school exit exam for two years. (You can read a NY Times story on this here). The board’s decision was based on a study that suggested that as many as a fifth of high school seniors—i.e., a full 92,000 California kids—don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing this test and thus graduating from high school. According to the story:

In California, the problem does not stem from the test itself, which independent researchers called an accurate reflection of the academic standards California children are supposed to learn. Instead, it is that so few students have grasped those standards that in half the state's schools, less than 50 percent of next year's seniors have managed to pass the math part of the exam. Those students cannot fairly be blamed for failing.

"They simply haven't been taught all of the material that is being tested," Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent for public instruction, wrote in an op-ed article for The Los Angeles Times this week.

Well, what does this actually mean in practice? Exit exams are, of course, nothing but a minor irritant for kids who are going on to college. (It’s not like you have to be Einstein or Shakespeare to pass these tests.) The idea behind exit exams is to motivate the bottom half of the academic distribution—the marginal or “at-risk” students—and their teachers—to greater efforts.

Delaying the exams are, of course, an admission that the schools have utterly failed their marginal students up until this point. No mea culpa is on the lips of the California state education establishment, however. Their argument is that administering exit exams to this current cohort of 12th graders is unfair. Why?

Many of the academic fundamentals, like algebra, that students should have learned years before being tested were never taught to whole swaths of the population, the state study found. Moreover, Mr. O'Connell said that the state's instructional materials were woefully out of date, reflecting little of the new curriculum that students are expected to master to pass the exit exam.

This is, of course, a mind-boggling argument. Is the California State Education bureaucracy maintaining—with a straight face—that it needed a study to know that lots of kids never took algebra and that California schools’ instructional materials are far too watered down to teach anybody anything significant?

One must admire the sheer extent of these people’s gall in urging us not to blame the poor students. Notice that there isn’t a hint that the California education establishment intends to go back and do anything on behalf of these poor, under-prepared children—like offer them remedial math training, free of charge. There is also no discussion of exactly how much the value of a high school graduate’s diploma has now been cheapened by the admission that it’s not actually necessary to know anything in order to get one—for the next two years at least, anyway.

Again, this is chiefly a problem for people who won’t be getting any further education credentials. According to a study by Thomas S. Dee, in “Education Next,” (which you can read here) the data from states that have beefed up their academic curriculum requirements—i.e., more years of English, math, etc.—and that have imposed exit requirements suggests that these changes have slightly increased the drop out rate of at-risk students but somewhat more significantly increased the employment rates of the students that did graduate. Thus, the effect of California delaying such an exam is likely to be an increase in the unemployment rate of its marginal students.

Not that the education establishment gives a hoot. They are terrified of the political heat they would take if they actually admitted that a fifth of the students who stuck around in the system for 13 years had never absorbed enough information or skills to justifying graduating from high school. Better to hand them a watered down diploma and hope it all blows over.

Now, if you’re following the whole school accountability issue, you may be asking: “What about the Federal ‘No Child Left Behind Act?’ Won’t schools that fail to make steady educational progress comply risk losing federal education money, be forced to offer tutoring to low-achieving students and, eventually, be forced into complete reorganization? “

Well, maybe. The NCLBA envisions a 12-year improvement pattern during which 100% of students will be expected to reach competency (however each state defines “competency”). Note the time span for the improvement—just long enough to flush the entire current cohort of kids out of school. In short, the kids who are currently in the system (like my children) are apparently too screwed up by the previous regime of poor education to ever be expected to achieve such “competency.”

Oh, yeah, and that “steady progress” business of the NCLBA is already being transparently gamed. A New York Times article—pointed out to me by Teacher X--from May 22 (which you can read here if you are willing to shell out) lays out the dynamic:

Texas has not been alone in lowering its testing standards in recent months. Educators in other states have been making similar decisions as they seek to avoid the penalties that the federal law imposes on schools whose students fare poorly on standardized tests. Since President Bush signed the law in January 2002, all 50 states have presented plans for compliance. But some experts say there is only a veneer of acquiescence. Quietly, they say, states are doing their best to avoid costly sanctions.

Michigan's standards had been among the nation's highest, which caused problems last year when 1,513 schools there were labeled under the law as needing improvement, more than in any other state. So Michigan officials lowered the percentage of students who must pass statewide tests to certify a school as making adequate progress - to 42 percent, from 75 percent of high school students on English tests, for example. That reduced the number of schools so labeled to 216. Colorado employed another tactic that will result in fewer schools being labeled as needing improvement. It overhauled the grading system used on its tests, lumping students previously characterized on the basis of test scores as "partially proficient" with those called "proficient."

"Some states are lowering the passing scores, they're redefining schools in need of improvement and they're deferring the hard task of achievement-boosting into the distant future," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education who supports the law's goal of raising standards. "That's a really cynical approach."

Cynicism? Gee, who would have expected such a thing? And from the Education Empire, no less? How do they get away with it? One might consider the iron-clad links between the giant teacher unions and the Democratic Party. The same New York Times story points out:

The 600-page law, Mr. Bush's basic education initiative, was passed with bipartisan backing four months after Sept. 11, 2001. Many prominent Democrats, however, have since withdrawn their support, including Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who recently described it as "a phony gimmick."

"We were all suckered into it," Mr. Gephardt said. "It's a fraud."

You go, Mr. Gephardt. After you give up on running for president, I think there’s a job for you on the California State Board of Education.



P.S. For those who think I'm indulging in partisan politics, I can only remark that the Democrats deserve to be publicly shamed for selling out the national interest for 30 pieces of silver from the teachers' unions. It's certainly as sleazy a relationship as anything between Cheney and Haliburton, and it affects far more people.

posted by Friedrich at July 10, 2003


It's all very shocking...and broken...and feels like another problem that seems unsolvable. Sigh. Anybody have any ideas?? I'm all out. Would it make sense to limit the total number of classes---readin', writin', 'rithmatic, and U.S. history, and just do our damndest to make sure these kids can pass those?? I know the Blowhards would sputter---but compared to the magnitude of the problem, is "art" and "music appreciation" and "sex ed" really as important. Maybe these states need to use the budget they've got to really teach a smaller number of subjects better, and if parents want Jill or Johnny to play the guitar or act in a play or learn to paint, they need to pony up separately. It's sad---all those things were available to me in the public school I attended. But maybe we've got to throw out 60's nostalgia and get back to something that has a cat's chance in hell of being effective.

Posted by: annette on July 10, 2003 5:00 PM

Friedrich is dead-on in terms of what teachers' unions and the educational establishment fear most: acknowledging that they can't educate the majority of students in the very competencies that the establishment uses as the criteria for graduation. In my experience, few educators (I teach at the college level) will hold students or other educators responsible for student performance. Easier and more politically expedient to blame poverty or whatever social ailment you'd like

But I was struck by this:
"the data from states that have beefed up their academic curriculum requirements—i.e., more years of English, math, etc.—and that have imposed exit requirements suggests that these changes have slightly increased the drop out rate of at-risk students but somewhat more significantly increased the employment rates of the students that did graduate."

Would it be so bad if fewer students graduated? I've often wondered if by expanding access to HIGHER education, we've weakened standards and made bachelor's degrees less valuable and meaningful. I suspect this weakening of standards and devaluation of degrees has trickled down to high schools. Is it time to reconsider the idea that everyone needs a college degree (I don't have the exact numbers, but don't surveys tell us that over 75% of high school students intend to attend college), or even that everyone needs a high school degree? The European approach, with extensive tracking, vocational education, etc., is admittedly elitist, but would it restore the meaning of high school and college if we didn't expect every last young person to go?

Posted by: Michael on July 10, 2003 8:23 PM

"...the Democrats deserve to publicly shamed for selling out the national interest for 30 pieces of silver from the teachers' unions. It's certainly as sleazy a relationship as anything between Cheney and Haliburton, and it affects far more people."

What a lovely way to make a marvelous point.

Posted by: j.c. on July 10, 2003 11:36 PM

I find this graph, from the Dept. of Education, amusing:

It's on their front page right now. Seems that the kids read just as badly no matter how much money they throw at it.

Use the same recipe, get the same bread. They just use more flour, and don't consider doing things any differently.

Perhaps using tried and true methods (like phonics?) that were abandoned in the 20th Century?

Posted by: David Mercer on July 11, 2003 2:41 AM

I think, Michael, if you are going to toss out the idea that we should look at NOT expecting high school diplomas from all of our children, you should lay out some ideas on how those kids are going to support themselves later in life. It's a basic for most gainful employment that is a step above digging ditches or pouring concrete in the hot sun all day.

It's one of the hurdles parent who homeschool thru high school have to jump over. They seem to be able to educate their children adequately from all the studies on them I've read. And they do it cheaper if you look at the cost per pupil. Perhaps there are some lessons there.

I see this as a much larger social issue than just teaching, schools and standards. Testing is an abysmal way to measure what chidren know and can use but it is extremely easy to administer and use to make policy with.

Posted by: Deb on July 11, 2003 10:34 AM

OK, Deb, I'll respond. (I'm not the Blowhard Michael, BTW).

IF the point of high school education is to generate employable individuals for an increasingly knowledge-oriented and symbolically based economy, our high schools are clearly failling. So why not consider placing those kids for whom a general education or liberal artsy sort of high school curriculum is not the best route to employability in vocational training programs? I'm all in favor of everyone being exposed to history and Shakespeare, learning how to write, and cultivating a love of knowledge for its own sake. (Listen to me - I teach philosophy for a living!) But the battle for general education in high scools has been lost . Most parents I know view college as job training, so why would they view high school any differently? I just think we need to reconsider the "K-12 general education gets you a decent job" paradigm we've accepted for so long. It's not working, and maybe the alternative is a greater diversity of educational options for teenagers. Traditional high school for the college-bound, more practical training for others. After all, the boom sectors of our economy, employment-wise, are in services, health care, etc. Is a general college-prep education necessary for a career as a customer service rep, a nurse's assistant, and so on? Perhaps by segmenting the education we offer kids we could improve our high schools and colleges, and give more kids what they need and want. Elitist and hierarchical? Could be.

I'm also disturbed by this:
"most gainful employment that is a step above digging ditches or pouring concrete in the hot sun all day."

These are honorable professions, a fact I think our culture has lost. No parent should be ashamed of what their kids do to make an honest living. These jobs are just as essential to society as tax accounting or (wink wink Blowhards!) art and music.

Posted by: Michael on July 11, 2003 1:06 PM


I deliberately didn't go into the subject of whether the kind of standardized testing that is going on is "optimal" or not. (My suspicion is that testing is more critical than you appear to be arguing, but it has to be used rather differently than schools currently employ it--but I hope to get into this issue in further posts and maybe learn some things along the way, so maybe I'll change my mind.)

What I was arguing in this post, however, was that given the unruly, virtually un-manageable size and scope of the public schools, people have tried to use standardized tests as levers, admittedly crude, to force some kinds of change--and that the public school "industry" continues to resist with all its being, at least in "under-the-radar" fashions. Putting on my "ruthless boss" hat, I occasionally wonder if the only way to change such a dysfunctional organizational culture would be by a wholesale replacement of the people who currently make up the organization.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 11, 2003 1:39 PM

Michael (of the non Blowhard variety),

I actually have a fair amount of respect for people who work in the trades, service industries etc. I married a machinist (who eventually went to college and is now a industrial engineer), grew up with two folks who were not given the choice of going to college because a Depression got in the way and live among farmers who can expertly produce the milk I buy but probably have never heard of Henry James or Degas or Beowulf. I apologize if I badly expressed what I was trying to say!

I would never feel shame in any way if my son elected to be a ditch digger--the rub is that I want him to have the choice. And right now, in the society we live in, without a diploma your choices are limited by other people's expectations. That was what I was getting at. You cant just change or model change in the way schools are structured without also changing the way society looks at schools and the expectations that are put on them by the public.

I suspect we have a difference of opinion with the purpose of high school since I dont view high school as generally college prep. That may be because my kids are in a rural school where there are more electives like "Ag Mechanics" than there are "20c Women Writers." I would have no problem with vocational high schools that are separate from college prep schools as long as they have the same basic standards for literacy and numeracy. But I wonder how equitable those schools would be to the kids who dont come from upper middle class parents. I think we would just see another variation of what we have now--certain kids go to good schools and certain kids dont. Who decides which kid is college bound?

Friedrich, After some thought, I would agree that testing of students is extremely critical in the early grades. Up until, say 6th grade, when the content is primarly skill based, I actually think the tests should be administered yearly. I also dont like the whole idea of social promotion which seems to defeat the purpose of education in the first place. But by the time you hit your senior year in high school, it's way too late to determine whether you should graduate based on a test. And how do you objectively test higher level cognitive skills on a standardized test? I hire people occassionally and fire them also and I understand the concern employers have with the skills of the kids coming out of college and high school. I just really dont like what this Administration is trying to do about it. And after reading the cover story of today's NYTimes with the Houston record keeping issues, I am even more dubious it will work.

Posted by: Deb on July 11, 2003 2:42 PM

Deb and others-

1) Increasingly high schools are being driven by standardized testing and by college preparatory requirements. And even for those students whose destination isn't college, high schools still teach them a broad array of subjects, most of which are tangential (at best) to their futures in the workforce.

2) I agree that it would be great for people to have a choice between various educational tracks, and that would be a drawback to the more segmented approach I recommended in my earlier posts. But we've hit upon a fundamental tension in our society: trying to respect or enhance the autonomy of individuals versus the efficiency or effectiveness of our universal institutions. Usually those kinds of conflicts are hard to resolve, no?!

Posted by: Non-Blowhard on July 11, 2003 5:11 PM

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