Marcia Neal Column January 04, 2009

Education reform requires holding students accountable

The Daily Sentinel is right to call for real school reform immediately. It has been 25 years since “A Nation At Risk” was published, followed by wave after wave of well-meaning but ineffective reform. What has been the one missing ingredient in reform? Student accountability. For some reason, while we call for accountable teachers, administrators and parents, we never ask for accountable students, therefore we seldom have them.

When reformers of the ’60s began to talk of the ineffectiveness of “failing” students and having them repeat the grade or course, which was, indeed, ineffective, the prescribed cure — passing them on even if they hadn’t mastered the necessary knowledge and skills — was probably more ineffective.

In fact, what we did was to very successfully teach kids that it didn’t matter if they didn’t pass, they would be moved on anyway. By pairing it up with what was probably one of the worst innovations—the middle school philosophy, which preached a doctrine of self-esteem and social adjustments — we created a perfect storm. As students learned that they didn’t have to do anything in order to progress, they didn’t. We now have students coming into high school telling teachers that “I don’t do homework” and “I never study for tests.”

When Mesa State College and School District 51 instituted a remedial program whereby Mesa sent teachers to Central High to provide the remediation “up front” for nonproficiency in math and English, there was a perfect opportunity to institute a program that could have been a model for the state. Instead these students are just as likely to need the remediation classes in college. Why? Because there was no requirement that the student pass the test while still in high school in order to receive a diploma.

Gov. Ritter’s Cap4Kids has the laudable goal of requiring students to earn academic credit instead of being rewarded for “seat time.” But the criteria have yet to be established and, given the glacial slowness of innovation in our public schools, how long will we have to wait to hear how this will be accomplished?

I don’t want to oversimplify this issue. There are other changes that must take place. However, none of them will be successful until we address the main problem.

It will take time to convince students and the public that we are serious, and there may well be fallout. The dropout rate may get worse before it gets better. However, there is growing support as some charter and experimental schools have proved very successful by increasing academic expectations with rigor and relevance.

Support for interventions and alternative methods is also crucial. In the old days when students failed, they had to repeat the class, doing exactly what they had done before. We need to be able to measure what they have learned, provide what they have not been given and complete, instead of repeat, the learning. Repetition in itself is not a bad idea. There are many instances when taking a math or science class again in order to gain mastery has been very successful. 

Yes, real reform is vital for our children and our future. What does it mean? One thing it will mean is doing things differently. We keep trying to reform the system we have — doing the same thing, just attempting to do it better. But almost nothing we do today is done the same way it was even 15 or 20 years ago. Medical care and banking have changed. The dial phones that once sat on our desks have been converted to cordless or cell phones, Blackberries with text messages. Boom boxes? How about 1,000 tunes on your iPod? Education however, is the same as it has been since the 1950s. Computers are used in the office, in attendance, in grade recording and sometimes by the teacher — but seldom by the student in the classroom. 

What is sacred about the school day, the bus schedule, the nine-month calendar? Bill Gates says that, even when it is operating as it is designed to operate, there is nothing more dysfunctional than today’s high school. Why can’t it be open from early morning until evening — with students and teachers choosing the most convenient times, allowing for flexibility, online learning, tutoring and much more?

Why do we cling to the old, nine-month schedule? The last time this discussion was held it was blocked by coaches and athletes’ parents. But there is no reason that sports couldn’t continue as they have. Changing the way we do things does not mean throwing out the valuable experiences, it just means facing up to the fact that high school is irrelevant to 50 percent or more of our students.

Here’s a great quote I saw recently: “Why do we insist on keeping the students who don’t want to be there with those that do?” We should be looking at a three-year alternative, followed by a year of community college or technical school, and stop the pretense that all of our students are college-bound.

We don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel. We don’t need to spend years of study and implementation, while further waves of students graduate poorly prepared. It takes courage and action and, most importantly, the support of the community, parents and businesses alike.

Far too often, when change is suggested it is the public that balks, saying: “We want change … just not that change!”

Marcia Neal taught in School District 51 for 21 years. She served as a member of the District 51 Board of Education for eight years. In November, she was elected as the 3rd Congressional District representative on the State Board of Education.


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