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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Seven Warnings and One Mistake in High School Reform

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007; 8:52 AM

I receive many reports on how to improve our schools. This is an occupational hazard. Reading them is often confusing, depressing, disorienting and maddening. But there is no help for it. The academic papers, commission recommendations and task force action plans are usually written by some of the smartest experts in the country. They have stuff I need to know, so I plow through them.

It is best that I be vague, however, about what the margins of these reports look like after I have finished with them. I have just gone through, for instance, a paper by two leading experts, W. Norton Grubb of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jeannie Oakes of the University of California, Los Angeles. I looked forward to reading their report, "'Restoring Value' to the High School Diploma: The Rhetoric and Practice of Higher Standards." It was published by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. They focus on the push for rigor in high schools and argue that the discussion spends too much time on narrow definitions of rigor, based on test scores and demanding courses, and ignores other conceptions, such as more sophisticated levels of understanding and the ability to apply learning in unfamiliar settings.

The authors write well and know their stuff. Nonetheless, here are some of the words I wrote on the margins: "stupid," "so what?" "no! no!" "recipe for disaster," "booo!" "who cares?" and a few others I may not quote on a family Web site.

Ordinarily, I would use this column to flay Grubb and Oakes for disagreeing with me on how to fix high schools, my favorite topic. But I am writing this on a lovely Saturday, with the leaves turning and the birds happily washing themselves in the little puddles left by my garden-watering wife. Why don't I, just this once, write about this report's good points? They include at least seven astute warnings about sloppy thinking in the high school reform debate. Here they are, plus one mistake in their thinking that I could not resist trashing.

1. The U.S. high school diploma has NOT lost its value. We tend to focus on short-term comparative statistics. It is true that the economic value of a college degree outstrips a high school diploma these days, but American high school graduates are better off than they used to be. Their average incomes have increased, as have their opportunities for higher education.

2. The failure to raise achievement among teenagers is NOT such a big threat to our economy. Grubb and Oakes say: "The diagnoses that center on low standards as an economic threat are misleading. They blame only education for problems that have many complex causes." Note for instance, how poorly the Japanese economy has done relative to the United States since the early 1990s. At that time, the Japanese had the better economy, and many experts credited their public schools.

3. Recommendations for higher standards in high schools, based on entrance requirements for selective four-year colleges, ignore two-year community colleges and the many non-selective four-year schools. Such proposed higher standards "would therefore obviously be irrelevant in the many institutions that specialize in accommodating relatively poorly prepared students," Grubb and Oakes say.

4. Beware of high-flying objectives in high school reform proposals, such as higher-order skills or problem-solving or critical thinking or creativity, because nobody yet has found a foolproof way to teach them and measure them. The two authors blame this on too much attention to skills that can be assessed through cheap standardized tests, which is where I started scribbling rude remarks, but I promised not to go there.

5. Many reports say that high schools should also prepare students for the workplace, but nobody really knows how to do that either. Grubb and Oakes find this glaring weak spot in many higher standards proposals: "It's not obvious when and where anyone might need to find a tangent line or solve a quadratic equation, and so there's no help for teachers who want to motivate students by discussing the practical usefulness of academic work."

6. Amid all the talk about involving employers in high school reform, few people have good examples of this actually working. You often read in newspapers like mine about businesses forming partnerships with high schools. They sound good, but I have yet to find one that has had any significant impact on student achievement.

7. More rigorous high school standards that bore many kids and leave behind those from low-income families are not good, but neither are exciting and involving standards that don't teach much. Grubb and Oakes are unashamedly on the side of educators who revere educational philosopher John Dewey and think teaching should be interesting to students and relevant to their lives. But they surprised me by acknowledging how disappointing some of the Dewey-inspired programs have been: "Greater relevance and interest at the expense of rigor [is] something that has happened with traditional vocational programs, some general track courses, some experience-based learning, and almost any subject that is converted into fun and games."

That last quote proves how smart Grubb and Oakes are. But that does not mean they don't have some mistaken ideas. Their most irksome proposal, which comes up several times in this paper, is that educators develop approaches to the high school that can address several goals simultaneously, rather than, as they say, "lurching from one critique to another in endless rounds of reform."

Yeah, right. That's really going to happen. Both Grubb and Oakes are members of our species and reside on this planet. They know that lurching from one critique to another in endless rounds of reform is precisely the way we human beings -- particularly American educators -- do everything.

Grubb and Oakes reject our human inability to agree on clear and consistent plans because they are academics. They are condemned by the ideals of their profession to come up with approaches to fixing schools that are logical and consistent. Still, that is not all bad. Their beautifully integrated and balanced proposals will inspire more critiques, more lurching. Over time, the effect of all that fighting and jumping around is forward motion.

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