Beyond the Tests: Supporting Higher Standards for Our Urban Schools

Published by the Trenton Times
March 7, 2006

Education Law Center

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings spent a few hours in New Jersey promoting the Bush administration’s reform plan for public high schools. Listening to her speak, I was dumbstruck by the gap between the rhetoric of reform and the real problems faced by our secondary schools.

I spent 30 years teaching high school in Paterson. My school and many others desperately need reform. Too many students are not graduating at all, and many who do are poorly prepared for college and careers. While New Jersey’s graduation rates are among the highest in the nation, only about half of our urban students are graduating. And 40 percent of those students pass by taking the special review assessment (SRA) that will be phased out in the next few years.

Secretary Spelling’s solution sounds simple. “Raise expectations,” she says, by making math and science courses more demanding and, of course, giving more tests. Unfortunately, no one asked the secretary what help high schools need, especially in urban districts, to meet these higher academic standards.

Making high school curricula more difficult and offering more honors and advanced-placement courses will not help schools bridge the growing gap between higher standards and the many students we lose each year to the streets, the prisons and the unemployment lines. Tougher standards alone won’t help schools and students that aren’t meeting existing ones.

The secretary ignored the real issue: What can we do to make high schools better, not just harder? How can we help teachers, parents, administrators and concerned business and civic leaders improve our high
schools so that they are safer, less crowded, more relevant and connected to their communities? We need reforms to improve high school performance that go well beyond standards and tests.

Nowhere is the need more urgent than in our cities. Half of the freshmen entering a typical urban high school read at the sixth- or seventh-grade level. Without dramatic changes, their prospects for mastering college level work are slim. “Higher standards” alone won’t address this reality or the deep alienation young people face in large, anonymous high schools.

Raising expectations without changing the way these schools function will only push more young people out the door, increasing crime and poverty rates.

There are some promising signs, though the secretary didn’t mention them. In response to a court order in the Abbott v. Burke case, New Jersey has launched its own reform initiative to provide help to urban high schools. The initiative does require tougher academic standards to prepare students in grades 6-12 for college and career options. But it also does much more:

  • — Middle and high schools must provide students with small learning environments, including teams of teachers working with students over multiple years;
  • — Teacher teams should have flexibility and support to decide how to best use their time and resources;
  • — Students and their families will receive personalized family advocacy through regular weekly sessions, family conferences and home-school communication; and
  • — District and school personnel will receive technical assistance to implement and sustain these changes.

It is an illusion to think that we can meet higher standards without moving to higher levels of support for the students, families, teachers and schools who are expected to reach them. The New Jersey secondary
school initiative provides a framework to do that. The challenge is to make it a top education priority and to sustain the effort over the long haul.

Our children don’t need more big talk from federal officials. They need us to do the hard work of reform, starting now, so that they can actually meet the high expectations that we say we have for them.

Stan Karp works on secondary school reform at Education Law Center in Newark.

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