Raising the Educational Bar

Stephen DeAngelis

November 29, 2006

In an earlier post [The Race to the Top], I cited a Bill Gates’ speech delivered at a summit meeting of U.S. governors. In that speech, he minced no words. “American high schools are obsolete,” he told the governors. “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded. … By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they are working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the work force of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. … Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.” As I noted in that post, what Mr. Gates was telling the governors: “If we don’t fix American education, I will not be able to hire your kids.”

Although I don’t see any broadbased movement to change our school systems dramatically, there are some programs working to raise the bar within the current system [“Escaping ‘Average,’ by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, 28 November 2006]. The basic philosophy behind these programs is that everyone can do better if their reach exceeds their grasp. Mathews begins his article by focusing on schools in Seaford, Delaware.

School leaders in Seaford, Del., had noticed for some time that very few average students took the most challenging courses in the town’s secondary schools. As was the case in most small school systems, many Seaford families did not expect much. Parents and teachers did not want to push kids beyond their limits. But Secondary Education Director James VanSciver and other Seaford educators became convinced that with extra help, many more students could be taking algebra in middle school and college-level courses in high school. Four years ago, they began offering special tutoring, summer classes and Saturday classes. The number of Advanced Placement classes at Seaford High swelled from four to 14.

We have known for some time that when you expect more from someone and let them know what you expect, they generally perform better — sometimes meeting or exceeding expectations. In fact, it’s been a surefire formula for movie success over the years — think about Blackboard Jungle (1955); To Sir, With Love (1967); Conrack (1974); Stand and Deliver (1988); Lean on Me (1989); Dead Poets Society (1989); and Dangerous Minds (1995). While that formula for success sounds easy, it turns out to be a lot of hard work.

Throughout the country, the desire to coax average students into high-level courses has inspired many innovations. Nearly all seek to teach students how to take notes, write papers and prepare for exams.

What’s innovative about these new approaches, however, is not the philosophy or hard work behind them, but the use of social connections to help achieve success.

They harness what is perhaps the greatest force in U.S. schools — the urge to be a part of a group — by giving the students a sense they are moving onto the college track with others who share their doubts and middling academic records. The largest effort to prepare average students for high-level courses is led by a San Diego-based nonprofit organization called AVID, for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It was started in 1980 by Mary Catherine Swanson, a high school English teacher who was dissatisfied with how average students were treated at her suburban San Diego school, particularly those who were minorities. Swanson retired this year with the program operating in 2,716 schools in 39 states, including Virginia and Maryland, and in the District. … Several school systems have designed their own programs to give average students a boost. In Bellevue, Wash., educators push middle school students to take a course load tough enough to prepare them for college-level work in high school. Middle school students who struggle are sent to a supplementary support class, said Bellevue Superintendent Mike Riley. They go there temporarily during another period and remain in their regular classes, giving them two periods of the subject instead of one. “The support-class teacher maintains continuous contact with the regular teacher,” Riley said. “When the regular teacher verifies a student is able to keep up without additional help, the student is exited from the support class and resumes the regular schedule.” Riley added: “Oftentimes, the trick is not getting the kids into the support class, but how to get them to leave it.” … Desiree Moore, coordinator of the program, was one of the first black students to take AP classes at Seaford High in 1981. “I know what it is like to take a class and be the only minority in it,” she said. Now her son participates in an AP preparation program at the middle school. “We push, push at home,” she said, “but when he sees that he can connect with other African American students in these high-rigor classes, that makes all the difference.”

This social networking is different than most of the connectivity I talk about, but it is no less important for making programs resilient. Raising the bar in U.S. education isn’t a substitute for a complete overhaul, but it is important. It can be achieved but we have to expect more from our children, our teachers, our administrators, and our parents. Working together to form a cohesive social network that supports tougher standards and higher expectations, we can indeed “escape average.” Without an educated work force, nations and corporations cannot remain resilient.