Wednesday, February 23, 2005

High School Reform, Round 1

NYTimes Editorial
February 23, 2005

President Bush raised the country's hopes last month when he previewed a $1.5 billion initiative that would promote desperately needed reform in the American high school system. The package laid out in the president's budget proposal touches on many of the right issues, but it is underfinanced and poorly conceived - and dead on arrival in Congress, which has signaled its intent to ignore crucial provisions of Mr. Bush's proposal. The White House, which failed to push for adequate funds for its last big education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, has only itself to blame for failing to do the necessary preparation before unveiling this big idea. Nevertheless, Congress should understand what's at stake here. As school reform grinds to a halt in Washington, American students are falling further and further behind their peers in Asia and Europe, where universally accessible quality schools are producing highly skilled workers at a rate that far outstrips schools in the United States.

The traditional American high school, as conceived a century ago, was never meant to produce well-educated workers in the numbers required by today's economy. Remaking the system so American students catch up with their peers abroad will require several big changes. The curriculum must become far more rigorous across the board, and that can happen only if teachers improve. The schools must offer broad-based remedial instruction to help the eye-popping 70 percent of students who arrive at high school reading too poorly to absorb the complex subject matter they will be required to cover. The system must also develop ways to ensure that students leave school with problem-solving and communication skills that will allow them to thrive in the information economy.

President Bush wants to extend right into high school the testing requirements that are mandated for the lower grades under No Child Left Behind. This page has been second to none in supporting systematic testing, but talking about tests without first addressing all the things that are wrong with the current system is putting the cart before the horse.

Mr. Bush has also proposed a package of academic interventions for struggling students that he would pay for mainly by killing off a $1.3 billion federally financed vocational education program. This figure is far short of what's needed to renovate America's ailing high school system. But the president's underlying point - that many vocational education programs obstruct academic achievement - is perfectly valid. The low-end programs prepare students for low-skill jobs that no longer exist. Worst of all, they commonly become dumping grounds for poor and minority students, who are pushed through shop classes - with no academics to speak of - and then deposited on the street after graduating with meaningless diplomas. Shockingly, the typical American high school student earns more credits in vocational education than in either math or science.

The only way to justify keeping vocational programs is to make sure that they offer a sound academic grounding along with preparation for the new economy's high-skill jobs, instead of just wood shop and fender pounding. At the moment, however, some in Congress would like to push in exactly the wrong way by exempting vocational programs from even the inadequate current academic standards.

Many members of Congress have gotten heat from their districts about the demands made by the current No Child Left Behind standards, and getting them to push for further improvements in quality will be hard. Mr. Bush made a tactical error by failing to prepare the political ground in advance, but the game is not yet lost. Taking aim at vocational education is an excellent way to get high school reform off the ground - but only if the Bush administration will use its political muscle and go public with its case. The opportunity will be missed if the president throws up his hands and slinks away.

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