TWO MESSAGES ON EDUCATION
Washington Post/Feb 25, 2005
Two Messages On Education
AS THE NATION'S governors gather here tomorrow to discuss high schools, state officials of various stripes are putting out curiously mixed messages. On the one hand, Achieve Inc., a business-backed education reform group tht organized this weekend's event together with the National Governors Association, kicking off the conference with the release of some surpirsing data. According to Achieve, only 68 out of every 100 American ninth-graders will graduate from high school. Of that number, only 40 will enter college, only 27 will remain enrolled in their sophomore year and only 18 will graduate "on time" -- no more than two years late, that is -- from either a two-year or a four-year college. Achieve plans to reinforce the impact of those numbers - which deflate the myth of the United States as a society where college degrees are routine -- by giving every governor the relevant numbers for his or her state. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who is chairing the four-day event, will be told that of every 100 ninth-graders, only 41 will enter college and 22 will graduate. For Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), the numbers will show that 45 will enter college and 19 will graduate. In all cases, the numbers for minorities are worse.
As the governors and Achieve acknowledge, much of the explanation for the low numbers of college graduates lies in the low quality of high school curriculums: According to Achieve, more than half of college students are assigned to take remedial English or math in college, andjust under half of employers say they have trouble finding employees with the basic reading and writing skills they need. To fight those problems, the governors will talk about creating more challenging high-stakes tests and graduation requirements so graduates are better prepared, and about developing better relationships between highschools and colleges.
Some of the governors -- from Texas, Ohio and Michigan, for example -- will be coming with lists of bright-sounding innovations they've tried, including small highschools and joint highschool-community college degrees. All agree that there is no single formula for success, which is why it may help to compare notes with other governors.
Nevertheless, the main theme of the weekend will be higher standards and more accountability -- which is why it is worth noting the conclusions of another group of officials, the National Conference of State Legislators,whose task force on the No Child Left Behind Law wound up advocating not accountability but flexibility, which in this context could be a code word for letting standards slip. The state legislators do have a point when they note that the "federal government has become excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education." But that wouldn't have happened if states were doing their job -- if states had ensured that more of their students finish college. The legislators also are right to note that some No Child Left Behind regulations seem absurd. No school is ever likely to meet 100 percent proficiency in everything, for example, and we've written before that the NCLB rules should not be applied to highschool until the bugs have been worked out in middle and elementary schools. But what matters most is whether state officials are focusing their energy on blocking testing and standards, like the legislators, or on trying to find ways to raise them, like the governors. On balance, we prefer the governors' approach, and we hope much comes out of their meeting.