As business leaders express dismay that the U.S. workforce is losing its competitive edge in technology and the sciences, increasing numbers of educators and concerned citizens point an accusing finger at American high schools.
Scores on the federal government’s report card for public schools, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, show that American students make rapid gains in elementary school, slow a bit in middle school and stall in senior high.
Critics point out that large numbers of college freshmen must take remedial courses in key subjects. In recent months, blue ribbon committees in Kentucky have issued reports questioning the cost of this extensive remediation and calling for sweeping changes in secondary schools.
A review of the evidence indicates that Owensboro and Daviess County high schools compare well with others in Kentucky and that Kentucky schools rank reasonably well in the nation.
However, the facts also indicate that, here as elsewhere:
Some see this as the latest eruption of alarmism that has surfaced every few years at least as far back as 1958 when, with the Russians temporarily ahead in the space race, the Rickover report placed blame on American education. “The chronic shortage of good scientists, engineers and other professionals which plagues us,” Admiral Hyman G. Rickover declared, “is the result of time wasted in public schools which must be made up later on.”
Others such as Willard Daggett of the International Center for Leadership in Education, which is collaborating with the Kentucky Department of Education on improving the state’s high schools, argue that this time the threat is real and imminent. Daggett, president of the center, says four major trends are already in play and will soon converge in a perfect storm to swamp the U.S. economy unless we improve American secondary schools quickly.
The four trends Daggett identifies are globalization, technology, demographic trends and changing values and attitudes. He points to emerging competition from Eastern Europe, India and China. “We have witnessed the rapid spread of capitalism to over half the world’s population in just 16 years.”
These populations “recognize the energy and sacrifices required of them,” he said. “Our youth . . . seem to believe it is their birthright to enjoy a middle class lifestyle . . . We lack the drive needed to match the aggressiveness of other nations in the global economy.”
While dubious about some of Daggett’s arguments, local college presidents echo his concern about students’ failure to take studies seriously. “I am surprised at the lackadaisical attitude of students coming and not understanding that it’s a competitive world,” said Anne Federlein, president, Kentucky Wesleyan College.
President Vivian M. Bowles of Brescia University agrees. In high school, Bowles said, students neglect their studies because they work too much to earn money for items such as cars and clothes. Having tasted relative affluence, they insist on working when they get to college.
“They drive much better cars than a lot of our faculty,” she said. “But they feel that since they work so many hours they shouldn’t have to put in the required amount of study time.”
At Brescia, only about 50 students, out of their 600, require remediation each year. Bowles attributes that, in part, to their selective admission policy and in part to the fact that they make intensive tutoring available to all students.
Even though freshmen at Kentucky Wesleyan score slightly higher than the Kentucky average on their ACT tests, about 20 percent of their 680 students need remedial instruction in math, English or reading. Owensboro Community and Technical College enrolls 22 percent of its 5,100 students in at least one remedial class. In addition, its tutoring staff helped 1,406 students an average of five times each in the semester just ended, college officials said.
Math is by far the biggest challenge for freshmen, according to local college officials. Math is followed closely by reading deficiencies and often is combined with them. Many students still need additional help with writing, even though performance in that area has improved with the implementation of the Kentucky Educational Reform Act passed in 1990.
Remedial instruction is expensive. To provide the necessary individualized attention, classes must be limited to 16 to 20 students. Taking these courses means students typically pay extra tuition without receiving credit toward a degree and ultimately lose income (because they delay graduation). Since the extra tuition almost never covers all the cost of providing remediation, the balance, in one form or another, must be covered by taxpayers.
State Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, recently estimated in a television interview that Kentuckians pay $25 million a year for remedial instruction. Students or their parents pay $11 million of this, he said, and taxpayers pick up $14 million.
The Brescia remediation program costs about $250,000, according to college officials. Almost all of that has been covered by a federal grant, according to Dolores Kiesler, director of student support services. But signs are that much of the federal funding will soon be withdrawn, she said.
From figures provided by the Owensboro Community and Technical College, the Public Life Advocate estimates the cost of its program to be about $295,700.
Proposals for dealing with the problem vary according to what educators and advocates believe are the causes.
Prominent among the voices calling for an across-the-board toughening of high school requirements is Nick Brake, president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation. Brake, who helped launch Owensboro’s Discover College to bridge the gap between high school and higher education, supports his argument for higher expectations by citing reports from the American Diploma Project and ACT.
“The ACT study actually said that students who decide not to go to college should take a more rigorous high school curriculum than those going to college” so that they will be prepared for the workplace, Brake said. Students going directly into the workplace need those skills right away if they are to earn a good living, Brake explained, whereas students in college will receive additional instruction and mentoring. “The associate degree today is the high school diploma of 50 or 20 years ago,” he observed.
Brake served on a task force of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which issued a report in May 2005 calling for requiring all high school students to complete the Kentucky Scholars course of study. Those requirements are:
Four credits in English
Three credits in mathematics: algebra I, geometry and algebra II (The committee also recommended requiring a pre-calculus course.)
Three credits in science: biology, chemistry and physics
Three and one half courses in social sciences (chosen from U.S. history, world history, world geography, economics and government)
Two credits in a language other than English.
Since then, the Kentucky Board of Education has voted to require all students to complete four math credits during high school, including algebra II.
Helen Mountjoy of Daviess County, a member and former chair of the state Board of Education, said requiring another year of math of all students “is a good step in helping kids become more successful at the college level.” Currently, many students finish taking math as juniors and may lose what they’ve learned before they start college, she said. “We know that taking that year off really makes a difference in what you retain,” she said.
But will toughening graduation requirements leave struggling students in the dust? The Prichard Committee report emphasized that high schools must change in other ways so that students get the instructional support they will need to meet the tougher requirements. Mountjoy pointed out that the state board also specified that school districts could teach the required math “core content” in nontraditional ways, partly as a way of reaching students who have trouble with it.
Local educators agree that simply demanding more is a recipe for failure. “If it were that easy, we would have done it a long time ago,” said Larry Vick, superintendent of Owensboro Public Schools.
Vick said it’s clear that students who have had rigorous courses do better in college than those who haven’t – but that experience shows that students who take those courses have other advantages, including their parents’ expectations that they’ll go to college and have good work and study habits.
“The kids that are going to be successful are taking the tougher courses,” he said. “They are not successful because they are taking the tougher courses.
Mountjoy said the challenge, then, is for schools to help all students benefit from the high expectations that were demanded in the Kentucky Education Reform Act: “I think they (expectations) come from three different sources – parents setting expectations for their children, students setting expectations for themselves, and educators setting expectations for students.
“Certainly some students come from homes where education is not the foremost concern , probably putting food on the table is the foremost concern … so it’s even more important that the other adults they interact with have high expectations for them. If we don’t, they’re not going to succeed.”
At the same time, teachers and tutors of remedial students emphasize that social, psychological, and financial influences, rather than indifference or intellectual capacity, often suppress students’ school performance.
“We have families that are pretty disoriented today,” said Judy Coomes, program coordinator, Owensboro Community and Technical College Teaching and Learning Center. “We have students who have to work because they’re in single-parent homes and that child is expected to pay his own bills and maybe help mom with hers.”
Coomes taught in Owensboro Public Schools before joining the community college. “So I see both sides of the fence,” she says. “A lot of our students are paying everything. They’re supporting their car, their insurance as well as their tuition. Most of them are still living at home, but some are not even doing that.”
Many reformers argue that the needs of the 21st century require a different kind of secondary school. One often-suggested change is measuring individual students’ actual accomplishment rather than “seat time” in the classroom.
“We’ve got to be more flexible,” said Tom Shelton, superintendent of Daviess County Public Schools. “We’ve looked at the K-12 experience, traditionally, as a 13-year model. Well, maybe some children can do that in 10 years but some maybe it takes 16.”
Shelton thinks major changes are necessary if high schools are to begin sending a bigger proportion of students to college. “We send basically our top students to those institutions right now, and the retention rate is really scary to me.” He proposes “looking at both sides of the equation, our preparation as well as their programs.”
Mountjoy agreed. The state Department of Education already has a “Refocusing Secondary Education” initiative which is piloting alternative approaches to instruction.
At the same time, the way the state trains and supports teachers and administrators “needs to be changed radically,’ she said. “We haven’t figured out the best ways yet.”
High schools would also benefit from different ways of teaching traditional subjects, and math is a prime example, educators say.
To turn out students who can read and understand today’s complicated technical manuals Vick said, “We need to re-do the high school curriculum to give them tech reading and practical mathematics in a more usable form … I don’t disagree with the fact that they need a very rigorous course, but the relevancy (is also important).”
Vick’s emphasis on teaching for relevance also strikes the right note with Guy Mauldin, Johnson City, Tenn., a nationally regarded authority on the teaching of mathematics. “Remediation doesn’t work if they teach the same basic math over and over in the same way,” he said.
Interestingly, however, asking students to apply what they’re learning can actually accelerate their progress, he said. “Research shows that if you ask people to multiply 1 ¾ x 1.67 many can’t do it. But if you ask them what 1 ¾ yards of cloth would cost at $1.67 a yard, most people can figure it out. Application is actually easier.”
Mauldin draws on long experience teaching math in high school and college to present workshops for teachers and write tests for the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that publishes the ACT. The instructional problem, he said, is that most math teachers are abstract thinkers who only know to teach math as they were taught.
Mauldin supports an “integrated” approach embodying abstract mathematical principles in concrete problem situations. In that context, he said, “Most people find written problems much easier.”
Some authorities pointed to the state-mandated assessment system, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System or CATS, as one source of the problem. “KERA drives our whole curriculum,” Shelton said. “In my personal opinion, the core content of the curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Brescia’s Kiesler agrees. Teachers spread themselves thin trying to cover everything on the test, she says. “Instead of being able to teach … for lifelong learning, teachers are being forced to teach to a specific test. That’s how students are being cheated of their education.”
A March 2004 report prepared by HumRRo, a Virginia-based human resource research organization for the Kentucky Department of Education said it does appear that Kentucky teachers are focusing their instructional efforts toward the tests.
That detracts from time that teachers would otherwise spend teaching the higher level concepts that are measured by the ACT and badly needed by college-bound students, the report said.
Mountjoy did not disagree that the CATS assessment covers too much territory – but that, she said, is because Kentucky’s core content (what teachers are expected to cover) is so broad. Currently the board is revising the core content to address concerns about its breadth, which will also affect CATS. The revised core content will identify the most important concepts for students to learn at each grade level, she said.
However she also said that the assessment has helped the state make strides forward in student learning, as evidenced by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have improved more rapidly than most states’.
When it was implemented in the early 1990s, the assessment helped ensure that all schools across Kentucky covered what was believed to be important for students to know – something that had not been done in the past, she said. Now, the federal No Child Left Behind law requires all states to have assessments, and Kentucky’s compares favorably to others, she said.
“If you have a statewide test, there is going to be teaching to the test,” she said. The real question, then, is whether “we have a test that’s worth teaching to,” she said.
Carolyn Witt Jones, executive director of the Partnership for Successful Schools, a statewide group based in Lexington, said Kentucky’s core content and the way it’s measured are “solid.” (The Partnership was created in the early 1990s by Kentucky’s major employers, UPS, Ashland and Humana, to support school reform. The Partnership is also the group which introduced the Kentucky State Scholars program to many Kentucky schools.)
“There probably need to be more diagnostic tools to make sure that parents and teachers and kids know where they stand on a regular basis. But (the core content, on which the test is based) has constantly been … upgraded. The test itself has been looked at, modified. So it’s not like we’re re doing the same test that we did in the early 90s.”
As to whether the Kentucky core content tests pressure teachers to focus on weaker students, Jones said, “You are really talking about kind of a dumbing down … We just haven’t seen that happening.” Jones said her organization had not looked specifically at whether the test measures higher-level skills in math.
However Kentucky’s Department of Education and Council on Postsecondary Education recently participated in The American Diploma Project, which examined whether the reading and math standards in Kentucky and several other states meet the needs of both colleges and employers. As a result of that review, Kentucky is looking at how to more closely align what’s taught in high school and what’s needed afterward.
One promising development is the increasingly frequent enrollment of high school students in college-level courses. Students who do well in these courses can earn college credit and meet high school requirements at the same time.
Owensboro Community and Technical College has about 1,150 students in dual enrollment courses -- slightly more than the number taking remedial classes. Not all of these are academically superior students. Some, in fact, are “at risk” students, who were on the verge of dropping out of high school before they were enrolled in technical courses.
“We are one of 60 colleges in the country that have fully functioning high schools on campus, where high school students can come and go to college and get their two-year degree and their high school diploma at the same time,” said Nick Brake. Before agreeing to head the economic development corporation, Brake was dean of institutional effectiveness at the college.
Advanced placement courses are an alternative that some favor over dual enrollment courses. These college-level courses, taught by credentialed high school teachers differ from dual enrollment courses in that students must pass standardized ACT-approved end of course tests.
Demonstrating proficiency on an end of course test prepared by experts who are strangers to both teachers and students, Mauldin says, removes questions of quality control that have sometimes surfaced with dual enrollment courses.
Addington points to dual enrollment courses as a way to crack what educators call the “first generation” problem. “The Coleman report in the mid-sixties said the number one predictor of … success in college was the education of the mother. So if we could get these kiddoes through college, then hopefully the next generation would … be far more likely to demand it of their children.
“That’s what we’re doing with dual enrollments. If we can get them into college while they’re still in high school and get a significant number of courses under their belt, then the response is, ‘Well gee, I’ve already got this much, and I did OK, and I can get some financial aid. Why don’t I just go ahead and complete my degree?’”
Addington’s scenario describes exactly the dynamic that brought Andrew Gates to Kentucky Wesleyan in the fall of 2004 with 30 hours (about one year) of advanced placement college credit. Gates’ mother earned an associate degree at Madisonville Community College before he was born. Later she went back to school to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business management. His father, a farmer who also manages rental real estate, is a licensed plumber and electrician.
Though he chose not to do so, Gates has the option, under Wesleyan’s present policy, of applying his advanced placement credit as electives towards his degree. The school is presently reviewing that policy and may soon join the growing number of institutions that allow advanced placement credit to meet some core requirements.
Like most others, Shelton feels that Owensboro and Daviess County have made a good beginning. However, he calls for helping more parents understand the skills their children are going to need to succeed in today’s workplace. “A lot of people believe now that there is some level of higher education needed now for any type of job a student wants to move toward. If that’s true, we as a community have got to … say that this is the reality. I do not feel the average stakeholder in the community has had those conversations. We may have had leaders in the community who have … (and) politicians who have, but the average citizen needs to understand why students need that higher education. Then we can expect that higher ed and K-12 educators will work together to make sure those opportunities are provided.”
“I am really, really pleased that there is enough interest among so many different groups and so many different people in this community in making some progress in this. The simple fact … that it’s in our newspaper, that it comes up in conversations in chamber of commerce meetings, citizens’ committee (on education) conversations, P-16 alliance discussions. There (are) … a lot of communities that I could say are not as far along as we are, and they are not as interested in it as we are … That it’s a matter of conversation and is on people’s minds is a positive thing."