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A case for higher academic standards

A recent University of Chicago study found that only 42 percent of eighth-graders from low-income families expect to earn college degrees, compared with 89 percent of their wealthier Counterparts.


Yet all of these youngsters will soon be competing in a market where two out of three new jobs will require some post-secondary education, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. In this era of diminished hopes for the undereducated, the poor will continue to face dead-end jobs and inadequate public services. And while their better-educated peers may enjoy higher-paying jobs, they, too, will confront the consequences of continuing economic fragility and dislocation.


The Shape of Now Reforms


Educators bear a major responsibility in averting this scenario. By raising academic standards and focusing on teaching skills that directly prepare students for jobs, we can offer the opportunity to build the brain power that is the basis of a decent, self-sufficient life. Such reform would be based on a clear curricular alignment between all grade levels and across all educational segments. The heart of the initiative would be higher, performance-based standards. its results would be good jobs and useful learning opportunities that would advance our nation’s traditionally underserved students.


The new and higher standards would, first and foremost, mean rethinking how we educate. They would rest on mastery of core foundations: reading, writing, and math in the lower grades; technology, critical thinking, and appreciation of language arts, and culture at the upper levels. Universities would determine the competencies needed for entry-level work at their institutions. And a high school diploma would actually reflect its bearer’s work skills and readiness for college courses.


Such standards Would also transform the dynamic between teachers and students. In a climate focused on building work skills and higher academic attainment, each new mastery would be viewed as its own achievement, opening a door to new educational attainments. Such an approach would go a long way toward relieving the frustration of failure experienced by so many of today’s minority students.


If we were bold and daring, we might even consider abandoning course units and focus instead on measuring performance. We would consider adopting new ways to “credential” our students’ knowledge and skills. We would apply learning more directly to the real world and require students to be more accountable for their own learning. Educational segments would jointly measure the effectiveness of teaching. And finally, educators would expand their partnerships from kindergarten through college, and embrace, the business and community sectors, recognizing the key role each plays in educating our children.


Are our bureaucracies and lack of trust so entrenched as to render us incapable of taking such measures? For most states, the answer is a clear “No.” indeed, a number of states, including Maryland, Georgia, and Oregon have forged partnerships to raise academic standards and improve student learning.

Answering the Critics


Higher standards, however, will also mean higher anxieties. Some will reason that raising standards will limit minority access to higher education. And while that is in part true, the prospect of higher standards raises two issues. First, we must provide the opportunity for real success to students struggling to fulfill their academic promise.


Are these students not already stigmatized by the perception of academic limitation? Do artificially low standards not rob those students of the possibility of meeting higher academic expectations? What is the worth of the academic credentials earned in a system where standards are known to be inadequate for work or continued learning? Clearly, in light of college retention and graduation rates among minorities, we will need to be as vigilant in our monitoring of our children’s academic success as we are aggressive in supporting their college enrollment efforts in the first place.


Secondly, we must demonstrate that the motivation behind higher standards is not to deny but to expand opportunity. One way to achieve this is to directly link adequate resources with academic success, to strengthen the case for adequate funding to support reform initiatives, and to intensify our efforts to make that case effectively.


Other problems present themselves. Will schools and colleges get the resources they need to teach useful technical skills? Will teachers get the professional development opportunities needed to realize the higher standards in the classroom? Who will be held accountable if too many students fail? Will teachers be rewarded when students learn? Political consequences of failure could be serious, including loss of teaching jobs and takeovers of schools.


Against these risks, however, we must proceed. our task is to transform our schools so that we can provide real learning opportunities to the youngsters who are all too ready to give up and drop out. The future of our children and the quality of our lives depend on our summoning the boldness to make it happen.



Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Director of Articulation, University of Maryland System


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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