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Schools Pressured to Meet Business Demands

Why do some many educators bow low before corporate rhetoric? One thing many people don't understand is that the business model is designed for widespread failure. That's the purpose. Schools were getting too successful. Now we have a model to guarantee large numbers of pushouts. Don't blame families, blame corporate Standardistos and their political handmaidens.

Note the students as output metaphor employed by a business leader.

When will we get the democratic revolution?

Paul Parets loves his job and his students, and knows, at age 62, exactly why he's been teaching for more than three decades.

"I empower my kids to select the music," said the band director at Alexis I. du Pont High School in Greenville. "They struggle with it. But when they're done, they say, 'We did this.' "

Parets' philosophy of public school education is relatively simple: "It's to produce a literate citizenry to function in a democratic society," he said. "It was never about job skills. It was about producing the American version of the Renaissance man."

But that Renaissance ideal seems quaint, if not medieval, considering what's expected of today's schools and the influence business interests have on public school education in the state.

From high-stakes state testing and increasingly specific standards to tiered diplomas, corporate leaders have prodded legislators into establishing measuring systems as a way to improve the quality of students entering the work force.

"We need to do a better job of preparing our kids," said Valerie Woodruff, state secretary of education. "Part of that is saying that these are the things you really need to do in high school in order to be ready in higher education and the work force."

"What we're hearing from business is they're having to do far too much remediation," said Michael Stetter, director of Curriculum Development for the Department of Education.

Although Woodruff said business's input is welcome, many teachers are defensive and frustrated by some of the suggestions from the business community, the legislature and the No Child Left Behind Act.

It's the children, Parets said, who are the victims of the tug and pull of public education reform.

"We have taken the joy and the thirst to know out of education," he said. "We are turning American education into a public trade school mentality."

Requirements in question

The business community has a stake in a high-quality education system, said Marvin "Skip" Schoenhals, chairman of the state Chamber of Commerce's board of directors and president of WSFS Financial Corp.

"More pragmatically, we take the output of the schools, the students, as a source of employees for the business community," Schoenhals said. "Having the best-educated employees makes the business community more competitive."

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., a champion of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, thinks many of the changes being advocated by business interests are needed.

"Economic changes demand we educate our students better than we have before," Castle said. "What has really evolved in the last decade is the predominance of higher-educated students coming from other countries. India and China are pro- ducing more engineers than we are, and the concern is that if this continues, America is going to lose its economic competitiveness."

Delaware recently commissioned a study of its secondary education requirements from Achieve Inc., a bipartisan organization supported by business, that has created benchmarks for other high schools.

The group's report argues that Delaware's math and English requirements are too vague, and that every student should be placed on a college-prep track that, in math, requires Algebra II at the minimum.

"What people need to recognize is the old way of doing things - with different tracks and levels of knowledge - that world is gone," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve. "We need a common set of knowledge, at least in math and English, and the common set is rigorous, and without it they're unprepared."

Released to state educators in January, the report has been reviewed by the state board and will be incorporated into some of the state's revised standards as early as next year. The report is part of the state's effort to revisit curriculum standards set 10 years ago, Stetter said.

State Rep. Stephanie A. Ulbrich, R-Newark South, who recently introduced a bill that would require the state to create a uniform curriculum for Delaware's public schools, said businesspeople have told her many times "they couldn't hire students because they were not equipped to handle it. And that's pretty frightening."

Jim Wolfe, president and CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce, said his recent experience in the automotive industry taught him that, in general, schools are not putting out able workers. One group of new employees he managed did not know how to use computers.

"I had to set up classrooms to show new workers how to use computers on the assembly line," he said. "New employees should at least know how to turn the computer on, put a serial number in. It surprised us."

But to keep pushing children further, new programs and resources are needed, said Jeff Lawson, principal at du Pont High. "I see what the [business] group is saying, and I agree with them, but I'm concerned, as we keep raising the bar, there are more and more kids who will need additional support to meet that bar."

Setting children up to fail

Bette Coplan, executive vice president at Wesley College in Dover, is surprised that "educators seem to have abdicated their responsibility to take control of what they're teaching," she said. That, at least, is one conclusion to draw from business's growing influence on public school education, she said.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that education generally is more than about specific skills sets," Coplan said. "We need to make the distinction between education and corporate training."

Although the push for higher standards is good, said Andrea Rashbaum, an English language arts specialist at Middletown High School, educators must have the most input.

"I think a partnership is needed," she said. "The business community doesn't know children and child psychology, and that's where the teachers come in."

It's also where the psychologists come in.

"To say everyone has to reach Algebra II is to say that some people are going to fail," said Harriet Ainbinder, a child psychologist. "Children have different abilities and learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, just like we do as adults."

Ainbinder said the business model as applied to public education does not allow for "the variety of humanity" that an open institution inevitably holds.

"Business models should not only speak to weaknesses, but speak to the children who are different in a positive way," she said.

Dave Jones, a teacher at Glasgow High School, said the mix of public education with the needs of the workplace "is a very convoluted, complicated process. Not every high school senior is the same."

In fact, he said, the nexus of the problem often lies outside the school, in society.

"Many of the kids that don't do well in school and don't succeed in the workplace come from dysfunctional homes," he said.

Jones said his colleagues realize they're in part working to prepare students for work.

"But at the end of the day, there's not much we can do," he said. "We can't be parents and guardians."

Mark Holodick, principal of Delmar high and middle schools, said the input of businesspeople is important to the evolution of public school education. But there are caveats.

"It's common sense to work with them to develop curriculum and programs to prepare students for the 21st century," he said. "What we don't want to do is require students to take specific courses which infringe upon them from developing other skills."

Balancing the pressure

There are many educators who think the generally higher standards that businesses push are a good thing.

"For us, we want business input," said Kathy Demarest, spokeswoman for New Castle County's Vo-Tech School District. "We say to them, 'What is it you need, and what is the skill level and industry standards?' "

Instead of college prep, however, she prefers the term "prep for life." Getting students ready for the business world is what vocational schools are all about, she said.

Other educators are also advocates.

"I'm a strong proponent of students taking as much math and science and English as they possibly can," said Judith Wiley, a guidance counselor at Christina High School. "What's happening is that students who I thought might not have been successful are proving me and others wrong. Forced into taking higher levels, they're stepping up to the plate."

Kate Chiquoine, 17, a senior at du Pont High who takes Advanced Placement calculus, said she didn't like math until her fifth-grade teacher inspired her to learn to love it.

"I would complain about having to do math, and he made it better," she said. "We would play games. We would keep a journal. ... He pushed and was a good teacher."

The new requirements are more about challenging students, Stetter said.

"This is the recommended curriculum for youngsters who want to be successful in their post-secondary opportunities," he said. "It is a full-featured high school experience for them. They'll be busy, challenged, and feel better and better about their preparation."

For the high school standards and specific requirements to work, though, the public school system needs to start earlier, Stetter said.

"We need to move down what we're offering from high school students to middle school students," he said. "We're going to have to persuade teachers in middle school not to concentrate on remediation, and convince the elementary school teachers to move more quickly."

Castle went even further. "Frankly, I think all this goes back to the first 60 months of life," he said. "We need to look at Head Start and day care and kindergarten and even pre-kindergarten."

Castle also insisted that rigorous testing is important to know students' abilities.

"No Child Left Behind allows the states to set the standards, but you have to know what you're trying to do each year," he said. "You have to have the measuring device."

Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., R-Beechers Lot, said he felt pressure from the business community when he broached the issue of not linking the results of the Delaware State Testing Program with graduation requirements. Student cannot pass grades without passing tests.

"Word got back to me that if I was going to tamper with the DSTP-graduation link, I needed to touch base with people within the business community," he said. "They're stakeholders and I don't fault them for that, but those within the business community who advocate such solutions are looking for a quick fix. In this situation, there is no quick fix."

What business wants and what public education is tasked to provide are different, Parets, the du Pont High band director, said.

"What the business community wants is skill," said Parets. "They don't want knowledge. They want thoughtless, skilled people who will know how to push the right buttons."

Contact Victor Greto at 324-2832 or vgreto@delawareonline.com.

— Victor Greto
The News Journal


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