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High Schools Need Bush's Kind of Help

Ohanian Comment: Oh my god. What I'm thinking is unprintable. The last refuge of a disreputable education commentator is to mention having a child.

President George W. Bush dropped the other shoe this week at a Virginia high school.

After first launching an education law that has produced controversy, consternation and (by the way) nationwide academic improvement in elementary grades, the president now wants to extend his reform to America's high scools.

Speaking at J.E.B. Stuart High School just outside the nation's capital, the president told the audience it was time to extend accountability to the uppermost grades.

"Testing is important. Testing at high school levels will help us become more competitive. . . . Testing will make sure that a diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed."

The address garnered all sorts of applause from the high school audience, but the reaction was markedly more tepid - and in some cases, outright hostile - beyond the gymnasium. Congressman George Miller, ranking Democrat on the House education committee, warned: "This proposal for high school, regardless of what merits it might or might not have, will encounter stiff resistance in Congress and in the country until President Bush fulfills the commitments that have already been made to our public schools."

Added Edward M. Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Senate committee responsible for education: "It's time for the White House to realize that America cannot expand opportunity and embrace the future on a tin cup education budget."

OK, so for now, the chief criticism of Bush's education ideas is that he's provided inadequate dollars to pay for them. But let's look a little more closely at that argument. First off, the president has increased spending on education by roughly 40 percent since taking office. Second, Congress itself has severely trimmed some of his efforts to match dollars to initiatives; for example, last year he sought $100 million for his Striving Readers program, aimed at high schoolers struggling with literacy, but lawmakers cut the funding to just $25 million.

Second, let's talk about need - not for dollars, but for reforms to help high schools. As the president noted in his address, just over two-thirds of all U.S. ninth-graders earn a diploma in four years. This is an abysmally low figure, with huge economic and social consequences for the nation. But what of those students, ostensibly all right, who actually collect the precious credential? Let's see: According to our own national measures, just over a third of high school seniors were proficient in reading in 2002, a figure 10 percent lower than four years earlier. For math, less than a fifth of seniors were proficient in 2000, the most recent year 12th-graders took the test.

Compared to the rest of the world? The most recent international assessment found us not only below average in math, but also trailing such industrial juggernauts as Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Ireland. High schools are considered to be in such poor shape that everyone from the Gates Foundation to the National Governors Association has made their reform a priority.

What does the president's plan add to what such groups already are doing? First, he wants $1.2 billion to help states intervene in high schools that are not serving their students. He's seeking $250 million to pay for tests to measure student learning in reading and math. He's proposing $269 million to improve math and science performance. He favors an Adjunct Teachers Corps - professionals with relevant skills who would teach individual courses in middle and high schools. He proposes spending $52 million to help schools with low-income students offer more challenging course work, such as Advanced Placement classes. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he's proposing spending $500 million for states to award bonuses to teachers who improve student performance or agree to work in challenging schools. In not one case will the dollars be adequate to achieve the ultimate goals, but each marks an important start on the journey.

The nay-sayers' final objection is that the task of improving the nation's elementary and middle schools is not yet finished. They say it's too soon to talk about what happens to kids in the upper grades. To them, I offer these words from a superintendent I met when I first began covering education. Every year at budget time, he trotted out this same line. For a long time, I found it the most annoying cliché. But these days, perhaps because I have a child of my own, it rings ever-more true: Our kids get only one chance at this year. We have to make sure it is the best we can do for them.

It'd be great to be able to delay until the wonks had declared perfection. But the kids don't wait - and so, neither can we.

Sheridan is an associate editor of The Plain Dealer's editorial pages.

Contact her at:

csheridan@plaind.com, 216-999-4928

— Chris Sheridan
Cleveland Plain Dealer


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