Hang Tough on School Standards

President Bush has made education his administration’s No. 1 priority for a good reason: Americans remain deeply worried about their schools. The topic of education — and raising academic standards — is ubiquitous. In poll after poll, the public lists it as a top concern. While the media run daily stories about struggling schools, states have responded with a deluge of legislation. The White House now aims to follow suit with a wave of new accountability checkpoints.

The question is whether American students, teachers, and parents will accept the medicine they are being prescribed (and often prescribing themselves). The signs so far are discouraging. Many states have begun gutting their high-stakes tests. According to a recent report from Education Week, states like California are “simplifying the content of their exams, lowering the passing scores required for graduation, or adding appeals processes and accommodations for students who may be having difficulty.”

Last month, the Educational Testing Service announced that it will cease flagging the results of disabled students who receive extra time or special accommodations on standardized tests. This change comes despite evidence that a growing and disproportionate share of students getting extra time are students from wealthy families who are being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or other learning disabilities. In 1999, for example, private-school students in California were four times as likely as public-school students to have received special accommodations on the SAT.

Here is an education equation we should have learned by now: Lower standards for students lead to less learning. The results of the Third International Math and Science Study tell the tale. In the first TIMSS test, in 1995, our fourth-graders ranked third in science and 12th in math out of 26 nations. As eighth-graders, in 1999, our students fell to 19th in math and 18th in science out of a group of 38 nations. To put it simply, the longer a child stays in school in the United States, the dumber that child gets relative to students in other industrialized nations.

The teaching profession attracts many of our nation’s finest, most devoted citizens. But the fact remains that every day millions of American students sit in classrooms run by adults who know very little about their so-called subject of expertise. This is especially true in math and science. A recent study by a Berkeley scholar compared a group of 23 American elementary school teachers with their Chinese counterparts. It found that even though American teachers had four to six more years of education, they understood much less math. Fewer than half of the American teachers surveyed could divide 1 3/4 by 1/2; every one of the Chinese teachers could solve that equation.

I have often said that parents are a child’s first and all but indispensable teachers. Studies, however, show that American parents often hold lower academic expectations for their children than do parents overseas. This must change before schools will improve. For an indication of what can happen when determined parents insist on high standards, consider the home-schooling movement, where children are scoring well above the national median on standardized tests and often perform at a level above most students in their grade — with less money, less direction from certified teachers, and less government oversight.

How to move forward? Like home-schoolers, we should focus on the simple things. Parents and teachers should insist on meaningful, meaty curricula. We should expect children to master certain ideas and concepts. They should be required to solve complex problems, write substantial and grammatically correct essays, and know the story of great people, great civilizations, and great places. This means requiring them to pass difficult, fact-based, time-restricted exams.

Of course, students with genuine disabilities should be given exceptions. But when hordes of parents drop healthy children off at the local psychiatrist to procure time extensions for standardized tests, they undermine education’s best claim — teaching a young person to value what deserves to be valued. At the least, we should agree that a steeping in moral indifference is the very last thing our children need.

Once a set of standards or a system of testing has been put in place, public officials may be tempted to claim victory over educational malaise. That would be like a new teacher writing a lesson plan for the first year and assuming it will do for the next 30. Standards should be re-examined every year and parents must not complain when those hurdles trip up their own children.

Parents should find out what schools expect of their children and provide them with the necessary discipline and support to meet those expectations. Many of us go to great lengths to finance nice cars, homes, and vacations. Reordering these priorities, channeling more time, effort, and passion into the upbringing of our young, is the only fool-proof way to raise student achievement.

All of this may sound tough, but it is not toughness for its own sake. It is toughness for children’s sake. It is better for a student to be corrected by a parent, a teacher, or a test and then be given a chance to improve, than to be corrected by an often unforgiving, out-of-school world. The whole point of standards is to help children make their way in the world. And for that to happen, there is something for each of us to do.

William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education, is a co-director of Empower America and chairman of K12, an internet-based elementary and secondary school. He is scheduled to appear today with current Secretary of Education Rod Paige at a conference in Santa Clara on the role of the private sector and technology in education.