Many corporate and community leaders have noticed a disturbing tendency lately from Indiana’s education establishment – an inclination to make excuses rather than aim higher when it comes to student achievement.
Earlier this year, a simple but compelling reform was proposed in the Indiana General Assembly – Hoosier schools should focus more resources and attention on early reading education, and be required to teach every student to read by the end of third grade.
Volumes of academic research showed that if students aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade, their chances of ever catching up to their peers plummet. The odds of graduating high school, much less going on to college, drop dramatically as well – their futures are put in jeopardy.
The premise of reform was simple: Make reading education the top priority of the early grades, and if students aren’t reading at grade level at the end of third grade, get them special help and make sure they can read before promoting them to the fourth.
We were dismayed by the reaction from the teachers unions and many administrators. Some protested, incredibly, that holding students back hurt them more than being illiterate. They demanded more funding, arguing that it was unfair to expect schools to teach kids to read within their existing budgets (more than $10,000 per pupil on average, statewide).
Eventually, the Indiana Department of Education was authorized to study the need for reading reform, and is crafting a plan to end social promotion without reading proficiency. But the reflexive opposition against such a common-sense approach to improving accountability and learning was disturbing.
We had a similar feeling reading the reactions to the Indiana Department of Education’s recently-expressed goal that at least 25% of Hoosier high schoolers should pass at least one Advanced Placement exam, better preparing them for college studies. The DOE asserts that the 25% goal, while ambitious, is based on PSAT tests that show at least a third of students have the ability to excel in AP coursework if they apply themselves.
Instead of embracing the goal, some educators again turned to excuses. Editorials arguing that AP curricula would have to be watered down in order to allow one of every four students to pass were published by the Indianapolis Star. Others said that only higher-income students in suburban schools could hope to pass AP exams in such numbers – an especially unconscionable message, since education is the surest route out of poverty for underprivileged students. (CICP Board member Steve Burns responded to these arguments with his own editorial.)
Taking in these arguments while recalling the third grade reading debate could evoke only one response – “Here we go again.”
In business, you motivate employees by setting high standards and challenging them to succeed. You don’t embrace a philosophy of pessimism by setting the bar continually lower. Schools aren’t businesses, but the same principle applies: Students will live up to – or down to – the expectations we set for them.
Indiana ranks among the least-educated states in the nation, with fewer college graduates per capita than most states and a high school graduate rate mired in the middle of the pack. In today’s knowledge-based economy, this is the most daunting challenge faced by Hoosiers.
To confront it, we first need a common understanding between educators, policymakers, families, civic and corporate leaders alike – we have to set our sights higher if we want to inspire real progress. On issues like reading and Advanced Placement exams, we have a choice between making excuses and demanding excellence . We must speak with one voice for the latter.
There is the occasional sign of progress. The Indiana State Teachers Association recently embraced performance-based teacher compensation as part of the Department of Education’s application for a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant.
But it still seems as if we have a long way to go towards making Indiana’s educational culture one that embraces accountability, higher standards and student learning above all. Good teachers embrace this approach – we need more of them speaking out, and policies that empower them.