New York State, which is ahead of the curve in the nation's push for education reform, is going to face a very tough test as a State next year when reality sets in and we see what an abstract concept like "higher standards" means in practice. And the rest of the nation is watching what we will do. Will we rise to the challenge or give up?
New York is the first state to put so much on the line. Other states are adding new tests, reporting results by school, maybe penalizing a few failing schools. But only in New York is the education reform movement really facing the bottom line, by saying, in effect: No, we will not give you a high-school diploma until we've given you a high-school education.
Our new standards, as measured by the Regents exams, could well mean that thousands -- probably tens of thousands -- of next year's high-school seniors in New York State won't get the high-school diplomas they have been expecting - at the time they expected to get them.
When that happens, what will follow? Will New York beat a hasty retreat from higher standards? Or will the failure rate at last awaken all of us to the do-or-die necessity of shaping up our public school system?
You have no doubt been hearing that The Board of Regents and their higher standards are "betraying" students, or are depriving them of an opportunity to succeed and not fail.
Yet, it is the schools - not all of them, but too many of them - who are setting up tens of thousands of students to fail, by sending them out into the real world with a false certification that they have succeeded in their education.
Out of a misguided conception that it is somehow a kindly thing to do, we have been giving many kids - perhaps one-quarter or more of each year's statewide graduating class - a high-school diploma without giving them a high-school education.
They "graduate," and then the public schools are done with them. But these kids don't have even the minimal literacy, math and other skills needed to make their way in the world. If they go to college or into the military, they are immediately shunted into remedial classes to provide the skills they were supposed to have been taught in high school. If they enter the workforce, they may face a lifetime on the bottom rung of the ladder - if they can get a job at all.
Students who do not initially meet the Regents' new graduation requirements will not be turned out into the streets. Under law they are entitled to a high-school education until they graduate or reach age 21. In contrast, they are not entitled to remedial education in the public schools if they have been given a diploma -- even a relatively meaningless one. Ironically, we leave it to our higher education system to provide and pay for remediation.
Today, it is the students who are being graduated without being educated who are getting turned out into the streets without a future. This is the true tragedy of our education system, and the Board of Regents' plan is intended to put a stop to it.
To adults with jobs in the education field, another five years of study and debate might seem a reasonable amount of time. But further delay looks different from the perspective of employers and, I would submit, students.
In 1983 "A Nation at Risk" was published, documenting the failures of the education system and the need for higher graduation requirements. Yet it will not be until 2001 - 18 years later - that employers can be confident that a newly minted New York State high-school graduate is reasonably competent in algebra and geometry. Since 1983, 15 classes have graduated from high school without standards being raised. And since 1983, three entire cohorts of students have gone through their entire public school careers, from kindergarten through 12th grade. For them, higher standards and education reform have already come too late. For how many more kids can we allow that to be the case?
The Board of Regents displayed great courage in finally deciding it was time to adopt real standards and set real deadlines.
To retreat from these standards now, and the Regents tests which measure whether or not they have been achieved, would be to abandon the best hope of getting the public school system to prepare kids for the real world of the 21st Century.
And there's no reason to retreat. Last years' Regents test scores demonstrate that our schools are moving closer to the mark. We have to hang tough until they finish the job. Test results show it won't be easy. But there are data on achievement rates in some schools with high numbers of disadvantaged kids that undercut the argument that it can't be done, at least certainly not without a great deal more money.
Many individual schools have stopped complaining and started improving by seeking out research-based practices that are working in similar schools. Some of the sharpest improvement rates are in poor districts and high-minority schools. Enough lower-spending schools are improving faster than high-cost ones which proves it can be done.
With the right improvements in the system, upgrading the curriculum and improving teaching, our kids will succeed. And ultimately it is their success - and not the school system's comfort level - that we must be concerned about. The world into which we are sending our high-school graduates is a competitive high-skills place. Well-paying low-skill jobs are rapidly disappearing. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that one in three new jobs created between now and 2001 will require a B.A. or more and that number is only going to go up.
To achieve an American standard of living in the 21st Century job market, it is clear that our young people simply must have high skills.
We must reject the notion that students are "owed" a high school diploma for simply showing up and being a good kid. Nor should we sell ourselves short on what they are capable of achieving.
High-school graduation is not a social event. And a diploma is not a certificate of attendance. It is -- or should be -- a symbol that a student is ready for a demanding and difficult world. If he's not ready, we have to fix that. We have to make sure instruction is high quality and aligned with the standards and tests. If that is in place and if some kids are still having difficulty we have to provide extra time and help.
But if we won't allow ourselves to fail a single kid, we will fail all of them.
All of us in the public owe our support to our school officials, at both the state and local levels, as they face up to this new obligation.