Across the country, local and state governing bodies are moving toward holding students accountable for rigorous academic standards. On one level this is an admirable endeavor. Democracy depends upon a literate populace. But the popularity of this idea among voters has turned the standards movement into a battle cry for candidates on the campaign trail: 'Higher Scores! Harder Classes! More Homework!' I only wish improving education were this simple.
What reform-minded politicians don't seem to understand is that schools are complex communities. Some of these communities, like the one in Santa Monica, Calif., where I have worked my whole professional life, are built upon trust.
Though teachers, parents, administrators, and students may disagree - sometimes vehemently - with one another, beneath the point of contention is the fundamental belief that everyone is operating in good faith.
In all too many school communities, there is little trust. Administrators keen to respond to the latest education initiative put pressure on teachers to raise academic standards. What these eager principals often forget is that many of their teachers have been holding children to high standards for years. Looking for a quick fix, administrators don't trust the successful teachers and successful classroom practices that are already in place.
Placing their trust in educational "experts," administrators often forget to ask the very people who know best - experienced teachers - how to make things better.
On their side, teachers distrust the motives of politicians who have suddenly made academic standards the flavor of the month. Two years ago in his inaugural speech, California Governor Gray Davis announced that he would not run for re-election unless test scores went up. Many teachers shook their heads at such posturing and simply yawned. "Come visit my classroom where there are no books and a leaky roof before you make such promises, governor. Count how many of my students come to school hungry." Demanding that teachers raise academic standards may garner headlines, but it only exacerbates the distrust teachers already feel towards a system that institutionally shortchanges many children.
By all means, let's hold students accountable for rigorous academic standards, but let us hold our politicians and our schools accountable as well. All students need and deserve:
*A caring, well-educated teacher.
*A safe, clean environment in which to learn.
*Up-to-date texts in good condition.
*Well-equipped science labs.
*Access to technology.
*Both classroom libraries and school libraries that are teeming with books for all tastes and interests.
*Athletic programs that are sometimes competitive, sometimes for fun.
*Music, art, and dance programs.
Why are we surprised when children who have all or most of these things do well in school while students who don't drop out? Have you ever noticed what powerful predictors school ZIP Codes are of test scores?
Political candidates need to get their minds around the idea that shouting 'Higher! Harder! More!' is never going to raise academic standards. What it takes is determined leadership committed to real student achievement and willing to invest in education. I don't believe this is beyond our means.
*Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica (Calif.) High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society