2001-03-31 / Columnists

School Scope

Over the past few weeks I have written about two of the most important components of any educational plan – discipline and testing. There is a third that is as important but that is much more ephemeral than the others. That component is "standards."

There are those who believe that I have belittled the idea of standards over the past several months. That is not true. I have always been an opponent of "social promotion" and therefore a proponent of "standards."

When I still worked at IS 53, the then principal of the school, Vito Martino, and I had lots of arguments over the question. He wanted to promote everybody, including those who did not meet whatever standards there were back in those days of the late 1980’s.

He, along with many others, thought that is was terrible to hold kids back. He believed that holding a child back was destructive to that child’s self-esteem and that the child would eventually drop out. He always believed that the student would catch up sooner or later.

I believed that we should set a reasonable standard and then stick to it. Since an eighth grade student had, at the time, only to reach a fourth grade reading level, I thought that the standard was reasonable. I believed that we were teaching students the wrong lessons in life if we told them that they were successful and allowed them to move on even though they could not reach the most minimal standards. There were kids who failed every major subject, failed their standardized tests and had terrible discipline and attendance records, yet they were moved onward and upward.

Then came the end of "social promotion" and the beginning of a push for each student to meet standards.

You would think that I would be happy about the new move. I guess that I would be if it were not all smoke and mirrors.

What are standards?

They are benchmarks that every student should strive for. Students who reach standards, or who "do standard-setting work," should be promoted. Others should be held back until they can meet the standard.

That is easy to say. It is harder to take that nice idea and make it work in the real world.

The very notion of "standards" raises many questions.

The first question is one of who sets the standards?

There are lots of "standards" kicking around.

There are the new standards from the New York State Education Department. There has been lots of opposition to those standards from alternative education schools and from immigrant groups.

There are the New Standards in English Language Arts, Science and Mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh. The city has bought that program whole cloth and there are many good things in the program.

The two sets of standards are not necessarily the same.

I went to a conference in Albany on the new standards at a time that I thought that they were the same.

One of the New Standards in English Language Arts, labeled the "E1a Standard," says that students must read 25 books.

When I mentioned that standard, using the program shorthand, nobody in the room with the exception of city teachers knew what I was talking about. Nobody else in the state uses the program.

The state has no such standard.

It probably would be productive here to take a look at the E1a standard.

It says that "students must read 25 books or book equivalents" each year.

What does that mean? To most people, the intent is clear. Students have to read 25 books and respond to them.

O.K! What is a "book?"

You know, a book is a book.

In my younger days, I "wrote" an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth on a fourth or fifth grade level. It is on sale at major bookstores around the nation and through Amazon.com. It is in many school libraries including, I am sure, many of the libraries in this district. Is my version of Jules Verne a "book" or is the original (admittedly much better written than mine) the only version of the book that students can read?

There are many who believe that books such as mine should not be considered books under the E1a standard. They want the kids to read the originals. They liken my book to a long-version Classic Comic and perhaps they are right.

There are others who believe that any book, with the exception of a comic book, should count.

There are still others who believe, as I do, that whether or not the book is a book depends on the student who is reading it.

For a student who has a Level III or IV reading level, to read my book would be silly. That student should be reading Verne in the original.

The majority of the students in our Rockaway schools, however, are reading Level I.

You can ask them all to read Verne in the original and they will not be able to do it. They don’t have the decoding skills to do it. They don’t have the vocabulary skills to do it.

Therefore, by defining a "book" as Verne in the original or Shakespeare in the original or even a book written for teens such as My Brother, Sam is Dead, will be self-defeating.

Do we say, then, that those kids at Level I have automatically failed because they cannot meet the E1a standard, or do we allow them to read my version of Verne and count it as a "book?"

Do we allow kids who are at the bottom of Level I, who have no decoding skills or vocabulary skills whatsoever, to read specialized periodicals designed for them and count them as an "equivalent" so that those students can reasonably meet the standard, or do we define the standard so narrowly that we doom them to fail?

Many say that there has to be one standard and that all students must meet that standard. After all, they argue, if you set different standards for different kids, then you have set no standards at all.

I am not sure that they are not right.

I am not sure that they are right.

It is a confusing question.

We set differing sets of standards all the time.

There are different standards for boys and girls on the President’s Physical Fitness Test. They recognize the differences inherent in gender.

There are different standards set in marathon races. A runner who is 21 years old might be considered a failure if he or she did one time yet that time would be successful for a 50 year old. They recognize the differences inherent in age.

Physically-challenged students do not compete against able-bodied students in our yearly Olympic games. They recognize the difference inherent in physical disabilities.

Why not then recognize the differences inherent in the learning process?

I will tell you why not. Because the politically correct have led everybody to believe that "All Children Can Learn," and the implication there is that they can all learn at the same rate and with the same capacity if only the schools were somehow better.

We all know better. All children can learn, but they cannot all learn the same, nor can they all learn at the same rate and in the same way.

Until we recognize that, we will not begin to address the real problems that we face.

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