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Lessons—The Challenge: The Unforeseen Costs of Raising Academic Standards

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


The challenge: The Unforeseen costs of raising academic standards

By  Richard Rothstein

Raising academic standards may be a good idea but, like any policy, it has costs that can later haunt policymakers.

Yesterday’s decision on New York State school financing illustrates the dangers. The state will soon require every graduate to pass college preparatory Regents exams in English, math, social studies and science. Because only about two-thirds of young people go on to college, many to do remedial work, the standards call for extraordinary growth in elementary and secondary schools’ role.

Can the state require such high competence without paying for the extra instruction and social services needed to raise every student to that level?

In the trial leading to yesterday’s ruling, the state’s legal position was awkward. Even if, as it contended, New York City schools are inefficient, eliminating waste would solve little. It would not free enough money for early childhood services so that poor children could start kindergarten as ready to learn as their middle class peers. Nor would it allow for the smaller classes, higher teacher salaries and tutoring programs that would be required to give children without a lot of home support for learning a realistic chance to meet high standards.

So the state’s defense was this: The Regents can require students to pass college-preparatory exams, but the Constitution requires the Legislature only to provide money to support an eighth-grade literacy level.

Justice Leland DeGrasse rejected this argument without quite facing its consequences. He ruled that the state must provide financing to bring students to an academic level far above that represented by the old competency tests (leading to a diploma with ninth-grade skills, at best) but refused to embrace the new Regents standards as a constitutional mandate. Yet in practice, the judge’s description of high levels of literacy, numeracy and other skills the Constitution now requires would be difficult to distinguish from the Regents standards.

The Court of Appeals had earlier defined New York’s constitutional right to a “sound basic education” as learning the competence to vote and serve on a jury. The plaintiffs, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, argued that new Regents standards do include the cognitive skills to analyze complex ballot propositions and weigh statistical and other technical evidence in jury trials. But, the Campaign showed, the state does not appropriate enough money to meet those standards.

The state’s witnesses, paradoxically, denied that the state’s own Regents standards were needed. After all, they said, jurors with trouble weighing complex evidence can always ask other jurors for help. Voters with only eighth-grade literacy can make up their minds by watching television advertisements. One state witness implied that New York City voters might be constitutionally entitled to less education than others, because the city has so many television outlets to inform the less literate.

New York’s quandary is not unique. Other states raising academic requirements must also now decide if their constitutions allow schools to be financed at levels too low for all students to succeed.

In October, Judge Howard Manning of North Carolina Superior Court rejected his state’s claim that although it had college preparatory expectations for all students, it was constitutional to prepare most disadvantaged students to test below grade level. This policy, the judge said, “flunks the smell test.”

Judge Manning noted that North Carolina’s well-trained teachers and curricular services enable most students to succeed by building on support from stable and literate parents.

But such a system, he said, is not adequate for children put “at risk of educational failure” by problems like poor health, poverty, family instability, low parental education, minority status, neighborhood criminal activity and parental underemployment. These children are behind from the first day they enter kindergarten. Regular schools cannot, by themselves, raise such children to grade level when the definition of grade level competence is itself raised.

Therefore, the judge ordered, if North Carolina wants to hold all students to high standards, it must provide all at-risk students with public preschool.

This expensive obligation (about $6,000 per pupil) was not anticipated by legislators when they raised standards for all students.

In New York, Justice DeGrasse has ordered the Legislature to come up with money to enable New York City schools to make its many at-risk students “capable of seizing the opportunity for a sound basic education.” He suggested that this meant funds to raise teacher salaries so that the city could compete with suburbs and enough money and space to reduce class sizes to levels geared to the needs of disadvantaged students.

Raising standards, he seems to be saying, is not only a matter of making proclamations. It also requires money, and it is now time to pay the bill.

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