President's Corner

Keeping Our Eyes on the Real Target

by Karl V. Hertz


So many people today are deeply interested in the educational success of our children. From President Clinton to the citizen on the street in Thiensville, Wis., everyone has an idea. Maybe that is as it should be because, after all, anyone who has gone to school has a level of expertise. In addition, as the world is changing at a rapid pace, we need to adjust to all the changes around us.

However, as we look at our desire to improve, we should keep in mind the many successes of the post-World War II years. Student dropout rates are lower than they were 25 years ago, yet 65 percent of Americans think the dropout rate is up. How many people today know that only 10 percent of the students in 1889 graduated from high school? Not many.

When Phil Schlechty thinks about school reform, he uses the phrase, "a history of complaints," to describe those people who keep driving us back to the good old days. As we think about our obvious need to be ready for changing times and the next century, it is hard to imagine the answer would be found in an era when 10 percent of our children were expected to do what we now require of 95 percent of our students.

The most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools might well be a source of mixed signals. The public dramatically favors placing a computer in every classroom, establishing national standards for measuring the academic performance of the public schools, moving persistent troublemakers into alternative schools, allowing parents and students to attend the public school of their choice, using standardized tests to measure student academic achievement, grouping students in classes according to ability level and establishing a national curriculum. (Interestingly, little scientific research exists to show these initiatives will lift achievement, and actually some evidence shows they do harm.)

In the same survey, I found it noteworthy that the public is not much interested in lengthening the school year or lengthening the school day, even though evidence shows our students would benefit from having more time to learn.

As educators who care deeply for children, we must sort through all of this polling. One can’t help feeling that all of our citizens should take a solid course in logic because it might be the best tool the students could have going into the future.

Let me close on a positive note. First, Dan Woll, president of the Wisconsin Association of School Administrators, told us recently that the FBI reports less than one-half of one percent of our children between 10 and 17 years of age have been arrested for violent crime, even though 55 percent of all the stories we see on TV about our youth involve violence. Second, while in Saskatoon with a group of Canadian administrators recently, I was seated at a table with a farm family. Their 21-year-old daughter is preparing to be a teacher. Their 16-year-old daughter is blind and disabled. The young women were our entertainment. Their singing, filled with happiness and exuberance, captured us all.

Once again, our wonderful children continue to fill us with amazement, even as we struggle with the politics of what is best for them.