By Joe Torsella
For almost two years, Pennsylvania has been engaged in spirited debate about the academic expectations we hold for our young people. In public hearings, the halls of the Capitol and newspaper editorial pages, there has been sharp disagreement about whether Pennsylvania should strengthen its high school graduation requirements.
On the surface, this shouldn’t be a controversial question: Today’s high school graduates are entering the worst economy of our lifetimes, and our increasingly mobile society adds complexity and competition to their postsecondary plans. Nor is the state board’s proposal to strengthen graduation requirements a radical one.
Under the plan, students will have several options to meet graduation standards. The state will couple the reform with new resources, and no student will be denied a diploma based on test scores alone. The proposal will eliminate the 11th-grade state tests currently used to comply with No Child Left Behind and replace them with a series of standard course finals — a step that will make the state assessment more relevant to students and reduce testing time.
The proposal isn’t perfect — some business and postsecondary leaders advocated for higher standards. Others claim the regulation is too complicated and will present implementation challenges. But these qualms don’t explain away the fervor of the opposition — and that got me thinking.
In significant ways, I believe the debate around graduation requirements has become a proxy fight for broader policy questions buffeting public schools — and Pennsylvania .
For example, the emerging conversation about a voluntary national "common core" of academic standards might be seen by some as a threat to Pennsylvania ‘s tradition of local control of education decision-making and the power of school boards. Meanwhile, the weak economy might exacerbate worries among parents and educators that higher expectations will increase dropout rates, making the search for good jobs even more challenging for disadvantaged students.
On the issue of local control, let me be clear: School districts will decide how their students meet graduation requirements, and districts that want to set higher standards may do so. In addition, education stakeholders, and especially teachers, will have a significant role and voice in implementing the new policy.
Regarding dropout rates, there is no correlation between higher academic expectations and students leaving school. In fact, an absence of challenging curriculum is the more likely culprit along with systemic issues such as school safety.
While it’s worth remembering that assessments will be just one part of one pathway to meeting graduation requirements, results released last month by the Maryland Department of Education should help ease these concerns: only 11 of about 60,000 Maryland high school seniors did not graduate in 2009 solely because they failed the state’s exams.
Indeed, evidence from other high-performing states suggests that stronger graduation requirements are a powerful reform lever. Since instituting new graduation requirements, Virginia has seen significant achievement gains in every subject. Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts legislator and co-author of that state’s Education Reform Act, calls strong graduation requirements the "single most significant act in catalyzing Massachusetts ‘s phenomenal growth in student achievement."
For Pennsylvania , the question now is whether to go forward or stand still. State-level education reforms — sustained across multiple administrations — have produced significant achievements, including some of the nation’s most rigorous academic standards. And during the last seven years, Harrisburg has made a commitment to dramatic increases in state funding for public education. Even this year’s budget, with billions in cuts to worthy programs, provides a $300 million increase for K-12 education.
These efforts have led to achievement gains across Pennsylvania and among all groups of students. But we have more work to do — especially for our high schools when more than 40 percent of graduates cannot demonstrate grade-level mastery of reading and math.
We have today a proposal that reflects input from thousands of Pennsylvanians and diverse stakeholders.
The proposal has been strengthened thanks to study by legislative leaders — especially Sens. Jeffrey Piccola and Andrew Dinniman and Rep. James Roebuck.
The regulation borrows from strategies in the nation’s best-performing public education systems. And it finds balance between rigorous expectations for every student and flexibility that respects individual learning needs.
For all of these reasons, it’s time to move ahead.
By Joe Torsella, Chairperson of the State Board of Education.
(Nothing contained here should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.)