Rather than allow ill-prepared high school students to flounder and probably drop out of school, schools ought to give such students a year of intensive retraining in the basic reading and arithmetic skills they missed in elementary school, says Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a speech she is to give in Philadelphia today.
More than half the states, including California, now require, or soon will require, their students to pass a graduation exam to get a diploma. Nationwide, the dropout rate has been falling slowly, and the most recent figures put it at about 5% of high school students annually. But many worry that the figure will begin rising as struggling students give up.
"We need to do whatever it takes to rescue these kids," an advance text of Feldman's speech to delegates to the AFT's annual convention says. "I don't have to tell you what being a high school dropout means in today's economy."
Most middle and high school teachers have been trained to teach their specialties and do not know how to teach basic arithmetic or reading. Acknowledging that, Feldman said schools should tap the expertise of the armed services, which, in times of war, have successfully polished the rough academic skills of recruits and readied them for more advanced training.
"The results were spectacular," Feldman's text says. "Given an opportunity to prove themselves, and with support along the way, thousands of previously discarded youth . . . found a way to break the cycle of poverty."
The dilemma of how to help students who reach high school without being prepared to master high school work is hardly new. But it's been brought into sharper focus these days by the growing emphasis on exams, as well as laws in California, Texas and elsewhere that seek to halt the practice of promoting students to the next grade who are not ready.
School districts in Long Beach, Oceanside, Calif., Orlando, Fla., Cincinnati, Chicago and elsewhere have created "academies" for eighth- or ninth-graders to give them an extra year to prepare for high school. Many school districts are trying to provide that extra help in class after school, on Saturdays or during the summer--all of which Feldman endorses as well.
Roy Romer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said he liked Feldman's ideas.
"When they are in middle or high school and can't read or do simple basic math . . . they need to be put in a setting where it's OK to confess, 'I can't read,' " Romer said. "Let them concentrate on that and then reenter the stream."
James R. Brown, the superintendent of the Glendale Unified School District and a co-chairman of a committee developing the state's new exit exam, applauded the spirit of Feldman's remarks. But he said he believes that separating struggling students from their peers would be counterproductive.
"I'd be concerned they would lose contact with other children who are working at different levels but who can often be a source of guidance and help in formal and informal ways," Brown said.
Glendale is trying other ways of helping older students satisfy more challenging requirements. In the future, for example, students will have to pass algebra and geometry to graduate. So, for those students who need it, those classes are taught over the course of three semesters instead of two.
It's becoming more common in California for schools to enroll older students with reading difficulties in intensive classes that start with basic letters and letter sounds. But most such schools expect those students to do that extra work before or after school or even in place of physical education or electives, such as music.
"They wanted the kids to take the regular curriculum along with an intervention curriculum, and for lots of those kids that didn't make sense," said Sheila Mandel, a reading teacher who has worked with secondary students.
The Long Beach Unified School District three years ago created a special school for eighth-graders who had racked up more than one F. They were not allowed to go on to high school until they'd raised their grades.
"It comes down to a question of whether you intervene now or let them fail later," said Richard Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the school district. "A whole year may be a long time, but anything less than than may not be enough."
Though it might take extraordinary efforts to help students meet higher standards, Feldman said, lowering the standards should not be an option.
The "plain, painful truth," she said, is that some students are victimized by the nation's quest for more rigorous academic standards. "But let me be blunt . . . they would be just as victimized if standards were lowered for them."
The AFT represents nearly a million teachers, mostly in urban areas. United Teachers-Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is affiliated with both the AFT and the National Education Assn.