A weekend interview with ...
... Florida K-12 Chancellor Cheri Yecke. Yecke, who joined the Florida Department of Education two years ago, has been a classroom teacher, a Virginia state board of education member, a division leader in the U.S. Department of Education, and the head of the education departments in Virginia and Minnesota. Yecke spoke with the Gradebook about secondary education reform.
The problem that secondary education faces in the United States, she said, is a lack of academic pressure in the middle schools. "If you look at the fact that this decline at the middle level is not happening in other countries, then what is it about the United States that is causing it to happen? I believe it is the lack of rigor in the expectations and also in the curriculum," Yecke said. She pointed to a spate of recent reports showing that student grades are rising but their achievement levels are dropping - a sign of grade inflation, not of quality instruction.
Yecke pointed to Singapore as an example of what could happen, with proper motivation. "Singapore in 1990 had a dropout rate of 19 percent," she said. The nation put into place high-stakes exams, upped the level of academic rigor in its courses and the dropout rate dropped to 3 percent. "It was counterintuitive. But what they found in Singapore was that when children are challenged, they rise to the challenge."
She traced the decline of U.S. middle schools back to 1979, when some researchers stated that your brain stops growing about the time you turn 12, and teaching too much difficult material could damage a young person's brain. Several groups, including the National Middle Schools Association, adopted that theory (at least for a while), setting the tone for several years.
Florida is trying to deal with the situation, Yecke said. One step last year was to get lawmakers to provide extra funding for students to take entry-level algebra while still in middle school. "This year we asked them to expand what they did with Algebra I and ask them to provide weighted funding for science and math," Yecke said. "It's an incentive to encourage the students to take more advanced science and math at the middle grades. (Because) we know the higher levels of math that students take can be a predictor of their ability to graduate high school in four years."
The point, Yecke said, is that high school reform begins well before high school. Maybe it's even rooted in prekindergarten. "You simply cannot have high levels of expectation in high school if you have not started that earlier," she said.
That's why the state is having middle school students begin planning for major areas of study they will pursue while in high school, Yecke explained. "Of course you may have a kid who says, 'I'm going to be a teacher.' You have other kids who aren't sure what they want to do. Say one kid wants to be a vet bcause they like kittens. They sign up for a major in science and after a year they say, 'You know what? This isn't for me. I cannot even dissect a frog.' It's better to find that out while you're a sophomore than while you're in college. ... As adults we have an obligation to ensure that children don't wander aimlessly through 13 years of education. If we can help them to focus we're giving them a gift."
Looking ahead, Yecke talked about the possibility of end-of-course exams replacing, or supplementing, the FCAT. The idea, which is working through the Legislature, would require students to pass a standard test to earn credits toward graduation, rather than pass a single exam that looks cumulatively at their knowledge. "I believe they are looking for consistency in implementation of the standards, consistency of instruction," she said. "An A in Leon county should be the same as an a in Sarasota. ... We need to learn more."
The other key focus is on choices for students. The DOE has sponsored innovation fairs, to help connect schools with programs that work with schools in search of good programs. Yecke called the sessions a powerful way to get districts involved in the career and technical academies that are becoming vogue as schools seek to meet the needs of students who want to go to work, not college, after high school. "We intend to do that again this year," Yecke said. "This is great. This is an exciting time to be involved in education reform in Florida."