A weekend interview with ...
... Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who now heads the Alliance for Excellence Education, an advocacy group that focuses on high school reforms geared toward making sure every high school student graduates ready for the world of college or work. Wise visited Tampa to speak to the National Superintendent's Forum. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about No Child Left Behind, secondary school literacy initiatives and related subjects.
What is the main message that you bring?
The topic is about educational leadership, and my message is how important it is. But also, this group has an interest in literacy and the importance of education leaders, whether they are in education or they are political or in business, to understand the significance of literacy, particularly in secondary schools. ... Florida is actually one of the, if not the most advanced states in recognizing this.
How would you quantify that for Florida?
I quantify that by the fact that first of all the state is recognized and put literacy in the middle schools and the high schools, particularly in the middle schools. Simply the recognition that reading and comprehension doesn't stop at the fourth grade is a significant achievement. Until just a few years ago most states did not have an effective secondary literacy program. Florida was one of the first to develop it.
The NAEP data is the best evidence of that. If you look nationally at the NAEP scores in reading for fourth graders, they are going up. ... But you look at NAEP scores for eighth graders, and you see that they have leveled off and they are making far less gain and, indeed, depending on how you interpret the NAEP data, you've got only 30 percent nationally reading at a proficient level. ...
It sounds like that means there's a lot of work to be done.
There's an incredible amount of work. Because if you have 70 percent of your eighth graders coming into high school barely reading at grade level and 29 percent of them reading two or three grades below level ... then you've got a recipe for a high dropout rate. And indeed, I can take a look at a state's dropout rate and it will be within a point or two of the eighth-grade "below basic" reading levels.
Let's talk about dropout rates. I know that's something you focus on, but also Florida has been talking about how they have a horrible dropout rate and they have to do even more.
What I appreciate once again, and most states are doing this now, Florida is willing to take a tough look in the mirror. For many years in this country we figured out every way to avoid calling someone a dropout. And the results were we had overly rosy graduation rates being reported. I saw one state - not Florida - that just two years ago was saying it had a 4.7 percent dropout rate. What they were calculating was twelfth graders in versus twelfth graders who graduate. Well, 65 percent of kids who drop out, drop out in the ninth and tenth grades. ... That's important that we first recognize a realistic dropout rate and who it is that is dropping out. Because that then permits us to take the steps necessary to know where to intervene in a strategic way.
That takes us to the second thing that Florida does well, or at least has been a pioneer for the rest of the country. And that is its longitudinal data system. Because without good data, you don't know who is dropping out. You don't know where they are. And you can't monitor them to see what works for them, and also for those who come behind.
One of the things that people have been talking about here now is career and technical education as a way to keep students active and interested in their academics. Is that a good way to go?
... The answer is yes, If it's a quality CTE program. This is what I mean by that. Quality means that the program recognizes that the qualifications for going right into the work force are now almost the same if not the same as succeeding in the first year of college. And so, many of the same skills and knowledge are the same for the work force or going into college. What a good CTE program does is, it not only provides that good basic education but it does it in such a way that it engages students in something that they see as relevant to their lives. ...
In my day, CTE was called voc-ed. It usually was in a separate part of the school if not a separate building altogether. And the idea was that these kids don't need the same kind of background that the college prep kids do, and they can be mechanics or whatever. Well, today, when you take your car in, you're going to be approached by a person in a white coat and the first thing they do is plug it into a computer. You need the same literacy and numeracy skills in many cases for the work place as you do for college. ...
It's what we call multiple pathways. We have to improve the graduation rate because that's the jumping off spot for success in our society. ... At the same time we need to make sure in improving that graduation rate we have a quality education behind the diploma. And CTE is one means of improving both by giving students an education they feel is relevant to their future and also one that is quality and prepares them to go even further.
What are some of the other ways that you see?
CTE is one means. But not everyone is looking to go into the work force immediately. Some envision immediately going into a four-year program. So it's important that everyone have the basic literacy and numeracy skills but also some for instance are going to be taking Advanced Placement courses. Some states ... have been working a lot with what they call dual enrollment. ... There are a number of different pathways. But the goal is the same. You want to ensure that a student graduates and they graduate college and work place ready. ...
How does that tie into with all the things you're looking into with No Child Left Behind reform? Are they connected?
They absolutely are. Because literacy underscores success in any of these endeavors. ... ACT the testing service two years ago did a study called Reading Between the Lines. And in it they documented that success in either college or the work place, and also success in science or math, depended upon having good literacy skills.
When I say literacy, there's a difference between literacy at the grade school level and literacy at the high school level. Because at the high school level, a student that may be running two grades behind grade level can read you what's on a printed page. But they have to be able to take three pages, read them, synthesize it and draw conclusions from it. That's the key, and those are the skills that are so important. ...
The federal effort has been mainly restricted to grades K-3, and roughly the federal government assisted school districts with about $1.2-billion in funding. Pres. Bush proposed a couple of years ago something for secondary schools called Striving Readers, and there are eight pilot projects. But until two years ago, $1.2-billion for grades K-3 and grades 7-12 no federal dollars. And yet once again the NAEP scores for eighth grade show that two-thirds of our kids need assistance in literacy.
So this is all being taken care of - or not being taken care of - at the state level?
States have increasingly stepped up. And that's where it ought to start. Florida was one of the leaders. Gov. Bush was one of the early ones who recognized the need for literacy efforts in the secondary schools, particularly middle schools. Other states have now come on board. Eight states received planning grants last year from the National Governors Association to develop state plans to secondary school systems. ...
I wish I had known 10 years ago what I have learned in the last three as head of the Alliance. Because I understood the need for literacy in the early grades, building a strong foundation. What I didn't spend any time on, but should have, was literacy in middle and high schools. I never asked the question, Well, how are we doing there? Or, What are we doing? And the federal government has been equally deficient in that. There is now growing recognition, and our hope is that in NCLB this initiative called Striving Readers ... is significantly expanded. ...
So your message to all the education leaders ... is what, if you were to boil it down?
If I were to boil it down, I would say, it is important to communicate both at the school level and to the public the importance of literacy, that the job isn't done by grade school. ... Too often, literacy efforts trail off by the sixth grade. And what we need to recognize, particularly that we have a new population coming in, a growing population of ELL (English language learners) students, we need to understand that literacy is important at every stage. ... My final message is, we know what works, and literacy is one of the key ways. But we have to have the will. And that's not just the will of the educator in the school. That's critical. But we also have to have the policy maker, the public officials' will, too. As they're being asked, particularly in tight budget times, to fund programs, they need to understand the importance of literacy.
Everybody seems so focused on tests, when it all comes down to it. How important are tests? I've seen kids who get really down because their scores are so low, and their schools are failing, and all the negative publicity toward their schools. Is that sort of accountability testing a negative?
We need accountability. But I think the message needs to be changed. This isn't about punishment. It's about how we improve. So the test as much as anything ought to be used to look at what it is a student needs, or what a school needs, and then how can we assist. ... I'll tell you where the testing ought to lead to, ultimately. That is every student ought to have a personal graduation plan developed for them based upon what they need. We urge one that starts in the seventh grade. It's worked out. Recognizes a student's particular needs, particular strengths and challenges, and what is it that student needs to graduate college- or work place ready. In that way you will quickly identify who it is who needs literacy, who it is who needs numeracy, what are the particular efforts that need to be made for that student.
It sounds like a lot of work.
It's a lot of work. But if we don't do it... We can't continue working off the same model. There are a number of high schools that are doing a good job, in fact doing a much better job than what you could reasonably expect. But they were working off, because they were designed for their heyday was 50 or 60 years ago. We have a totally different society, we have a totally different work force demand. When I graduated from high school in 1966, only 30 percent of kids went on to college and you didn't need a high school diploma to get a good paying job. Today, 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require postsecondary. And depending on what study you look at, a minimum of 60, a maximum of 80 percent, of current jobs require postsecondary. ... It used to be we could function very, very well by simply sending a relatively small percentage on to college. They could carry the rest of the economy. Today our economy demands that we have every child college-ready or ready for the work place. It's a moral imperative.