By Karen Kelly
No one expected much from the 14- and 15-year-olds who were repeating seventh grade at Ballard Hudson Middle School in Macon, Ga. They were the troublemakers, the bullies, the students who disrupted everyone else's learning.
But last fall they were given a choice. If they passed six challenging courses, performed community service and had a flawless behavior record, they would complete two years of schoolwork in one year and move on directly to the ninth grade.
It was asking a lot from the students in which no one believed. But teacher Tracy Dye says the higher expectations changed them.
"Last year in the seventh grade I heard people say, 'You can't get them to do anything,'" Dye said. "But from day one, I said, 'this is what you're going to do,' and they live up to exactly what you expect from them. If you want them to be successful, you don't give them a choice."
Last year, 80 percent of them were averaging D's and F's. Today, two-thirds of the program's participants -- last year's troublemakers -- are on the honor roll.
But the most astonishing change, said Dye, has been the difference in attitude.
"You know, one of our kids not too long ago asked what he had in one of his classes and the teacher said a C. He said, 'Nobody wants a C; I want an A!' and I thought, That child has probably never uttered those words before. But once they make an A, they're not satisfied with C's anymore."
Dye's experience at Ballard Hudson Middle School is reminiscent of the now-famous story of Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante. Portrayed in the movie "Stand and Deliver," Escalante persuaded his colleagues that students, even gang members, would rise to the level of expectations placed before them.
More than a decade later, the idea of raising students' aspirations has become an important component of educational reform.
Educator Barbara Taylor, who helped establish the reform-promoting National Center for Effective Schools at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was one of the first to advocate the approach.
"I can watch a teacher for about ten minutes and I know in that ten minutes whether she truly has high expectations for all children," said Taylor. "It is plainly evident and the kids know it. That's one reason some kids will have their hands waving up in the air and their eyes riveted on the teacher and others will be sitting back doodling."
In their work with hundreds of schools around the country, Taylor and other researchers have demonstrated that raising expectations can make a difference.
Some schools and districts choose to communicate high expectations by "raising the bar," setting a higher standard that all students must reach. That's the approach recently chosen by New York State for its school system of more than 3 million students.
But unlike the program in Macon, New York's plan is not voluntary.
"The main idea is to assert very high standards for all students in the whole curriculum and to connect those high standards to a challenging set of exams," explained Richard Mills, New York's commissioner of education.
The exams in question are New York's so-called Regents exams, which test students' knowledge in areas like English, social studies, geometry and physics. Traditionally reserved for college-bound students, the Regents are currently taken by only 38 percent of New York students. In New York City, only 20 percent take the Regents.
But beginning next year, everyone will be on the Regents track -- regardless of their academic background. And that worries some educators.
"Clearly, there are many students who, if they took the Regents today, would not pass them and would not be prepared for them," said Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education.
"I think it's clearly important to have higher standards. But we are going to have to develop a very clear plan about how to get teachers ready," she added, "and how to help students who've been saddled with low expectations for a long time."
In an attempt to soften the transition, Mills is phasing in the changes over the next three years and beginning with only one subject.
This year's ninth graders will be the first to test the waters, with the requirement that they all take Regents-level English courses. The less demanding English courses once offered for a general diploma will no longer be offered.
By 1999, under the plan incoming freshman will be doing Regents- level work in every subject. That's something Myron Liebrader, the principal at Grover Cleveland High School in New York City, has trouble imagining.
"At Grover Cleveland, we have a particular problem because approximately one-quarter of our students are Limited English Proficient, which means they arrived here one or two years ago," explained Liebrader.
Yet there is some evidence that New York's plan could work.
Ten years ago, only 50 percent of students in the suburban, middle-class district of Spencerport, N.Y, were in the Regents curriculum. Today, 90 percent of the graduating class takes the Regents and about 90 percent of them pass.
"When I first came to this school, the opinion I got was, 'Well, we're an average school system in an average community and all you can expect is average results,'" said Bob Sudlow, assistant superintendent for instruction when Spencerport first introduced its all-Regents reform plan in 1983.
"We felt that as professionals, we had a moral obligation to become better than we were."
At Spencerport, the transition to higher standards was accompanied by teacher training, encouraging teachers to make eye contact and challenge all students in the classroom, not just the high achievers. The district replaced study hall with additional academic classes.
But such changes take time and cost money -- two things that are scarce in education these days. In New York, schools are expected to lose about $400 million in the upcoming state budget.
Syracuse University education professor Mara Sapon-Shevin believes the cutbacks will make the reform plans less credible, particularly to those in underfunded urban areas. The Regents mandate, she said, might well serve as a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.
"It's a lot easier for them to say, 'Here, take this test,' than to reform the entire system," said Sapon-Shevin. "Raising standards doesn't in and of itself raise the quality of education. It has to be buttressed by improvements in resource allocation."
But Ballard Hudson Middle School teacher Tracy Dye says there are improvements teachers can make that won't cost a lot of money. Namely, she says, teachers can begin to believe that all students can learn.
"It really doesn't take much to motivate kids," said Dye. "If you show them you're interested and that you're noticing when they make improvements, they generally want to keep making improvements. They feel good about themselves now."
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