Some Harvard University education experts say New York's move to higher school standards may end up hurting students more than helping them.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- New York State's high-stakes Regents graduation requirements are overly ambitious and will result in more student failure than the public will tolerate, according to Harvard University education professors.
"New York is hanging way out there on this issue," said Richard F. Elmore, senior research fellow for the federally funded Consortium for Policy Research in Education. "There's going to be, in the short term, some kind of political crisis around the standards."
Faculty members at Harvard's Graduate School of Education were questioned about New York's reform plan during recent interviews here. All of them are familiar with the details of reform plans in New York and elsewhere. They said the requirements go too far too quickly, that teachers and administrators are not adequately trained to prepare pupils for the standards, and that students -- and not adults -- will suffer the consequences.
"It's going to ruin a lot of students' lives and not have substantial benefits," said Gary Orfield, who has written extensively on civil rights, urban policy and minority opportunity. "If you have just one standard, you're eventually going to find the inner-city schools with high concentrations of poverty and identify them as failures."
Educators here warn that unrealistic standards can scuttle, rather than advance, school reform.
"Policy is the art of the possible," said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of Harvard's Education School and a specialist in the politics of education. "I'm worried about pushing out so hard, so adamantly, that you push the baby out with the bath water."
New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills said those views are inconsistent with encouraging test results in New York and with the dedication and abilities of pupils, teachers and administrators.
"I think the public is very optimistic, and I'm puzzled by the profound pessimism of these academic observers," Mills said. "It almost sounds like they want this to fail, and that troubles me."
Mills and the state Board of Regents have made the new graduation standards the cornerstone of New York's school reform plan and have strong backing from the New York State School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers and the Business Council of New York State.
"We think Mills and the Regents are on the right track, and they should stay there," said Dave Ernst, a spokesman for the School Boards Association.
Beginning in June, students will be required to pass an English Regents exam to graduate from high school. Additional requirements will be phased in each year until successful completion of five Regents exams is needed for graduation.
"Pretty soon, there's going to be a very large backlog of kids who have failed one or another of the required exams," said Elmore, a former president of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management. "We need to face the fact that teachers and schools are being asked to do something they don't know how to do."
Harvard faculty members said New York's reform plan has ambitious timetables and places enormous emphasis on a single set of tests. Some other states phased in standards more slowly, set lower passing grades or required individual schools to show incremental progress rather than meet a statewide standard.
Mills stressed that the Regents requirements are being instituted over several years and that individual districts have the option of adopting passing grades of 55 during a phase-in period. Districts are also required to provide extra help for students who fall behind.
"The trick is to set ambitious targets, but not to set the initial targets so high that kids get discouraged and drop out, or that the failure rate is so high that the public will simply rebel," said Robert B. Schwartz, president of Achieve, a group formed by the nation's governors and corporate leaders to help states implement school reform.
"The policy leaders are in a time bind," said S. Paul Reville, co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform. "It really isn't acceptable to people to say reform is going to take a generation to do, even if it's going to take a generation to do."
Mills said that the Harvard educators are misinformed about the New York standards and that superintendents of urban districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in New York are proving them wrong.
"If I heard those people say we can't do it, then I'd be paying attention," he said. "They've got the biggest lift. But they're not saying that. They're working extremely hard, one student after another, to bring them to the standards."
Mills said that the Regents plan has a nine-year phase-in and that the exams are fair and accurate measures of the skills students need to succeed in college or in a job.
"They're about a very basic level of knowledge," Mills said. "A graduate who is not at that basic level is forever marked and marginalized. We should say that these standards are really important, they're reasonable, and they're for everyone."
Mills points out that 86 percent of Buffalo's students who took the required English Regents exam last year passed it.
But at the same time, 72 percent of the state's eighth-graders last year failed to meet new math standards and are deemed to be in need of extra help to eventually pass the Regents math requirement.
Orfield said New York's standards are unfair to pupils who are raised in poverty, don't speak English, live in bad neighborhoods, move often, attend run-down inner-city schools with inexperienced teachers and encounter negative peer pressure.
"To think that a situation like this will be solved by putting a higher standard on a test is crazy," he said. "It's a very, very superficial treatment for a profound set of problems."
There is also widespread fear that pupils will drop out or face extra years of schooling before educators learn how to effectively implement the new standards.
"How fast can we get the capacity on line so we're not penalizing the kids for what the adults don't know?" Elmore said. "The kids are getting hammered, and the adults are not."
Mills said public release of school-by-school test scores and the threat that low-performing schools will be closed lead to high stakes for teachers and administrators.
"There's a great deal of public attention of a very negative nature when bad results come out," he said. "It may not seem like a big deal, but to have everyone in the checkout line ask you about results can really focus attention."
High standards -- and the extra help schools are required to provide -- are especially crucial for inner-city pupils, Mills added.
"It's beyond me why people would want to become so passionately attached to an argument that says, 'Let them fail,' " he said. "How can that be just?"