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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Nothing rigorous about new high school curriculum

    Matt Stonecolumnist
    Matt Stone
    columnist

    There’s yet another sloppy initiative – all speechifying and no detail – out of Washington, D.C., but this time, its intentions are right on target.

    In December, the Senate quietly approved a new student aid program, hidden casually in its massive 774-page budget bill. The program, the synthesis of an original Bush administration proposal and Senate majority leader Bill Frist’s disquiet over American economic competitiveness, will use financial incentives to push students into the study of science, mathematics and foreign languages.

    The initiative, intended to supplement the $13 billion-a-year Pell Grant program, will provide $750 grants to low-income college freshmen and $1,300 grants to sophomores who have completed a “”rigorous secondary school program of study.”” Juniors and seniors are eligible for $4,000 grants if they study physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering or some foreign languages.

    The rub? The federal government will rate the academic strength of the nation’s high schools.

    The intentions here are key, and correct: to improve high school curricula and push more students into the fields necessary for international economic competitiveness. But the execution is all wrong.

    The House of Representatives and White House are poised to pass the measure, putting it into force by this fall. This will give the U.S. Department of Education limited time to determine which high schools qualify as having a “”rigorous”” course of study. With $790 million to distribute by fall, the department will be without a plan for execution.

    Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Sally Stroup said, “”We haven’t actually sat down yet and decided how we’re going to go about it.””

    Unfortunately, what this initiative does is punish the student – in financial opportunity lost – for attending a high school with a ‘non-rigorous’ curriculum.

    The bill also demands that applicants must have completed a “”program of study established by a state or local educational agency and recognized by the secretary (of education).”” Such careless wording effectively bars private school and home-schooled students from participating.

    But the greatest flaw may be the self-righteous faith in federal power permeating the program. The Constitution does not outline a role for the federal government in education, often the fiercely guarded turf of local jurisdictions. And by mandating that the U.S. Department of Education rate the academic rigor of each high school’s curriculum, the initiative represents a critical shift in American educational policy.

    The political gambit will inevitably lie in how the Department determines which curricula are “”rigorous”” and which are not. The Bush administration is pushing its version of “”rigorous:”” any high school curriculum in line with the State Scholars Initiative, a Texas-inspired curriculum that 15 states have adopted.

    But the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t know what to do with the remaining 35 states. According to Stroup, “”We’re going to have to go out and just talk to schools.””

    The U.S. Department of Education believes that some combination of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses ought to comprise a “”rigorous”” course of study, but this solution has the perverse effect of leaving many lower-income students at high schools without AP or IB programs out in the cold.

    Not even every high school within the states that have adopted the State Scholars program has chosen to follow it. In New Jersey, just 35 out of 300 high schools participate; in Connecticut, only 4 out of 180 public high schools do.

    The Department’s silver bullet is nothing but a Potemkin village.

    Unfortunately, what the initiative ultimately does is punish the student – in financial opportunity lost – for attending a high school with a “”non-rigorous”” curriculum. That is not the student’s fault; rather, it is the school’s, or better yet, the local and state governments’. Conservatives don’t care, though. They are already salivating at the next logical step: choice in public schooling.

    The intentions behind the program are strong. This stroke of bold imagination by Republicans is laudable. But a myopic disinterest to detail leaves program implementation a mystery. Is this the same lackadaisical attitude toward governance that procured incompetence with Hurricane Katrina and a Medicare drug plan that has senior citizens running away from pharmacies?

    Does anyone in Washington, D.C., care?

    Matt Stone is an international studies and economics junior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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