Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced legislation that would reform the nation’s secondary schools through a new focus on adolescent literacy, academic counselors, and a new grant program that will improve student achievement in low-performing secondary schools. S. 1554, the Pathways for All Students to Succeed Act (PASS Act), introduced last week, builds upon findings in the Alliance for Excellent Education’sEvery Child a Graduate report and seeks to reach the older students who were largely left out of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
While the No Child Left Behind Act provides a strong framework for helping children in the early grades through the Reading First initiative, the nation still needs a comprehensive strategy to address the literacy problems and learning gaps of students in middle school and secondary school. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress-The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002, the nation’s 12th-graders are scoring lower than their counterparts did just 10 years ago. In the 2002 assessment, a lower percentage of 12th-graders performed at or above “basic” and at or above “proficient” than in 1992 and 1998. At the same time, fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores went up, an indication that past investments in early education are paying off.
Meanwhile, the federal government has focused little attention on the unique needs of our nation’s older students. In April 1983, then-U.S. Secretary of Education T. H. Bell released the landmark A Nation At Risk report that contained practical recommendations for educational improvement, with a particular focus on teenage youth and high schools. In the 20 years since the report’s release, Congress has not considered a comprehensive high school bill. In fact, it has considered few pieces of legislation that deal with high schools since the standards-based reform movement began in 1983.
Some exceptions, however, do exist. For instance, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has been successful in providing federal funding to increase access to advanced-placement tests for low-income high school students and to develop a school dropout prevention program. Another staunch supporter of high schools is Rep. David Obey (D-WI) whose work after the Columbine shootings resulted in the Smaller Learning Communities Program receiving federal funding for the first time. Obey was also responsible for targeting that funding for high schools. To this day, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, first created in 1917, and funded at a little over $1.3 billion, remains the largest federal investment in secondary schools-though it is by no means a comprehensive high school bill.
Summary of the PASS Act
In the United States, approximately 3,000 students drop out of school every school day. This year alone, nearly 540,000 students will leave the American school system before graduation. In order to address this crisis, Sen. Murray’s PASS Act will ensure that secondary school students have the services and supports they need to read and write at or above their grade level, a skill that is critical to their ability to succeed academically. Building on the success of the Reading First program, the first component of the PASS Act will create “Reading to Succeed,” a $1 billion grant program to establish effective, research-based reading and writing programs for students in grades six through 12.
The legislation authorizes grants to allow secondary schools to hire literacy coaches (at least one per 20 teachers), who will help teachers incorporate research-based literacy instruction into their mathematics, science, history, civics, geography, literature, language arts, and other core academic courses. Literacy coaches will help teachers identify students who need additional reading instruction, assess those students to determine their needs, and coordinate services to ensure students receive the assistance they need. They will also work with teachers to institute curricula that strengthen the reading and writing skills of all students.
Title II, “Creating Pathways to Success,” establishes grants to provide academic and career counseling, cultivate parent engagement and coordinate support services for at-risk high school students across the country. Careful planning, sound advice, and strong support are all critical to guiding students to success, but many of today’s counselors are struggling to serve too many students with too few resources. A proven method for success in any endeavor is setting goals and developing plans to achieve them. That is the essence of Title II. It will complement other successful high school programs by providing $2 billion to support the hiring and placement of academic counselors (at a rate of at least one academic counselor for every 150 students). These individuals will work directly with students, parents and teachers to develop six-year plans outlining the path each student in a high-need school will take to reach his or her goals.
Title III, “Fostering Successful Secondary Schools,” focuses on turning around those schools that have been identified as “in need of improvement” under the NCLB. The legislation would make available $500 million in grants that these secondary schools would use to implement research-based programs to improve student achievement in low-performing secondary schools. Some strategies for turning schools around include developing smaller learning communities, and instituting adolescent literacy programs, block scheduling, whole school reform, and individualized learning plans.
A Nation At Risk
When former Secretary Bell released A Nation at Risk 20 years ago, the letter of transmittal accompanying the report said that the problems outlined in A Nation At Risk could be overcome by a national movement for change in education policy:
“The Commission deeply believes that the problems we have discerned in American education can be both understood and corrected if the people of our country, together with those who have public responsibility in the matter, care enough and are courageous enough to do what is required.”
As the nation’s graduation rates hover around 69 percent, according to Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institute, these words ring as true today as they did more than 20 years ago.