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A Where We Stand By Albert Shanker, President American Federation of Teachers Is It Fair? One big reason for the mediocre performance of U.S. students is that they have no incentives for working hard. When it comes to going to college or getting a job, it makes very little difference whether a student has done more or lessas long as he or she has done enough to get a high school diploma. So most students do less. And sometimes there are disincentives that actively discourage students from achieving. I’m not talking now about the informal disincentives posed by other kids who sneer at a youngster who answers questions in class and does the homeworkand, in some schools, even beat him upthough that kind of peer pressure is powerful and common. I mean institutional disincentivesofficial policies or decisions that discourage kids from working hard and achieving. One recentand outrageousexample of an institutional disincentive got lots of attention. A private school in Illinois was barred from winning the Illinois Science Fair competition until 1996. Had they done something dishonest? No, they were just too good. Youngsters from the tiny, 362-student school had won the overall state competition four years in a row, so the people running the competition said, ‘That’s enough for you” and changed the rules. Now, even if the students from this school get the points to win next year, the prize will go to someone else. As a comment on the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page Another example of incentives that discourage excellence in a big way is a New Jersey state scholarship program that requires poor academic performance. Jackson Toby describes it in “We Lowered Higher Education in New Jersey” \(Measure, Twenty-five years ago, New Jersey set up the EducaNew Jersey’s public colleges and universities to help disadvantaged students whose families could not afford to send them to college. It was an excellent idea than and it still is: No qualified student should be denied a college education because he doesn’t have the money. But when the regulations governing the law were written, “educational disadvantage” appeared as one of the criteria for eligibility. It was not enough to be economically needy; students were also supposed to be academically needyor, at least, academically underprepared. These regulations are still in place. How does EOF define “educational disadvantage”? Here are some of the regulations from this anti-scholarship program: A student must not have demonstrated “a sufficient academic preparation to gain admission to an approved institution of higher learning under its regular standards of admission.” His standardized test scores must be “below institutional norms.” He must have “an educational background [that] indicates a need for improvement of basic skills.” In other words, an EOF scholarship student should be someone a college would not ordinarily consider for admission and who is so poorly prepared that remedial work is necessary before a real college program can be undertaken. And, Toby says, we are not talking about a couple of students a year: “Each New Jersey public college must reserve one out of ten places in its freshman class for EOF students.” So the program has had serious implications for New Jersey colleges. Toby gives as an example the Rutgers University College of Engineering. The college “has difficulty finding students who want to become engineers, who meet the EOF ‘educationally disadvantaged’ criterion and who also seem likely to succeed in an engineering curriculum. Even with a great deal of remedial work, the College of Engineering has twice as high a flunkout rate for EOF students as for non-EOF students.” Students who get a college scholarship because they are badly prepared probably feel like second-class citizens, which they are. And the message the EOF regulations send to economically disadvantaged youngsters who are still in high school is patronizing and counterproductive: “We don’t expect you to work hard so you can meet regular standards. In fact, you’d better not.” If you asked for an explanation of the EOF rules or the Illinois Science Fair’s exclusion of the top-scoring team I imagine you’d hear about fairness, about giving a chance to young people who might not otherwise have one. But is it fair to deny achievers the recognition they have earned? Or to discourage disadvantaged kids from making an effort and reward them if they don’t? Would anyone suggest that a college football or basketball team tain percentage of students who were weak players or that a team be barred from competition because it had won too many games? Reader correspondence is invited. Address letters to Mr. Shanker at the American Federation of Teachers, 555 New Jersey Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. 1994 by Albert Shanker. 22 OCTOBER 28, 1994