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EDUCATION: Senator Murray Pushes High School Reform and Her PASS Act at Senate NCLB Hearing

Apr 24 2007

Senator Works to Focus on Math, Literacy and Academic Planning Starting in Middle School

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(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) continued her efforts to provide more federal support for math education, literacy education and graduation planning -- areas that contribute to low graduation rates and expensive remediation for colleges and businesses.

Murray spoke about her PASS Act (S.611) at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which examined, "Modernizing Middle and High Schools for the 21st Century." The hearing included five education experts from across the country.

"If we're going to make sure all students can graduate prepared for college and careers, we need to start academic planning in middle school and provide more help for math and literacy through high school. That's exactly what the PASS Act does," Murray said after the hearing.

When Murray first introduced her high school reform bill in 2003, there was little national or political interest in high school reform. Today, four years later, Murray's legislation (S.611) is gaining new interest after both the Bush Administration and Congress have signaled that high school reform will be a major part of updating the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Senator Murray is using her background on high school reform to make sure Congress passes changes that will have a positive impact for students, high schools and America's economy.

Murray's PASS Act

Senator Murray's PASS Act:

  • Creates a new focus on literacy, mathematics, and academic counseling,

  • Improves the accuracy of graduation rates, and

  • Helps low-performing high schools implement proven reforms.

Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said Murray's bill would help.

"Middle schools are a vital part of it, and your PASS Act has led the way I think to showing us a lot through the counseling, through the recognition of math and literacy coaches, through the calculation of graduation rates as well," Wise said.

Murray crafted her bill based on input from students, parents and educators.

"One of the things I heard from many students as I went out to work on this in high schools was that 'Well no one ever told me in 7th grade that I needed four years of math to get into college. No one ever talked to me about the fact that I needed a foreign language.'" Murray said.

"Kids in middle school don't often have a family background of graduation and college. They may be the first person to look at graduating. They may not have anybody in their own community that is talking to them about what they need, and part of what I put in to this was academic counselors to begin to focus our kids in middle school at making sure they have a plan."

More Support for Literacy Education

Wise called for a continued focus on literacy after elementary school.

"We essentially at the federal level and most states stop doing literacy reading instruction by the fourth grade," Wise said.

Murray also co-wrote the Striving Readers Act (S.958) to target resources to literacy instruction for middle and high school students.

Academic Planning

Murray also highlighted a Washington state program that provides the early academic planning she put in her PASS Act.

"Washington State has a program called Navigation 101 that really helps parents and students set goals to map their progress and know what they need to do," Murray said.

Murray's bill would help high schools hire academic counselors to help students and their parents plan their academic careers. Witness Edna Varner, a consultant for Tennessee's Hamilton County Public Education Foundation, said that guidance counselors can play a critical role but often have high caseloads.

"In many schools, a guidance counselor has 500 students to see. . . Guidance counselors can't do it all, but guidance counselors have been very helpful in helping other teachers build the skills to keep up with that plan, to revise it each year with parents and students and the school and the child's records there," Varner said.

Bob Balfantz of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University testified that middle school students "independently decide to engage or disengage from schooling."

"In the middle grades, they start asking you to think for yourself. The mathematics gets more difficult. You have to comprehend what you're reading and answer questions. And if no one builds that bridge for you, you start feeling lost, and you start felling maybe this isn't for me, and you start disengaging. On the opposite hand if somebody reaches out to you - if a teacher grabs you and pulls you along, you become engaged and excited about schooling. And we sort of ignore that and we sort of leave it up to the kids -- believe it or not. And especially in high poverty environments they disengage in huge numbers, and once they disengage it's hard to get them back."

Witnesses at the hearing included:

  • Robert Balfanz, Associate Director, Talent Development Middle School Project, Baltimore, MD

  • Governor Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, DC

  • Tony Habit, President, New Schools Project, Raleigh, NC

  • Edna Varner, Senior Program Consultant, Hamilton County Public Education Foundation and Public Schools, Chattanooga, TN

  • John Podesta, President and CEO, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC

Additional Resources:

More on Senator Murray's PASS Act

Striving Readers Act:

Witness Testimony

Audio from the Hearing

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