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States Reassess Purposes of Education 'Mandates'

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Correspondent Don Sevener contributed to this report.


Several states, motivated by diverse factors as practical as fiscal problems and as philosophical as redefining schooling, have recently undertaken broad reassessments of their statutory and regulatory mandates in education.

Targeted for particularly close scrutiny are procedural mandates concerning such topics as administrative reporting, driver education, and consumer education, and state requirements that go beyond federal standards for special and bilingual education.

At the same time, however, the states are asserting greater authority over curricula and high-school graduation requirements and are stressing student achievement not only in the "basics," but also in the more broadly defined traditional liberal arts, science, and technology.

One indication of the trend is the intense interest evinced in Illinois's comprehensive study of its mandates. When Donald G. Gill, that state's superintendent of education, announced the study at a meeting last year of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the chiefs of at least 20 other states immediately requested more information. Mr. Gill plans to send the results of the study to all his counterparts. (See related story on page 13.)

"What I see in California and in other states is no net change in state regulation, but a redistribution of it," says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who has extensively studied educational governance. "They're increasing control over the locals vis-a-vis the curriculum and what generally I would call instructional policies, and decreasing administrative, procedural, and categorical requirements. It's less procedural and more oriented to content. They're saying: 'Teach this."'

"It's very interesting and very profound," says Mr. Kirst, who is also a past president of the California State Board of Education. "The locals will end up with some increase in control overall."

The reasons for the gradual shift, according to Mr. Kirst and other observers, include stiffened entrance requirements for higher education, a perception that local districts are unwilling or unable to make needed curricular changes, a belief that many state mandates have been counterproductive or at best useless, and the "deregulatory climate" fostered both by the Reagan Administration and by private schools resisting state control. "When the states start deregulating private schools, it calls into question whether the state has an interest in minimal standards at all," says Martha M. McCarthy of Indiana University. "It's got to start the public-school people thinking about that."

Financial considerations are also prominent. Some states, including Michigan, have powerful deterrents to regulation: laws or court decisions requiring that the state pay for any new mandates. "I see fewer mandates without reimbursement and less political support for mandates as a whole," predicts Susan G. Fuhrman, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

In some states, such as Illinois and Arizona, the examination of mandates has raised some fundamental questions about the relative responsibilities and capacities of state and local education units.

Legislation enacted in Arizona this year, for example, requires the state board to set competency standards in all subjects for promotion and graduation. But ensuring that students meet those standards will be left to school districts, preserving some of the local control that the state's school boards traditionally have had.

"It puts some functions in the state department that heretofore were sacrosanct with the locals," says David J. Bolger, assistant to State Superintendent Carolyn Warner. "This new legislation is to some extent a move by the state for some greater degree of uniformity. The state board will produce skill guidelines, but there's an attempt still to leave those decisions up to the local districts: 'Here are the skills that we expect a child to possess at a certain level in a certain subject area. How you get there is your business.'

"It could really get at what people have been saying for a long time: You've got to get specific as to what kinds of skills you expect a youngster to master before he can go from Point A to Point B."

A 'Coming of Age'

Mr. Bolger calls the project a "coming of age"--a recognition that some standardization is needed if students are to be competitive in a highly mobile society.

The approaches to reassessing mandates are as diverse as the states' regulatory schemes were to begin with. To some degree, however, most states seem to be heeding the general premise set forth by Arthur E. Wise in his influential 1979 book, Legislated Learning: Centralization and legalistic thinking are of limited usefulness in improving educational quality.

Mr. Wise argues that policymakers, having found law and regulation to be effective instruments for addressing such concerns as segregation, tried to address concerns about instructional quality by the same means. The result, he contends, is "hyperrationalization" of the schools, which places a premium on uniformity, presuming that education is scientific and ignoring other human factors that have been shown to influence learning. Thus, he reasons, "equity" issues, including equal access to an adequate level of instruction, require intervention by a higher level of government, while "productivity" issues can most effectively be addressed locally.

The Texas legislature, following this general line of thought, repealed all curriculum requirements two years ago and substituted broad requirements in 12 subject areas. Like the new Arizona law, the Texas statute calls upon the state board to formulate achievement goals for each grade level, but leaves decisions about organization and methodology to local boards. "Process" standards, such as those used in Colorado and New Jersey, also are gaining attention. These require districts to come up with their own goals, with public consultation, and to formulate an improvement plan acceptable to state authorities.

Frederick M. Wirt, professor of political science at the University of Illinois, says interest groups took their requests and grievances to legislatures because they were unable to obtain what they wanted from local school boards. The states, he suggests, have not always used their authority wisely, but if they spend their political capital on requirements that make a difference for students, the results may be beneficial.

"Most of the recent calls for school reform couldn't be, or weren't, answered at the local level," says Mr. Wirt, co-author with Mr. Kirst of the 1982 book Schools in Conflict.

"The smorgasbord curriculum in the secondary school is seen as the symbolic thing," says Mr. Kirst. "That's what the legislatures are concerned about ... and the locals haven't attended to it very well." A number of states have already moved to increase the academic standards for high-school graduation, typically adding requirements in science, mathematics, and other traditional academic areas. Florida is reinstating statewide graduation requirements that were taken off the books in the late 1960's.

Even the state board in Connecticut, with a long history of local control, has taken a tentative first step in this direction, agreeing to examine districts' high-school graduation requirements, which historically have been a matter of local discretion.

But abolishing mandates that are deemed useless or counterproductive is a more tenuous process, as Illinois officials learned; behind every mandate is an interest group.

Mandates have grown by accretion, largely at the instigation of interest groups. The best-known early example was the Women's Christian Temperance Union's successful drive early in this century for the passage of statutes requiring that schools teach about the evils of alcohol. Those requirements, in most states, have stayed on the books--and have been broadened to include education on other drugs as well.

Other mandates reflect more local concerns, such as an unsuccessful Ohio bill that would have required instruction against throwing objects off highway overpasses and a decades-old Florida law--the subject of renewed debate in the state legislature last week--mandating a course in "Americanism versus Communism."

Indeed, observes Edward Lalor, an assistant to New York State Commissioner Gordon M. Ambach, the laws have grown out of the tendency of lawmakers and citizens to turn to the schools to solve social problems. And studies of mandates often originate from the premise that schools as currently structured cannot meet all those social demands and traditional academic needs as well.

"Most of what we have done over the years was a reflection of what the conventional wisdom had already decided on," says Nelson Ashline, Illinois's deputy state superintendent of education. "The General Assembly is the most representative body there is, and they are sensitive to the public pulse. I'm convinced that every one of these laws, as absurd as they seem to us today, was [accepted] at the time. It's not something the public got up in arms about and said it was a dumb law."

Accordingly, state curriculum requirements in many cases have become disjointed and disproportionate, giving force of law to rigid requirements in such subjects as driver education, while leaving subjects like English and mathematics to the discretion of state and local boards.

"What we had was curriculum by legislation and special-interest group," says Tom Anderson, deputy commissioner of education in Texas. "As a result, we had a fragmented curriculum. Teachers didn't know what was expected of them. So the legislature repealed it."

Beginning in the mid-1960's, power was consolidated at the state level by state-administered federal programs, school-finance reforms that required large new infusions of state funds, rising revenues during economic booms, and increasingly activist legislatures with growing professional staffs.

In some states, observers say, state boards of education and legislators seemed to wage contests to see who could promulgate more requirements.

Without Clearly Stated Goals

Equally important, some critics maintain, mandates from both legislatures and state boards have tended in the past two decades to be highly prescriptive, detailing elaborate procedures for administration, audits, planning, and instructional techniques--without clearly stated goals for students. Often, observers say, emphasis on compliance and "inputs" bore little relationship to enhancing teaching and learning.

"Some of them aren't paid as much attention as they were when they were enacted," observes William A. Harrison Jr., senior program director for the National Confer-ence of State Legislatures, "but they tend not to be repealed."

"I think they need to take a look at the collective impact of their mandates and state regulations--whether they encourage or obstruct good practices," adds Mr. Harrison. "But it's a hard thing to do. In many states, the complaints of local school administrators are viewed with suspicion in the legislatures as being self-serving."

Perhaps as influential as broad statutory requirements in determining how schools operate are state school-accreditation schemes, which typically are promulgated by departments of education--often without so much as a cursory review by state boards or legislators.

"Accreditation standards are usually couched in input terms," observes Ms. McCarthy of Indiana University, coauthor of "What Legally Constitutes an Adequate Public Education?", a monograph published in 1982 by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation. Accreditation rules tend to emphasize class size, physical facilities, teachers' educational attainment, instructional time, and required course offerings--all of which, Ms. McCarthy says, serve as "proxies" for often ill-defined notions of adequacy.

The "input" model, observers point out, is relatively easy to administer: Standards are quantifiable, and compliance reviews consist largely of reports prepared by the districts themselves or of checklists completed by inspectors from state education departments or regional accrediting associations.

"For those kinds of remote organizations, you've got to have objective, measurable criteria," points out John D. Leppert, staff director for the education committee of Florida's House of Representatives.

But the input model is falling into some disfavor among researchers and others who note that the requirements are highly mechanical and are often based on prevailing practices or on the preferences of interest groups--not on what research has found about how children learn. Pupil-teacher ratios are a prime example. Research--although inconclusive--suggests that incremental changes in class size do not necessarily affect student achievement. Yet most states specify precise pupil-teacher ratios.

"A program conceivably could be considered adequate under an input-oriented definition, even though the skills the program is designed to impart have not been acquired by students," note Ms. McCarthy and her collaborator on the monograph, Paul T. Deignan, a lawyer from South Bend, Ind. Ms. McCarthy adds that state testing programs usually are operated independently from accrediting procedures, impeding any attempt to correlate ratings with achievement. "There's a real discrepancy between that emphasis [on inputs] and the current thrust toward competency testing," she says.

But attempts to shift the emphasis from inputs to outcomes for pupils are fraught with technical and political problems. Teachers' organizations and many local school officials have resisted the use of tests to evaluate districts on the grounds that competency tests are too narrow, and scores too closely reflect students' socioeconomic status, to give a fair assessment of the quality of instruction.

Attempt to Consider Student Rating

At least one state, however, is undertaking a cautious attempt to consider student achievement in rating schools.

Missouri's state board of education has asked Commissioner Arthur Mallory and his staff "to develop achievement standards to go along with the classification program," says P.J. Newell, assistant commissioner for instruction. "We will look at achievement and make a determination as to whether we think a school is helping students in the learning process. There would be a rating on that item as well as all the other factors, such as teacher preparation, class size, library resources, curriculum, and pupil-personnel services including testing and counseling."

The education department's planning committee--whose recommendations will be reviewed and perhaps amended by a representative statewide advisory committee--is leaning toward using data from several types of tests at five grade levels "to get a good overall indication of achievement in the school district," Mr. Newell says.

As the plan now stands, districts would be required in the 1985-86 school year to develop instructional goals, based on what the test data reveal, and plans for meeting them. The state agency would provide technical assistance to districts with low ratings on achievement.

"There has been surprisingly little opposition so far," Mr. Newell adds. "Most people seem to support this type of look at the school system using outputs as well as inputs."

One common feature of the various approaches is the degree to which states are specifying their expectations--whether they are minimal or highly detailed. In the past, Ms. McCarthy notes, while technical and administrative practices were prescribed in detail, "goal statements" relating to what students actually should learn have often been so vague as to be almost meaningless. That is changing as states take a hard look at what they want and how they should go about obtaining it. Incentives, Mr. Harrison says, are attracting more interest among legislators than mandates.

"The important thing is that teachers and principals know what is expected of them," says Mr. Anderson of the Texas Education Agency. "And then you rely on the teacher's and administrator's integrity. That's where the rubber hits the road."

The idea of procedural deregulation has raised questions about protecting the rights of disadvantaged, handicapped, and minority children. But Ms. Fuhrman, among others, believes that other forces and mechanisms will provide adequate safeguards.

"Parents and interest groups have learned to monitor, and resort to the courts is almost habit now," she says. "We tend to give less credit to the locals than we should. I think there's something of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of principals and teachers and counselors--if it's best for the kid and best for other teachers, let's place the child in a resource room. They're not going to go against what they think is best just because it's expensive. More often than not, their decision will fall on the right side."

The capacity of the state agencies to adjust to their changing role is also in question.

Many state departments, because of fiscal problems and the cut in federal funds allocated to strengthening state-agency management, have laid off curriculum specialists along with other employees. "There's no one there to enforce the mandates they have now," says Ms. Fuhrman. "The locals feel a bit freer. There's no one looking over their shoulder."

A Procedural Mode

In addition, some of the state agencies have been in a procedural mode for so long that the habit is proving hard to break. Largely because of federal-program requirements and the way states emulated them, says Mr. Kirst, the states "have been through 15 years of hiring people to enforce categorical program procedures. California has one person in science, a half-time person in math, and a dozen checking child-care facilities. They've played down people with a strong curricular and instructional background. They'll have to hire new people."

He adds that if state agencies are unable to monitor local responses to the new curriculum requirements, "the locals will just relabel the courses."

"You had people who had been trained in doing paper audits," notes Mr. Bolger of Arizona, "and every time somebody wanted to file an amendment to a program, this person looked at all the nickels and dimes. Given the bureaucratic penchant for orderliness, that became their primary function. The specialists got away from the mission of helping districts have better programs, so some mental readjustment has been needed. Now they're really getting back to what they came to the department for in the first place. It's coming, but it's slow."

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