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The Roundtable: 'Standards must reflect challenging outcomes'

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MR. HORNBECK: Have we gone far enough in the discussion over the last two or three years to agree that we need national standards and assessments?

I sense a general agreement that the educational system must be outcome-based, driven by standards for what students need to know and be able to do. And that we need to provide curriculum frameworks and technology for instruction--all geared to the content standards.

These high-level standards should arise out of the professional community, like the standards formulated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. They should be run through a whole variety of inclusionary processes, involving people outside of the profession, and they should be voluntary.

We also need assessment strategies as rich as the standards, strategies that no longer rely on norm-referenced, standardized, multiple-choice tests, but actually assess student performance.

Three years ago, there would have been deep, deep arguments about that proposal. But my sense today is that most people now agree on these issues.

MR. MILLS: I think we agree around tables like this. Beyond tables like this, I don't think we are yet seeing the consequences of our acts. For example, the three sets of national standards that I have seen all seem to assume that their particular subject area will have 40 percent or more of the child's education. No one has added them all up to see how much of the curriculum and the schedule they would occupy.

And those are just content standards. We also will have performance standards and school-delivery standards.

The point is that, if we don't simplify this thing, it's going to be very complex and very rigid. There's about two years of simplification and integration that has to go on.

MR. CROSS: And rationalization.

MR. MILLS: And rationalization. How does it feel locally when you are in a classroom and you are trying to get 20 kids excited about Shakespeare and you wonder if you're on the standards?

You might pull out a wallet-sized card once in a while to look at standards, but you wouldn't pull out a long booklet. Yet, it's the booklets that we are producing.

It's like in an individual life. You can make list after list after list of things you need to do and just become a slave to your Daytimer. Or you can figure out what your life is about.

What we need to do is ask what the school is about, not what is on the list.

MS. FUHRMAN: It is essential that standards reflect the kind of challenging and ambitious outcomes that we want to see for children.

We all know of outcome-based systems or standards-based systems that have focused at a very low level and have been built around basic skills. In fact, many of the reforms of the early 80's had this flavor.

As we think about changing the system, we need to stress the richness and sophistication that we're now aiming for based on our new understandings about how children learn.

We don't just want curriculum frameworks. We want a process of developing them that engages the profession and the public so that everyone aims higher for education.

MS. GRAHAM: Take it even a little further than that. Think about how a youngster should be educated, and what the important but limited role of the school in educating that kid is.

We talk as if standards for schools and for kids would translate into an educated kid.

Eighty percent of the students in grades 10 to 12 in New Hampshire work during the school year, and 4 to 5 percent of them work more than 20 hours a week. What happens to standards in schools when kids are engaged like that?

To focus solely on the question of curriculum and performance standards for kids in school and to miss the broader context in which these children live is to miss the most basic point: School is a rather weak treatment in the life of kids, when you compare it with employment, with poverty, and even with that old bugbear, television.

We need to think more comprehensively about the issues for children and not get into quite as excruciating detail about the issues of standards per se. We need to think about bolder steps to define how the child will be educated. The standards of the school are important, but mainly as a segment of a broader problem.

MR. HORNBECK: That's right. But standards still have a relationship to academic disciplines. They shouldn't be done piecemeal. A whole should should emerge from this in some manner.

And if we're going to get such standards, I believe they should be set at the national level involving input from many sources. But their implementation is a decisive first-line responsibility of the state.

MR. SEXTON: Are you talking about specific outcomes or are you talking about high standards that a nation should expect to achieve in the preparation of its children?

MR. HORNBECK: I am talking about something as specific as the N.C.T.M. standards translated into measurable terms.

MR. SEXTON: That is political dynamite.

MR. HORNBECK: Do you mean to have them set at the national level?

MR. SEXTON: Yes.

MR. HORNBECK: You think these standards should be set at the state level?

MR. SEXTON: Yes. Delicately done.

MR. CROSS: Are you distinguishing between federal and national?

MR. SEXTON: I don't know anymore. The opponents of outcome-based education, like those in Pennsylvania, make no distinction between federal and national. Their cast of villains ranges from the federal government to the Carnegie Foundation to the corporations to anybody in Washington to the Business Roundtable to the Trilateral Commission.

MR. HORNBECK: But you could have standards come from a national effort that was entirely nonfederal. If the New Standards Project, for example, had 46 percent more of the kids in the United states in it, and 31 more states in it, it would be national--because 54 percent of the kids and 19 of the states are now in it. It's not federal.

MR. BILLUPS: The first thing we must do is decide what we want students to be able to do by 4th grade, 8th grade, at the end of high school.

Then we have to figure out what it takes to get there. We have to do what I call "planning backward.''

MR. MILLS: Yes, but we can't just work on standards and get that done right, and then turn to the next piece and get that right. We need to approximate the whole system, and make the approximation better and better and better as we go along.

MR. BILLUPS: Even before we get to the standards, we need to know what we are looking for. That would help guide us in our thinking about the standards and, of course, in our thinking about how we want to get there. We will get there in different ways as far as the individual schools are concerned.

When we talk about national standards, we have to remember that schools are different and communities are different. If there is some way we can build that into the idea of national standards, then we should come out with something that is workable.

EW: We have been talking about national standards. What is the role of the state in setting and implementing standards?

MR. HORNBECK: I still think that one of the roles that belongs decisively to states is the definition of the standards/outcomes for kids, and formulation of assessment strategies that will determine whether or when the kids have achieved them.

Schools should certainly be able to add, to interpret, to implement, and all that, but the basic responsibility is the state's.

GOVERNOR ROMER: As Governor, I've got to get some enforcement mechanisms. I've got to go to my higher-educational institutions and ask them what in the hell they are doing about these standards in teacher training. Are they using these standards? And I need to go to the school districts that I help finance--and lose a whole lot of political skin trying to raise revenue for--and ask them if they are using these standards?

I recently had a conference in southeastern Colorado with math and science teachers, and I asked what percent of the teachers in Colorado are dealing with the content of the N.C.T.M. standards? Is it 20 percent? They answered, "Noooo, you're a little high.''

Don't laugh. That's what those math teachers replied. I'm faced with that, and I'm trying to say we've got to get this thing going faster. We have to have more leadership, we have to have a strategy.

I have been a very strong advocate of national goals, but I don't think we have set them yet. That's why I am interested in standards. I don't think we will really have goals until I can walk into a parent's home and say specifically, "This is what we are after.''

One of the greatest problems we have in reforming education in America is we do not yet know what it is we are reaching for. We've got some general rhetoric that has no content yet. When you get content, then you've got some goals.

MR. MILLS: The state has a vital role here, and it fails if it doesn't bring thousands of people into the discussion.

MR. HORNBECK: I agree. But in Vermont, for example, you included like mad, and, in the final analysis, the state board, or you, or somebody decided the four goals.

MR. MILLS: That's right. In the end, the state board said it had heard enough. And they were very careful to point out how many thousands had been heard. They were able to point to ideas and phrases that came from different places.

It's up to the state to say, "We need this conversation.'' It's up to the state to see that it takes place. It's up to the state to listen and then say, "O.K., we've heard, now it's time to act.''

MS. FINE: This relationship between leadership and participation is very important.

In public school systems, it seems we have either leadership or we have participation. There is this funny splitting--people have ideas, and they ram them down folks' throats, or they do this participatory stuff that ends up being pretty weak at the knees. The idea of bringing people together around a particular agenda and then taking some tough stands yourself seems to me to be worthwhile. It's important to understand that because you have inclusion and broad participation doesn't mean leaders can't take some tough stands.

That raises the question: Is the state the right place for the tough stands? I find the state pretty appealing as a place to do some hard work. But Pennsylvania provides an example of the opposite. The Pennsylvania state learning outcomes got eaten by the fundamentalist right, because they were the only ones who were organized. They took out whole language and higher-order thinking and anything connected to what they were calling diversity. So you got this very shutdown conversation about learning.

Where is the safe place to do some of that hard stuff--the place that has the courage to make the hard decisions? I want to think it is the state, and then I go back to Pennsylvania and I think, "Who are you kidding?''

MR. HORNBECK: In some ways, you only need one example to say that it's possible. I would still come out at the end saying the conversation needs to take place, and it needs to be inclusionary. It at least needs to be inclusionary for political purposes, to get public support, even if you don't care about the substance that comes out of it.

But in the final analysis, there is a buck-stopping-here aspect. There is a significant--perhaps even dominant--state role.

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