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Paying More Attention to Yeast

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The old "over and above'' model for federal support of education assumed that states provided adequate resources for teaching regular learners and that the goal of federal programming was to help disadvantaged learners catch up. The reality of the 1990's is that state support is insufficient for regular learners, who lag seriously behind their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

To raise the performance level for the entire population, it is clear now that we need federal policies to transform education programs for regular learners and make even greater efforts for individuals identified as needing extra assistance. Tacking on a little federal money for special populations--bilingual students, low-income students, migrant students, homeless students--no longer is sufficient, nor is it the most efficient use of federal money.

We support a new federal strategy, one that calls for paying more attention to yeast and less attention to dough. Translation: Comprehensive school restructuring and systemic change require new flexibility in implementing federal programs. Federal, state, and local programs must pull together to accomplish specific objectives and to produce top-quality schools for all students.

The yeast strategy involves:

  • Holding states accountable for results.
  • Requiring integrated use of federal funds.
  • Supporting new, performance-based assessments.
  • Requiring improvement plans to meet high standards.
  • Expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Accountability. A major assumption of the current education-reform movement is that all children can learn at high levels. To help special-needs students reach higher standards expected of all students, all federal, state, and local programming must be in sync. The objectives of each program must be met, but the impact of all the efforts must yield effective, sustained results. We can measure programming success with new accountability systems based on student results, with rewards going to schools that have increasing numbers of students reaching higher standards. Schools falling short should be required to make more improvements.

In Kentucky, we have initiated an accountability system in which each school and district is given a baseline score and improvement goal every two years. Improvement strategies will be enacted for schools that fall short of their improvement goals; rewards will be given to schools that exceed their goals.

Integrated Programming. Creating world-class schools demands schoolwide projects in areas with high concentrations of special-needs children. The potential for overall school improvement is stressed because it is becoming increasingly clear that separate programs have limited impact if they are in a school that lacks schoolwide quality. A plan endorsed by the Council of Chief State School Officers supports the concept of clustering federal programs and allowing states and localities the option of consolidating programs.

In Kentucky, thanks to recent changes in federal rules, for example, regular teachers and Chapter 1 teachers are switching roles and working together in the same classroom. This is a great advance over the former system that segregated Chapter 1 by requiring its teachers to work only with Chapter 1 students.

Still, too few students eligible for federal programs are receiving the benefits of integrated and coordinated federal, state, and local services. The aggregate impact of programs serving special-needs students must be stronger and sustained. A change in assessment systems will enable evaluation of the aggregate effect of federal programs, rather than project-by-project results.

Authentic Assessment. Establishing clear, statewide standards to achieve national goals and relying on "authentic'' assessment to measure learning advances equity and excellence for students. Results-oriented, authentic assessments raise expectations for learning, measure the meaningful, and focus on what all students can do with their knowledge.

Kentucky has adopted authentic assessments to measure progress toward statewide goals. Fourth, 8th, and 12th graders are tested in three dimensions: short answer/essay, individual and group-performance events, and collections of student work in writing and mathematics portfolios. Student and school scores are reported on an absolute scale rising from novice to apprentice to proficient to distinguished. The first round of assessments showed that 90 percent of Kentucky's students ranked novice and apprentice.

The effect of the federal programs so essential in Kentucky to educational equity and excellence has been, unfortunately, to discourage use of authentic assessment. Chapter 1, the largest program, drives accountability for all federal programs and, in too many instances, state and local programs as well. Its requirement that schools use standardized, norm-referenced tests increases dependency on formats that fail to measure performance over time and are misaligned with local curricula. The current system impedes the drive toward higher performance.

Improvement Planning. Improvement plans outlining strategies for consolidating programs and funds are a necessity to provide better programs for students. States should be encouraged to have single plans across clusters of federal programs and to link those plans with their use of funds. Also, the use of federal funds should be linked to state and district plans for systemic reform.

Research tells us that schools get better results if they have clear and measurable goals with thought-out strategies and regular monitoring of progress toward the goals. In Kentucky, schools are asked to prepare yearly transformation plans, designed in part to assist in meeting the improvement goal for student performance. Last year, just 20 percent of our 1,400 schools put improvement plans in writing. This year we hope to have 90 percent file them.

NAEP Expansion. Under the new federal strategy for systemic reform, the effectiveness of instructional programs would be measured by students' achievements as monitored by the National Assessment of Education Progress. The chiefs have recommended that, over a period of years, NAEP testing be expanded to a state-by-state format to gauge the reading, mathematics, and science proficiency of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders.

The state-by-state NAEP would replace the current system of norm-referenced tests, which encourage development of low-level skills. It would establish national, high-level performance standards, enabling us to measure across state borders what students know and can do with their knowledge. With NAEP linkage to international tests, we could measure the performance of any state's students to those of other countries.

The current wave of reform marks the second great education revolution in U.S. public schools. The first began in the 1830's and 40's in Massachusetts with the initiation of the "common school'' movement. The main conviction of that campaign was that children have the right to attend school.

Today's approach to education reform demands far more on behalf of children. It advocates that all children have the right to succeed in school. We are banking on systemic reform to produce for our state and nation a new generation of world-class thinkers, problem-solvers, and workers.

Thomas C. Boysen is the Kentucky commissioner of education. This essay is adapted from his testimony on behalf of the Council of Chief State School Officers to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

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