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N.G.A. Hears Range of Views on 'Opportunity' Standards

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WASHINGTON--Seeking to wend its way through an increasingly contentious issue, the National Governors' Association last week heard a wide range of viewpoints on proposals to establish standards for students' "opportunity to learn.''

At a hearing here, which coincided with Congressional deliberation of a bill to develop and certify such standards, representatives of education, advocacy, and business groups generally supported the notion that all schools must provide high-quality education in order for students to have a fair shot at attaining high standards for performance.

But they sharply disagreed over who should set the standards for schools, what they should look like, and what their purpose should be.

While some participants argued for a detailed set of provisions that schools must meet, others warned that such targets could lead to lawsuits and costly mandates, and could hamper schools' flexibility.

"There is a tension between how much policy and practice is dictated from the top, and how much flexibility is retained at the bottom,'' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the chairman of the N.G.A. "I like a variety of approaches. I don't want to get into a situation where one size fits all.''

"I support the concept of opportunity-to-learn standards,'' Governor Romer added, "but we have to be thoughtful about how we arrive at them, and how they are used.''

The governors' association is expected to discuss the issue at an N.G.A. meeting this summer in Tulsa, Okla., and to issue a policy statement on the topic in September.

Holding Standards Hostage?

Although the hearing had been planned for some time, it comes as the debate over opportunity-to-learn standards has risen to the top of the policy agenda. (See Education Week, April 7, 1993.)

The bill currently being considered in Congress, which would authorize national curriculum and student-performance standards, would also authorize funds to develop voluntary national opportunity-to-learn standards and establish a national council to certify them. (See story, this page.)

Donald Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago group advocating school reform, said student-performance standards alone cannot lead to high achievement for all students.

He asserted, for example, that students at Prescott Elementary School in Chicago, which lacks a science laboratory and up-to-date books, cannot achieve at the same level as those in affluent suburban schools, no matter what the curriculum standards may be.

Standards and tests linked to them "never lead to changes in inputs and processes,'' Mr. Moore said. "Rather, the results reinforce the belief that poor children, like those in Prescott, can't learn.''

But Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said standards for students should come first, or else students in schools like Prescott may never get access to high-quality content.

"It's totally wrong to hold the development of content and performance standards and stakes hostage until you solve all of the equity issues, or most of the equity issues, or even some of the equity issues,'' Mr. Shanker said.

Specific or General?

Participants at the hearing also expressed differing views on what the standards for schools should be and how they should be used.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said the standards should simply insure that schools have adequate resources, and should allow schools flexibility in how they use their resources.

"You don't want to get into the business of defining how many textbooks we have,'' he told Governor Romer, "and we don't want to be in the business of filling out forms.''

But Robert Chase, the national vice president of the National Education Association, said that standards that are too general are unlikely to have much of an effect on schools.

Elizabeth Ramirez, the coordinator for policy and publication for the Hispanic Education Coalition, also said that, in order to insure that the standards are implemented, schools must be held accountable for meeting them.

But Andrew C. Porter, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said requiring schools to meet the opportunity standards is unlikely to protect students in poor schools from receiving a substandard education.

Instead of mandating the standards, he suggested, states or a national organization could use them as a "guidepost'' for schools to use to improve themselves. Schools should be held accountable for boosting student achievement, he said.

"I think the focus needs to be on outcomes,'' Mr. Porter said.

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