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A National Curriculum and Tests: Charting the Consequences

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In 1974, I became superintendent of the Arlington, Va., public schools. Shrinking enrollments and increasing numbers of minority students had set off tremors in the community over falling test scores and the perceived decline in academic quality of the schools. Mainstream wisdom among federal policymakers then was that schools don't make much of a difference in children's lives and that spending money to improve schools was wasteful.

The Arlington school board resisted that gloomy "wisdom'' and made changes. All courses of study, classroom materials (including texts), tests, and staff evaluations were aligned with the school board's instructional goals. School plans and accountability were stressed.

What happened? Scores on state-mandated tests rose each year in elementary schools but less so at the secondary level. The achievement gap between white and minority students narrowed in elementary schools but stayed pretty much the same in secondary schools. Community satisfaction with its schools climbed.

What happened in Arlington in the mid-1970's foreshadowed the "effective schools'' movement that swept across the nation's big-city schools in the next decade. The popular Nation at Risk report in 1983 borrowed the central beliefs of the movement and gave it a national platform. Effective-schools principles became a national agenda: All children can learn; schools must have high academic standards; for a school to achieve its goals, texts, tests, and the curriculum must be tightly coupled; and, finally, test scores will prove to a skeptical public that schools are accountable.

Throughout the 1980's the movement for effective schools took hold in the states and finally reached the White House, with President Bush and 50 governors embracing the concept of national goals and performance measurements in 1989. President Clinton's "goals 2000'' bill currently before Congress displays those common denominators of the movement. In short, the last two Presidents of the United States have nationalized the effective-schools movement.

For those that appreciate irony, consider that within two decades policymaker "wisdom'' on schooling had flip-flopped from schools not making much difference to the local school being the single most important instrument in securing equity and excellence for all children.

What accounts for this turnabout is a consensus among national political and business leaders, forged in the early 1980's, that tougher and better schooling will boost a sagging economy. Policymakers concluded that central guidance must be given to a fragmented, decentralized system of schooling. Incentives and penalties were needed to motivate students and teachers to work harder. This new policy wisdom has been labeled systemic reform.

The logic behind systemic reform goes like this: If we are to regain economic competitiveness, every isolated fragment of what we know as public schooling--its diverse goals, 50 state curricula, varied textbooks and tests, uncoordinated teacher education--must be aligned to work together as they do in many European nations. Professional groups must agree on curricular standards. Policymakers must figure out how to assess the achievement of those standards because once students see clearly the link between their school performance and getting jobs or into colleges, they will work harder.

But the system of public schooling is so large and splintered. Where do you begin? Among mainstream policymakers the answer is clear: Create a national curriculum and tests that measure the extent to which students have learned what was taught.

There is much that is appealing in this new "wisdom.'' Squeezing more efficiency out of a fragmented, uncoordinated system of schooling is essential. So is having national goals, since goals can steer local agendas and signal a culturally diverse people what in public schooling is fundamental. Moreover, goals aimed at lifting academic standards assume that all students, regardless of background, can succeed. Thus, seeking more efficiency and uniformity in standards and assessment makes both equity and excellence possible.

Also appealing is that having national goals and "voluntary'' curricula avoids coercion and leaves to teachers and principals decisions about how best to reach these goals and standards. The message to schools is: Reach these standards. How you do it is up to you. This mix of top-down pressure and bottom-up freedom attracts skeptics and sidesteps critics' fear of a U.S. ministry of education dictating what is to be taught in San Francisco, rural Kansas, and Montgomery County, Md., classrooms.

While there is promise for local schools in the idea of systemic reform, there are also inescapable consequences. An obvious one is that minority, poor children in big-city schools will receive few benefits from systemic reform.

Many policymakers believe that the decentralized political structure of public schools captures the totality of the American system. Such a belief ignores the powerful three-tiered socioeconomic structure of American public schooling.

Top-tier schools, fewer than 10 percent of all schools, serve mostly affluent, white communities and send four out of five of their graduates to higher education. These schools in the Palo Altos and New Triers of the country already meet or exceed the national goals and do exceedingly well on state and national tests.

The second tier is the largest, representing about half of all U.S. schools. These schools, largely in suburban and small school districts, have decent test scores on national standardized tests and about half or more of their graduates go on to college. Second-tier schools have responded vigorously to critics of the last decade. New curricula have been added; programs for the multicultural, gifted, "at risk,'' and disabled have been adopted.

Bottom-tier schools, over one-third of all schools, are in center cities with large percentages of minority and poor children. Inside many of these schools, by the end of the 3rd grade, a pattern of academic failure for large numbers of children emerges and by the middle grades truancy and dropping out accelerates so that by the 11th grade, those students who will graduate are a small and lonely contingent. High school becomes a salvage operation for hardy survivors who have displayed academic and vocational promise.

Will systemic reform through national content standards, and curriculum-based tests help the bottom tier? Look at what California and New York did in the 1980's. They raised their academic standards, installed curricula, mandated tests, and held schools accountable. New York City and Los Angeles elementary school students, to cite two examples, have shown small gains on standardized tests of basic skills. Beyond that achievement, however, these districts still struggle with high dropout rates, spotty attendance, and dismal academic performance in secondary schools.

With evidence drawn from big-city schools after almost a decade of effective-schools programs and tougher state standards and tests, one predictable outcome is that systemic reform will miss the very schools that are most often used to justify this strategy. Thus, it is only fair to ask about the present bill before Congress: How national can a national strategy be that misses almost half of all the schools in the country?

Other unintended consequences can be anticipated in curriculum, testing, placement of children, and teaching by examining the experiences of those states cited by federal policymakers as having pursued systemic reform.

  • Curriculum and testing. National curricula and tests freeze existing subject-matter arrangements. For example, in recent years the U.S. Education Department has made large grants to separate professional groups in history, civics, and geography to produce national content and performance standards. Yet no one can teach geography or civics divorced from the study of history. Of course, after the grants were made, a few people realized that it was goofy to make such artificial divisions between subjects taught in schools and scrambled wildly to create dialogues between these separate groups. But the damage was done.

Furthermore, when tests are wired to an official curriculum and scores carry heavy consequences for individual students, teachers, and schools, the official district curriculum will narrow to what is on these high-stakes tests.

Even this freezing and narrowing of the official curriculum pales next to the compelling evidence of test-score pollution that has occurred in schools responding to high-stakes state tests.

"Test-score pollution'' means that standardized-test scores rise because students practice with questions similar to ones that will be on the test. Raising the score is the goal, not students' learning more. It will continue because top public officials passionately seek contradictory goals. They want national tests to certify each child's performance while also securing information to hold each school accountable. Wanting contradictory outcomes from the same test corrupts the very results they seek.

  • Placement of children. Another consequence of these tests is that administrators use scores to decide whether to flunk children and place them in special classes. A common school practice is to retain kindergarten and 1st-grade children for an additional year, call the newly created classes "transitional'' or "developmental'' and then, if some of those children fail to improve, put them in special education. Legislators have tried to prevent such misuse of tests but the practice has persisted in states that have tied tests to their curricular standards. Its effects will be worst in big-city schools that already have large pools of low-achieving children.
  • Teaching. Teachers are gatekeepers determining to what degree national goals, curricula, and tests enter the classroom. National policymakers have yet to learn the fundamental lesson that the official curriculum--what is on paper--is not the same as what teachers do in the privacy of their classrooms.

Consider California, where, as part of the state's school reforms, a thorough revision of the mathematics framework occurred in 1985. In this official curriculum, memorization was out; thinking was in. A group of researchers studied elementary school teachers teaching math and produced five detailed profiles.

Three of the five teachers made little or no adjustments for the new framework and continued their traditional instruction, that is, whole-group instruction, recitation format for questioning students, and heavy reliance upon memorizing rules.

Where the researchers noted substantial changes in teaching practices, puzzling questions arose about what happens when teachers put into practice new teaching ideas sought by state policymakers. In one class, for example, the teacher felt that he had made important changes. He had students draw pictures to represent fractions and problem-solve real-life uses of math information. Yet he still was a drill sergeant. He taught problem-solving as a series of rules that students had to memorize and follow. Here is an anomaly of a teacher viewing himself as making important changes yet transforming those innovations into previous practices.

In other studies of different subject matter both in California and elsewhere, a similar pattern of wide variation among teachers using new curricula and textbooks has emerged. Some teachers follow new state standards and use the approved text chapter by chapter, while larger groups of teachers adapt, modify, and even ignore what the state requires. So if one of the purposes of national curricula is to secure a higher degree of uniformity in what students learn, a growing body of evidence about teaching practices in pacesetting states reveals far more variation than policymakers ever expected, much less wanted.

There is another unexpected consequence awaiting policymakers. Reforms raise hopes that schools will be better, yet constant reports of failed reforms have fed a growing disappointment with the historic promise of public schools. So here is a scenario that I anticipate but hope will not materialize.

Presently, there is a bipartisan consensus among corporate executives and top elected officials that marketplace competition will improve schools. Converting schooling into brand-name products that parents can buy depends on information. National curriculum-based tests will provide accessible information on individual students and schools to help parents choose what to buy.

Yet there will be few surprises. Test scores will reveal large gaps between racial and ethnic groups. Big-city schools will still display low levels of academic performance. Researchers will discover that many high school graduates have a hard time securing full-time, high-wage employment. Then the fickle finger of blame will again turn and point at failing public school teachers and principals.

But this time, in the wings, will be an alternative to public schools that has been gaining strength since the early 1980's, the renting of public school children to private firms to produce academic achievement and the use of government vouchers for parents to send their children to any private school of their choice. I see this as an unintended consequence that will be played out in California this November.

This legislated experiment of national goals, content standards, and curriculum-based tests launched by the Bush and Clinton administrations has limited promise. We know now that nationalizing the effective-schools movement, however appealing it may be to policymakers and the public, seriously compromises curriculum, testing, and teaching in schools. We know now that with mainstream policy "wisdom'' flipflops in the past, systemic reform contains no more "wisdom'' than yesterday's newspaper story. That is the ultimate irony and, of course, the reason for my deep sadness over a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided experiment on the nation's children.

Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University.

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