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Principals Take the Pulse of Standards Movement

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San Antonio

The debate over national academic standards has attracted the opinions of governors, members of Congress, and some of the biggest names in education. But little so far has been heard from those nearer the heart of the issue: school principals.

Last week, members of the National Association of Secondary School Principals spoke up--and some of their comments suggest that the standards backlash in Washington has found its way to schools around the country.

At the association's annual meeting here, a debate on proposed voluntary national standards drew about 100 of the 6,000 administrators who attended. Many of those who heard the debate appeared skeptical of the whole concept.

The efforts under way to set rigorous national standards to promote excellence and equity to the schools have come under increasing political pressure and face waning support. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

The new Republican majority in Congress, for example, has indicated it will reopen debate on standards-related provisions in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Several principals echoed the criticism of predominantly conservative Republicans who assert that national standards add a layer of bureaucracy to education, minimize local control, and attempt to impose a national curriculum. Others said they saw no point in adopting national standards unless schools received more federal aid to enable students to meet them.

Some administrators were unclear about the purpose of the standards. Many wondered what resources were available to implement the national benchmarks or to develop state or local ones.

Framing the Debate

Despite apparent strong support for setting standards at the state and local levels, the administrators generally said they believe the national standards will prove to have little practical use.

"I think they see this as 'one more problem I have to deal with,"' said Kenneth S. Goodman, a professor of language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona. Mr. Goodman, a longtime opponent of national standards, participated in the debate.

Donald Grossnickle, the assistant principal for instruction at Addison (Ill.) Trail High School, agreed.

"I think they're benign, but they don't really mean anything," he added. "With all the stuff schools have to deal with, they just don't have much resonance."

But Thomas W. Payzant, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, stressed that the national standards are voluntary--and are intended to stimulate action in the field.

"This is a bottom-up approach," Mr. Payzant argued, "driven by communities and professionals who know the subjects."

Federal money is available to states for the development of their own benchmarks or for the adoption of content standards set by other groups.

Elizabeth Panella, the principal of Fair Lawn (N.J.) High School, was one of a few administrators at the meeting last week who agreed with Mr. Payzant.

"I think they're good for starting a dialogue about what we need," she said later. "But the states should still do the work."

'A Ripple Effect'

Many administrators, however, said they face an uphill battle to set high expectations for students. Several districts have already weathered battles over standards similar to those being fought in Washington.

"I think this is having a ripple effect," said Tim Westerberg, the principal of Littleton (Colo.) High School. "It's scaring the heck out of other people and keeping them away from standards."

Last year, his school was at the center of a highly publicized debate over performance standards. Shortly after three "back to basics" candidates took control of the Littleton school board, the high school dismantled its pioneering performance-based graduation requirements. (See Education Week, June 1, 1994.)

Several administrators said there is only one way to defuse the controversy inevitable when adopting standards: Listen to the community's concerns at every step of the process.

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