Summit Puts Faith in Two School-Reform Tactics
When the nation's governors and top business leaders convene in Palisades, N.Y., later this month for an education summit, they plan to champion academic standards as the key to improving student achievement.
There's certainly nothing new in that. In state after state, teams of educators, policymakers, and parents are already hard at work setting guidelines for what students should know and be able to do--the kinds of standards the governors and executives are coming together to promote.
Some states have been at the task for years: New York began in 1991, Delaware and South Carolina in 1992, Wisconsin in 1993. Others have gotten started only recently, and a few have more or less decided to stick with academic criteria that have been in place for a decade or more.
So, with all this work well under way, what is the summit likely to accomplish?
The answers offered by many of the people involved with the meeting or the ongoing efforts in the states range from the idealistic to the cynical.
Merely by organizing and attending such a function, the skeptics say, the governors can say they are interested in and doing something for education.
For others, though, there are high hopes. "I hope that coming out of the summit there will be a bipartisan understanding that standards must be the core issue of all of the other education-reform activity," said Ronald R. Cowell, the co-chairman of the education committee of the Pennsylvania House.
Rookies in Training
The idea for the March 26-27 summit grew out of a speech by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp., to the National Governors' Association last summer.
In it, he lamented the meager progress of the nation's schools since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. He urged the governors to ensure that their schools set the highest expectations for students and to hold them accountable for doing so.
"To turn the tide, we must set standards. Immediately. And we must have a means of measuring how we are doing," Mr. Gerstner said. "Without standards, educational reform is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic."
Half the summit will be devoted to technology. For the other half, Mr. Gerstner told the National Governors' Association last month, participants will examine academic standards from school districts, from states, and from dozens of different countries. They will also look at poll and focus-group results and explore ways to overcome barriers to adopting standards. (See Education Week, Feb. 14 and March 6, 1996.)
Many of the groups that have been working on academic standards agree with Mr. Gerstner that high benchmarks are the way to reform. But they disagree with the implication that little has been going on.
"We have been working on these things for a long time now," said the leader of one state's standards project, who asked not to be quoted by name.
But, the official added, "there is a concern that the governors may refocus all this, and they may simply say, 'Let's do it our way."'
A number of states have nearly completed their standards projects. Though New York is among those states, its commissioner of education, Richard P. Mills, is a big booster of the summit.
"To have the energy of the governors behind standards is very important," he said.
Some analysts view the gathering as a follow-up to the 1989 summit in Charlottesville, Va., at which President Bush met with the state governors, including Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Out of that meeting emerged the national education goals, which in turn fueled the development of high academic standards in core subjects.
"What this is about is to have spring training for all those governors and CEOs who weren't in camp in 1989," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group that promotes liberal-arts education in schools. "There is a new generation of people out there who weren't part of the debate."
Indeed, only a few of the current governors were in office in 1989. Moreover, few among this new generation rode into office on education platforms, and most of those who did advocated vouchers, other privatization measures, and charter schools.
For the veterans of 1989 who remain dedicated to the concept of standards, this month's gathering is an opportunity to enlist their recently elected brethren in the cause. "They may not come with a full conviction, but we hope they leave with a full conviction," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado.
The summit also offers a chance to "educate" governors who lack a grounding in the subject of standards and its jargon.
"We get into things like content standards, performance standards, assessments. It is very complex and very confusing," said Tom Houlihan, the senior education adviser to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina. "I think this is going to be a real attempt to help governors understand what is meant by high standards."
Some educators believe the summit may lead to partnerships among the states that could allow them to marshal their resources, especially in the design of assessments.
Of course, not every set of standards that states and districts have written rises to the world-class levels Mr. Gerstner and others have demanded.
The American Federation of Teachers issued a progress report last summer on standards efforts in the states. Though it did not gauge the degree of rigor, the study examined related criteria. For example, it found that only one-fourth of the states had created standards clear and concise enough to enable creation of a core curriculum for all students.
In the past year, many of the states have taken the vague standards they were building and have made them more specific, said Robert Marzano, the executive director of the U.S. Department of Education's Mid-Continent Regional Laboratory in Denver.
But in many states, Mr. Marzano added, the standards are still unusable. Some, he said, describe what students should know at the end of grades 4, 8, and 12. But schools generally test students and make promotion decisions at every grade level.
"They are still going to sit on the shelf unless somebody deals with the nuts and bolts to implement this," Mr. Marzano said.
He is not alone in that concern. Several governors say a focus of the Palisades summit is likely to be the assessments they believe are essential for gauging progress toward meeting standards.
"The problem right now is that we spend $11 billion on education, and we really don't know what we are getting for that money," said John Truscott, a spokesman for Gov. John Engler of Michigan. "We can't compare kids in Michigan schools with those in Wisconsin, Ohio, and California."
Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, the summit's other co-sponsor, broached the same subject in an interview late last month. "What we're going to do is try and set up some standards, and how we're going to assess those standards between our schools," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
On the same show, Gov. Bob Miller of Nevada spoke about the "need to have more uniformity."
Those were some of the same concerns--the need for high standards and tests to measure how students stack up against one another--that lay behind the movement to create national academic standards.
In the years since the Charlottesville summit, many groups, often led by the various national subject-matter organizations, have compiled voluntary standards in their fields.
Though hailed by many in the education community, those efforts have not fared well in the political arena. They have been attacked as unwarranted intrusions into state and local decisions about curriculum, and in some cases have been accused of showing a political bias.
But they live on. Some of the state standards documents include elements drawn from the various national standards.
"You will see states that map pretty closely to some of the national standards," said Barbara Kapinus, the director of the curriculum and instructional-improvement program for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington. "You will also see states that are all over the map."
Whether based on national standards or not, it won't matter how rigorous a state's standards are unless schools use them. And in many states, the curriculum is controlled locally.
Gov. Thompson, for example, advocates broad, comparable standards. Yet just this year, he proposed that each of Wisconsin's school districts adopt its own performance standards and design its own tests linked to those standards.