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Conferees Seek To Overcome Barriers to Standards Reform

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and Millicent Lawton

State policymakers and educators who were not invited to the March education summit in Palisades, N.Y., got their turn to talk about elevating academic standards at a recent conference here.

"Some of you got mad at me for not being invited," Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said during the opening session of the conference this month. "Some of you said it was going to be a failure because you weren't invited."

But in addressing the audience, the Republican governor of Wisconsin acknowledged that the people before him were those at the front line. "You can make the summit successful."

Seeking Rejuvenation

Once the clarion call for reviving public education, academic standards had lost cachet in many quarters as politics threatened the movement and interest waned. Then in March, 40 of the nation's governors and 49 business leaders, led by Mr. Thompson and IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr., met in Palisades to try to rejuvenate the undertaking. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

In its aftermath, the State Education Improvement Partnership organized the two-day conference here for state policymakers. The partnership is made up of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors' Association, both based in Washington; the Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures, both based in Denver; and the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va. Supported by a three-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the partnership provides technical assistance to states working on education reform.

The discussion focused on the barriers to standards-based reform, possible ways to remove them, and how state policymakers can help.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, told conferees that policymakers can improve the quality of teachers and their training by linking licensure to graduation from nationally accredited colleges of education.

Participants expressed concerns about the standards-setting process and asked questions about the nuts and bolts of developing standards.

Noting that Wisconsin teachers and state education department staff members planned to write standards this summer, one educator asked, "Should we buy the canned program or should we develop our own? If the state standards are optional, then how do we align them?"

Though few attendees used the politically volatile term, some maintained that "opportunity to learn" issues need to be addressed.

"There's no talk about what you're going to do for students so they have a chance to achieve these high standards," said Sally McConnell, the government-relations director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.

But Jeanette Mitchell, a former Milwaukee school board member, said schools need to deal with what is available.

"I get tired of hearing people say because they come from poor or minority homes they can't learn," Ms. Mitchell said.

"Kids learn lots of things. They learn things in gangs. They learn things about running the streets. They're just not learning what we want them to be learning," she said.

Additional resources are not likely to be forthcoming until schools show progress, said John Barth, the director of education policy for the NGA.

Participants also questioned the extent to which states could share information and collaborate. Colorado, Delaware, and Massachusetts plan to work together.

But Bruce Johnson, the commissioner of children, families, and learning in Minnesota--a state that has spent several years and millions of dollars already on standards work--said that while sharing information would be beneficial, collaboration could prove dangerous. "If the legislature were to see the slightest shift in course now I could lose their political goodwill overnight."

Mired in Politics?

Just how politically vulnerable standards-setting is was in evidence at the conference.

Beverly Huston Sgro, Virginia's secretary of education, walked out after the first day. Ms. Sgro said she was disappointed that there was not more practical advice from speakers about how to implement standards and assessments.

But Ms. Sgro, a Republican appointee, also said she was displeased by the partisan nature of a speech delivered by Democratic Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado.

Gov. Romer called concerns about federal government involvement in education "paranoia" and said those striving to improve education should not be put off by "pressure from the conservative element of this country."

Earlier, however, Gov. Thompson implied that the Clinton administration was to blame for the flagging standards endeavor.

Several speakers, in fact, preached the importance of political will and courage.

Ronald R. Cowell, the co-chairman of the House education committee in Pennsylvania, said it is easy for policymakers to say they support high standards until they have to make an unpopular decision. For example, the Democratic lawmaker said, the legislature in Pennsylvania, where children had missed days for snow and flooding, this year waived the 180-school-day mandate to avoid disrupting the school calendar and summer vacations.

"Sometimes," said Rep. Cowell, "you've got to stick your neck out."

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