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Standards Reform Run Amok

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Great Britain is way ahead of American efforts to adopt coordinated educational standards.

For the last decade or so reformers have tried to improve American schools through the use of educational standards. The standards movement was initiated to overcome problems created by America's fragmented governance system. This system sends so many contradictory messages to teachers that it is hard to know what is important. Now--after backlashes in California, Texas, and other states--the whole standards movement may be in jeopardy because too much fragmentation allows opponents to undermine efforts to set challenging standards for all children.

I have just returned from England and Wales. Great Britain is way ahead of American efforts to adopt coordinated educational standards. It is a much more unified country, where the central government has considerably more authority to call the shots. Yet, the English experience illustrates the problem of a tightly integrated policy system. One faction can control the policymaking process and impose standards that others find seriously flawed.

The American standards movement has pushed ideas: an approach to using policy to improve schooling and a vision of the content of that policy. The movement seeks to improve the use of policy for reform by orchestrating the tools of a central government in a coherent and mutually reinforcing way. For years, American states have financed education, tested students, set high school graduation requirements, certified teachers, authorized textbooks, and performed other, similar functions. But 15 years ago, there was no effort to coordinate these activities. The result was considerable confusion. Local educators had to figure out what a good education was on their own. The new view is that all of the tools of government should be coordinated to send a common message. Overarching standards should influence content standards that guide textbook selection and performance standards that shape state tests. All of these should influence teacher certification and other requirements.

Another part of the standards vision clarifies what all these standards should be. For many people, this means "tough stuff for all kids." The American curriculum is seen as intellectually undemanding. At best, students are expected to memorize numerous factoids of grammar and history. They cover so many topics that they cannot learn much about anything. They have few opportunities to analyze why things are the way they are, look for connections between subjects taught, or address issues that may be personally meaningful. And where schools are filled with poor and minority students, these opportunities are even more limited. If all the tools of the state are orchestrated around a common vision, say standards advocates, more educators will successfully challenge their students to learn at a deeper level.

England is interesting because it has moved farther down the road toward coherent standards than most American states. The big change came with the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1988. This bill mandated that national curriculum standards be established in three core subjects--English, mathematics, and science--as well as technology, history, geography, music, art, physical education, and, for secondary students, a foreign language. These standards provided teachers with detailed guidance on what they should teach. Moreover, they were aligned with national tests that students take at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16.

While not fully integrated, the English system is much more coherent than the American.

The British gave these standards teeth indirectly. They did not threaten to take over schools, as many American states do. Instead, they increased parents' ability to choose their children's schools. When it was no longer necessary for children to attend their neighborhood school, the government started publishing test scores in "league tables" in local newspapers. (Age 11 and 16 test scores are currently published.) The theory is that parents will use test scores to choose their schools. While not fully integrated, the English system is much more coherent than the American.

Yet, the English classrooms I saw were very much like American ones. In the course of my trip, my colleagues and I visited math classes for 14-year-olds in four middle- to low-income secondary schools. Students learned the same kinds of mathematical operations that are taught in American middle schools: how to convert from fractions to decimals and back, how to manipulate equations with letters in them, and the like. Teachers very much dominated what little classroom discussion there was. Students were drilled to follow specified procedures until they "got it right." For instance, in one lesson on determining the area of shapes, the teacher made sure that all students formatted their calculations just the same way she did.

There were no efforts to understand why mathematical rules worked the way they did or to connect mathematics with other subjects. The practical "applications" tasks were the same kind of story problems that have been used in American schools for years. Even the computer exercises were the same as the textbook problems. The work had no greater intellectual challenge, and there were no efforts to probe mathematical issues more deeply than one would find in most American classrooms.

The conservatism of mathematical teaching did not result from a failure of implementation, as often happens in the United States. The English math teachers I talked to said that what they taught was regulated by the national curriculum, something that didn't happen before 1988. The conservative national curriculum resulted from the highly centralized development process. This process was characterized by decreasing academic participation in standards-setting and increasing direction from the Conservative government led by John Major. Even before the 1988 law was passed, the secretary for education and labor appointed a Task Group on Assessment and Testing, known as TGAT, which established the framework for developing future curricula and assessments. This group was dominated by test developers and curriculum experts, who devised a complex, but challenging framework for both assessment and curriculum.

Things changed, however, when committees were formed to write the curricula and assessments in specific areas. Then complaints of ministerial interference and replacement of subject-matter specialists with people whose sympathies were closer to those of the Conservative government, even if they were less expert, became more common. In addition, the TGAT framework proved complex and unwieldy. Together, these forces pushed curriculum in a more conservative direction in several subject areas.

The mathematics curriculum developed through shrinkage. The curriculum originally specified 14 "attainment targets," or topics. Most of these were conventional mathematical subjects like number operations, algebra, and recognition of shapes. Two were quite different, however. They referred to "using and applying" mathematics in arithmetic/algebra and geometry. These targets required students (and teachers) to think more deeply about connections among topics, why things worked the way they did, or how to apply what they were learning.

In Britain, the conservative national curriculum resulted from the highly centralized development process.

When teachers objected that the number of targets was too great, that number was reduced, as it was in other subjects. At about the same time, test developers found it very difficult to develop written items for assessing the remaining "using and applying" target reliably and efficiently. Rather than struggling with the problem of how to operationalize this target, as American states like Vermont and Kentucky have, they decided that paper-and-pencil testing in this area wasn't feasible. Assessment is now handled through "teacher assessment," where teachers provide numerical ratings of students' work. Unfortunately, the government never invested much in ensuring the reliability and validity of teacher ratings. The data are not collected as consistently as the scores of written tests, and generally teacher assessment has been the ugly stepchild of the assessment system. So there is no well-recognized means to assess the most intellectually challenging part of the curriculum.

While partly a result of feasibility problems, this hole in the testing system reflects the government's definition of standards, which gives rote knowledge greater priority than higher-order thinking. When I was in England, the innovations in mathematics testing were test papers that prohibited the use of calculators and "mental-math tests" where students had less than a minute to answer questions read to them on a tape.

This example illustrates the risks of coherent, integrated policy developed centrally. It becomes a winner-take-all game. This is excellent when your view dominates the process, but it is awful for the outsiders. In recent years, American standards-setting has been influenced more and more by traditionalists who prefer rote learning to complex analysis. This has been frustrating for standards advocates who want children to become more creative and analytic higher-order thinkers. But these advocates are never out of the game. They continue to make inroads, more in some states than others, and often where decisions are made by professionals more than by politicians. After all, this newer view of high standards is still foreign to most Americans.

Standards advocates are tempted by countries with a more centralized standards-writing process. While such processes may facilitate the adoption of more-integrated standards, the English experience suggests that consistency alone does not guarantee educationally sound standards. Moreover, as standards become more challenging, they make greater demands on the people who will implement them.

It is important to keep the process of standards development open partly to make sure that it is not dominated by forces that take a narrow, rote view of high standards, but also so that educational experts and people who understand the day-to-day challenges of implementation are involved. Our fragmented process for developing standards is messy and slow, and it precludes dramatic advances. But, in a world where not everyone understands what high standards could be, it also avoids dramatic mistakes.


William A. Firestone is the director of the Center for Educational Policy Analysis in New Jersey. He is a professor of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

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