‘Delivery’ Standards For Schools at Heart Of New Policy Debate

By Robert Rothman — April 07, 1993 10 min read
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The drafting of a Clinton Administration bill that would authorize national standards for student performance has highlighted a related issue that is among the most troublesome now facing policymakers: whether to establish such standards for schools as well.

The Education Department last month was forced to delay the introduction of the school-reform bill in Congress after a contentious meeting with House Democrats. A key sticking point was the lawmakers’ insistence on balancing the standards for students with “school delivery’’ or “opportunity to learn’’ standards designed to insure that every school has the capacity to bring all its students to high levels of achievement.

Supporters of strong delivery standards maintain that they are necessary to guarantee that students are not penalized for failing to meet high standards of performance while they attend schools with poor facilities and inadequately trained teachers.

But critics of the idea--including the nation’s governors--warn that a national set of standards for schools could lead to a “cookie cutter’’ approach that might limit states’ flexibility and impose costly mandates.

“States understand the serious equity problem, the serious problem of not having [negative] consequences for kids unless they have an opportunity to learn,’' said Susan Traiman, the director of education policy studies for the National Governors’ Association. “But how states provide the opportunity to learn needs to be figured out at the state and local levels, not mandated at the national level.’'

While the debate rages among federal policymakers, though, researchers and state officials from around the country have been working quietly to define standards for schools and to begin to find ways to measure progress toward them. The N.G.A., for example, has awarded small grants to four states to consider developing school-delivery standards.

“We have made a commitment to begin to define what those opportunity-to-learn standards should be,’' said William L. Lepley, the director of education in Iowa and the chairman of the governing board of the New Standards Project, a group of 19 states and six school districts that is developing an assessment system based on high standards for student performance.

Members of the project have pledged to a “social compact’’ that will guarantee that students who take the examinations have had an opportunity to learn the content the examinations measure.

Although the issue of determining whether students have had the opportunity to learn material on which they are tested is not new, it burst onto the national policy agenda early last year with the release of the final report of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing.

In addition to calling for voluntary national standards in school subjects and a related system of assessments to measure student performance against them, the Congressionally mandated panel recommended the adoption of school-delivery standards to assess schools’ capacity and performance in enabling students to meet the standards.

“People have begun to realize that it is a charade to think just about standards and assessments,’' said Marshall S. Smith, who was a member of the council and is now the undersecretary of education-designate.

In debating the standards council’s recommendations, however, House Democrats contended that the council did not go far enough.

They urged the creation of national school-delivery standards, and argued that any national system of assessments should not be used for high-stakes purposes--that is, no consequences should be attached to the results--unless school-delivery standards were in place. Otherwise, they said, students in poor schools would be penalized.

“Without delivery standards, you don’t know if the school is failing, or if students are failing,’' said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

But Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who was the co-chairman of the standards council, said last month that creating standards and assessments would be the best way to insure that schools provide all students the opportunity to learn demanding content.

“Some urge caution--go slow on assessments and standards, because equity is at stake,’' he said. “I go at it from the reverse: Equity is the reason I’m in this business.’'

National school-delivery standards could also force states to boost spending or risk litigation, warned Diane S. Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement. Students could sue states, for example, for failing to provide sufficient in-service training for their teachers, if that were one of the standards, Ms. Ravitch said.

“This is a lawyer’s dream, and a school board’s nightmare,’' she said.

But Mr. Lepley of Iowa argued that adequate resources are essential to insure that students meet standards for performance.

“To those who say money doesn’t make any difference, I would argue it makes all the difference,’' he said. “Not always more, but how you’ve established a policy for distributing it.’'

Bill Being Revived

In part because of differences over school-delivery standards, a measure that would have authorized national standards and assessments for students died last year at the end of the 102nd Congress.

The Clinton Administration has been drafting a new version of the bill. A draft dated March 18 would have established an “opportunity-to-learn commission,’' appointed by the Secretary of Education, that would develop a set of model standards and indicators.

The draft language would have also required that states participating in a grant program authorized by the legislation insure that their reform plans addressed the development or adoption of student-performance and opportunity-to-learn standards.

But the proposed measure did not satisfy House Democrats, and Education Department officials decided to delay the release of the legislation. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

Defining the Standards

Some educators, moreover, contend that the proposed opportunity-to-learn commission would be unable to come up with a set of standards that would measure whether schools possess the capacity to bring students to high standards for performance.

Rather than try to develop such standards, said Andrew C. Porter, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, states should hold schools accountable by determining whether their students have in fact attained the standards for performance.

“We simply don’t know in a prescriptive way what all the ingredients are to providing effective education,’' Mr. Porter said. “There is no formula that says, ‘If we do this, this, and this, a kid’s going to learn.’''

But other researchers and educators contend that it is possible to gauge whether students have had the opportunity to learn challenging subject content, and they are beginning to define what such standards might be.

In a paper written last fall, Mr. Smith, the undersecretary-designate, and Jennifer A. O’Day, a research associate for the Pew Forum on Education Reform, argued that standards for schools should be “parsimonious and well-focused,’' and suggested that they address resources, practice, and student performance.

For example, they said, the resource standards might include having teachers and administrators able to teach to high standards; the practice standards could include whether a school has a “powerful and appropriate’’ pedagogy and curriculum; and the performance standards could indicate whether students have attained the performance goals.

Similarly, Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, has proposed a set of “standards of practice’’ for schools.

In a report last fall, Ms. Darling-Hammond outlined 12 such standards, including: All students have equitable access to resources necessary to fulfill standards of excellence; all students should have access to a rich and challenging curriculum; and school-governance procedures should provide for the “vigorous involvement’’ of teachers and other staff members in decisionmaking.

Such “standards of excellence,’' Ms. Darling-Hammond writes, “are never fully met; they are the engines for ongoing growth and improvement of all schools and school systems.’'

State Definitions

State and national officials are also coming up with definitions of standards for schools.

Leaders of the Music Educators National Conference, which is part of a consortium developing national standards for student achievement in the arts, are also separately developing school-delivery standards that would insure that students are able to meet the standards.

Such standards will address scheduling, course offerings, staffing, materials, equipment, and facilities, according to Paul Lehmann, the director of the project.

“You can’t achieve the expectations of the content standards and achievement standards if you don’t have the course offerings, if you don’t have enough teachers, if you don’t have enough time,’' he said.

The New Standards Project is also expected to develop guidelines for the “social compact’’ for its member states, according to Mr. Lepley.

Individual states are taking varied approaches to the issue. In California, for instance, a bill currently before the state Assembly would create a statewide model to help local communities assess their schools on a variety of criteria, including safety and security, adequacy of resources, appropriately trained teachers, and a balanced curriculum.

States involved in the governors’ association’s project to define school-delivery standards are also examining different ways of gauging students’ opportunities to learn. Following a conference on the issue last year, the N.G.A. awarded $5,000 grants to four states--California, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont--to convene working groups to consider such standards.

In South Carolina, for example, members of the state’s task force are considering for its standards the criteria used for selecting the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, according to Molly Jones, an education associate in the office of organizational development in the South Carolina Department of Education. Such criteria include the quality of leadership, the standards schools use to judge themselves, and the participation of “stakeholders’’ in the decisionmaking process.

Measuring Progress

In addition to defining standards for schools, state officials and researchers have begun to develop ways to measure progress toward them.

In New York, schools involved in a pilot “school-quality review’’ project are examining the teaching and learning in each school with an eye toward improving it. Under that project, modeled after the British inspectorate system, a team of educators in each school, supplemented by an outside team of reviewers, monitors the school program to determine if it matches the goals for student learning. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

In addition, researchers involved in a federally funded project have been creating a method to analyze the curriculum and instruction in high school mathematics and science classrooms.

Under the project, Leigh G. Burstein, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Lorraine M. McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, have looked at “instructional artifacts’'--examinations, class assignments, and textbooks--as well as daily logs filled out by teachers. They then compared their findings with those of national surveys to measure what is actually taught.

“Up to this point, we have measured what courses students have taken, and what teachers’ experience was,’' said Ms. McDonnell. “This is the next step. Even if you know a course title, you don’t know enough.’'

Over time, such experimentation could yield standards that would truly measure whether students have the opportunity to learn demanding content, Ms. Traiman of the N.G.A. said.

“Let’s spend time to figure out how to move forward with developing a system of delivery standards,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1993 edition of Education Week as ‘Delivery’ Standards For Schools at Heart Of New Policy Debate


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