Education Opinion

Opportunity to Achieve: The Debate Over Standards and Equity

March 23, 1994 28 min read
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  • Districts should develop comprehensive report cards for every school. These report cards should describe the availability and quality of each school’s facilities, staff, programs, and other resources. This information should be available for parents and the general public and should be a basis for continuous improvement.

Yet, as educators at many levels explore what those standards should be and how to test students’ progress toward them, a troubling and divisive question has arisen that threatens to alter the course of reform: What guarantees do students have that their schools provide the necessary means to reach those goals?

For many, this question has eclipsed all other school-reform issues because it lies at the core of a vital educational concern: equity. These advocates seek assurances that impoverished students or members of minority groups won’t be denied an opportunity to achieve because their neighborhood schools lack the wherewithal to provide an adequate education.

The quest for such a guarantee has prompted calls for standards that would spell out the educational tools each school must provide to give all students an equal “opportunity to learn.” Without such standards, their supporters claim, it’s hard to tell which is failing: the student or the school.

For others, however, these opportunity-to-learn standards raise the specter of creeping governmental intrusion into even the tiniest details of a school’s operation. They envision yet another meddlesome federal mandate dumping reams of paperwork on already burdened teachers and principals, followed by potentially ruinous lawsuits from parents who claim schools fail to meet the standards. All of this, they say, with little proof that it’s possible to write a recipe for a good school.

In recent weeks, this issue has taken center stage in Congressional debate on two key pieces of education legislation: reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and President Clinton’s proposed “goals 2000: educate America act.”

Supporters of opportunity standards had hoped to link them to participation of schools in the E.S.E.A.'s Chapter 1 program, the huge remedial-education effort designed to aid disadvantaged students. A recent compromise retains a requirement that states set such standards, but makes their implementation only voluntary.

House and Senate versions of Goals 2000 also differ on whether states should be required to set opportunity standards to qualify for a new grant program.

Both the E.S.E.A. and Goals 2000 measures are pending, and compromises on opportunity standards appear likely. Yet, regardless of the outcome in Congress, debate over how to insure equal access to education for all students, and whether setting standards for schools is the answer, is certain to continue.

On the following pages, two members of Congress and two experts on school reform--one from a New York University research scholar, the other a University of Wisconsin professor--address several of the basic questions surrounding opportunity-to-learn standards. Will such standards accomplish anything? Should the federal government set them or leave that task to the states? Should they be detailed blueprints for school resources, or broad outlines that leave key decisions to the schools? How should they be enforced, and what should happen to schools that fail to meet them?

This is the first in a series of special Commentary reports underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc. In each report, Education Week will bring together leading thinkers and education policymakers to focus attention and frame the debate on a critical issue.

‘Who Should Control Them?’

By Diane Ravitch

There are several important questions to ask about opportunity-to-learn standards. The first is, what are they? The second is, who should control them? And the third is, if the federal government does not mandate them, what should states and school districts do to provide the capacity for higher levels of achievement?

Let’s begin with the definition. You can’t decide who should be responsible for opportunity-to-learn standards unless you agree on what they are. They are not easily defined.

In the literature about international assessments, “opportunity to learn” usually means, did the student have the opportunity to learn what was tested? Was it taught?

By contrast, the House version of the proposed “goals 2000: educate America act” takes an expansive view of opportunity to learn: It includes the quality and availability of curricula, instructional materials, technologies, teacher quality, access to professional development (including the “best knowledge” about teaching and learning), school facilities, libraries, and laboratories. These could later be expanded by the recommendations of a new national opportunity-to-learn commission, to be established under Goals 2000.

Who should police the implementation of opportunity-to-learn standards? The House would like to keep control in Washington; the Senate wants control to remain in the states. If control resides with the National Education Standards and Improvement Council created by Goals 2000, then districts and states will need federal approval for all of the items listed above.

Will the council have the capacity and/or wisdom to judge the quality of instructional materials, access to “the best knowledge,” or the ability of teachers “to provide high-quality instruction to meet diverse learning needs in each content area to all students” (the language of the House-passed measure)? Whether control resides in Washington or the state capital, it seems likely that states and districts will be the targets of lawsuits to force compliance with “voluntary” national and state opportunity-to-learn standards.

Third, what should states and local school districts do to assure that all students have the opportunity to learn to high standards? This is not a new issue for school boards; it is arguably their most important responsibility. As the legal authorities in charge of public education, they should rigorously monitor the quality and availability of curricula, teacher education, staff development, facilities, and other resources.

Here are specific steps that state and local school boards should take to insure the availability of opportunity to learn for all students:

  • Every state should develop high-quality curriculum frameworks in mathematics, science, history, geography, civics, English, the arts, and foreign languages. The frameworks should spell out what students in each grade should know and be able to do; a good model is the California curriculum frameworks.

A curriculum framework is not a lock-step curriculum. It does not describe what every student is supposed to do every day. Instead, it spells out the animating concepts and essential skills that should be taught and learned in each subject. By defining what is expected, the framework promotes teacher collaboration toward shared goals. You can’t expect students to meet high standards unless the standards are clearly defined.

  • Once the state’s curriculum frameworks are in place, all students should have equal access to challenging curricula from 1st grade through high school graduation. There can be no equity in education when some students are encouraged to take algebra and others are not; when some schools offer foreign languages and others do not; or when challenging courses are available but only a small minority of students take them.
  • Teachers should be encouraged to create their own approaches to meeting the curriculum standards. They might want to devise interdisciplinary programs linking history, geography, and civics, or integrating history and literature. They might choose to take a thematic approach. They might prefer to teach through hands-on problems and practical activities.

Anything is possible so long as the goal is to help all children learn to high standards, and so long as teachers remember that interdisciplinary doesn’t mean nondisciplinary. The purpose of interdisciplinary study is not to eliminate the disciplines but to teach them better.

  • School districts and states should develop benchmarks to monitor the availability of essential academic courses and the progress of student enrollments in every school. Offering the courses is not enough; schools should make sure that students, without regard to gender, race, or social origin, are taking the courses.
  • State and local school boards should require new teachers to demonstrate that they know the challenging content they are expected to teach. If they don’t know it, and don’t know how to teach it, they should not be certified.
  • New assessments used in the schools must be based on the state’s curriculum frameworks. Teachers and students should know that what is taught will be tested. In the classroom, teachers should use performance assessments that clearly identify how well students have learned what was taught.
  • States and school districts will need to commission objective tests that provide comparable data to monitor the progress of schools and students. These tests could incorporate a variety of testing technologies: multiple-choice, open-ended, essay, and performance items. They should produce information that allows school officials and parents to know how well students are learning.
  • Districts should develop comprehensive report cards for every school. These report cards should describe the availability and quality of each school’s facilities, staff, programs, and other resources. This information should be available for parents and the general public and should be a basis for continuous improvement.
  • The federal government should provide funding for staff development so that classroom teachers can learn the new content that will be included in state and national standards.
  • The federal government should reimburse districts and states for any new costs that result from complying with Goals 2000. The House Education and Labor Committee made clear that its interest in opportunity-to-learn standards was to force resource equalization. The committee should be prepared to put money behind its convictions (as it was not when it rejected, then diluted, the Clinton Administration’s proposal to target Chapter 1 monies to the neediest districts).

For states and local districts, the danger of federally initiated opportunity-to-learn standards is that Congress will tell districts to do something without providing the money to pay for it. These are called unfunded mandates. Or there is the danger that opportunity standards will unleash a generation of litigation (some in Washington refer to “O.T.L.” as opportunity to litigate).

In either case, the answer should be the same: The federal government should pay for the increased costs imposed on districts and states by federal opportunity-to-learn standards. (But don’t hold your breath.)

For better or worse, opportunity-to-learn standards are here to stay. Not only are they part of Goals 2000, they will be part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which directs $10 billion in federal funding. If responsibility for opportunity-to-learn standards shifts to the federal level, so will control of everything that matters in education.

To maintain control of their schools, state and local school districts must take the lead by assuring that all schools are capable of providing their students an equal opportunity to learn to high standards.

Diane Ravitch is a senior research scholar at the New York University School of Education and a former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department.

‘The Thorny Problems Of Equity’

By Andrew Porter

Perhaps one of the reasons opportunity-to-learn standards are such a contentious issue is that nobody seems to know what they are.

Advocates see them as the solution to all the thorny problems of equity created by the introduction of high-stakes assessments of student achievement measured against world-class standards. For opponents, opportunity standards feed all their worst fears about federal/state control of education and the loss of local initiative.

The Continuing Problem of Equity: In a 1992 report of the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, school-delivery standards were suggested as a mechanism for protecting students from being penalized for doing poorly on new demanding assessments--not because of their own lack of motivation, but rather because they lacked access to a quality education. At about the same time, and for the same reasons, the New Standards Project, an ongoing effort by several states and districts to develop an examination system based on high academic standards, invented its “social compact.”

When the N.C.E.S.T.'s delivery standards ran into political resistance, they became opportunity-to-learn standards, a concept used in both President Clinton’s proposed “goals 2000: educate America act” and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The purpose to be served has remained the same, however: to solve a serious equity problem created when students are held accountable for their performance on new and demanding assessments regardless of their educational opportunities.

The basic idea is that opportunity standards would hold each school accountable for providing each of its students access to a quality education. The connection between opportunity to learn and high-stakes assessment has a legal as well as a moral motivation.

Courts have ruled that states must demonstrate student opportunity to learn before using an assessment for such vital decisions as graduation. Thus far, meeting the opportunity-to-learn criterion has not been difficult, only because such assessments have been limited to minimum-competency basic-skills tests, which are standard fare in U.S. schools. Assessments aligned to new and ambitious curricula implied by emerging content standards will make satisfying opportunity-to-learn standards much more difficult.

While opportunity standards were introduced by advocates of high-stakes assessment as a necessary prerequisite, their staunchest advocates have since become the opponents of such assessment. Believing the concept to be so hopelessly complicated as to defy implementation, cynics have come to see opportunity standards as a way of postponing indefinitely the use of high-stakes assessment of ambitious academic content.

Student and School Accountability: The equity problem in U.S. schools must be addressed, but opportunity-to-learn standards are probably not the best approach. Opportunity standards might identify instances where a student has been denied access to a quality education, but that will not solve the equity problem. Neither will sparing a student from undergoing an assessment that identifies that student’s educational deficiencies. Either way, the student is a loser.

What is needed is a quality education for every student, which will require, among other things, a clear focus on student achievement. In contrast, opportunity-to-learn standards would shift attention away from student accomplishment and back to where educators have been focused for decades--onto inputs and processes.

The focus on inputs and processes has not been productive, resulting in mindless checklists used in school-accreditation programs and frequent fads of unproven education practice. Education is nowhere near having a formula for spelling out what schools and teachers must do to guarantee that all students learn--if they apply themselves.

Student achievement is the joint product of what students and schools do together, so why not hold schools and students simultaneously accountable on the same measures of achievement? Holding students accountable might encourage them to do their best in school and would at least insure that they take the assessments seriously. Holding schools accountable on the same student assessments might motivate schools to accept greater responsibility for student learning, which would almost surely result in more effective instruction.

Such an approach would require attention to a host of technical details. Assessments would need to be aligned to worthwhile content standards. A school’s contribution to student achievement would need to be measured after taking into account differences in entering abilities and unavoidable student mobility.

But these technical problems are no more difficult than the technical problems accompanying assessment of opportunity to learn.

Other Purposes for Opportunity-to-Learn Standards: While opportunity standards do not appear ideally suited to solve the equity problem, at least as initially envisioned, there are some important roles that they might play.

First, they can provide a vision of good schooling. Such standards are not prescriptions, nor necessarily measurable. Rather, they identify broad principles of desirable practices. This is exactly what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has done with its “Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics.”

Opportunity-to-learn standards might also serve as a framework for developing a system of school-process indicators. Such indicators would be useful in monitoring progress of school reform, providing valuable descriptions of the types of opportunity to learn experienced by different types of students in different types of schools.

There might even be a limited role for opportunity standards to play in school accountability. Once a school has been identified as not producing the type of growth in student achievement needed, the question becomes one of next steps. Troubled schools might be asked to engage in a self-analysis, perhaps with the help of external experts, to diagnose deficiencies. Opportunity-to-learn standards could inform such school analyses.

Indicators of Opportunity to Learn: The best indicators of opportunity to learn are the best school-controlled predictors of student achievement: the content of instruction and the pedagogical strategies employed to deliver that instruction.

I have had success measuring the content of instruction using teacher self-reports; teacher accounts have been validated against independent classroom observations. This approach works well for descriptive indicators or school self-analyses, but it would likely be compromised if used for formal accountability.

Indicators of high-quality instructional delivery are more problematic, in large part because there is less consensus on what constitutes effective pedagogy. Nevertheless, it is clear from research that active student learning, where students take responsibility for constructing knowledge through writing, discussion, lab work, manipulatives, and computer simulations, characterizes instruction necessary to promote in-depth student understanding and the ability to apply knowledge.

Indicators of school funding and indicators of teacher certification are too removed from student experiences to be strong predictors of student achievement.

A better approach to indicators of inputs is to describe instructional resources as they are actually experienced by students, for example, the quality of the teachers of science for teaching science and the use of lab resources in the science program.

Regardless of whether opportunity-to-learn standards come to be used for purposes of formal school accountability, and regardless of whether student achievement is used for school and student accountability, serious problems of equity in opportunity to learn will remain unless additional steps are taken. Identifying an inequitable situation is necessary, but only a first step. The real solutions to equity problems will require harder work and be more expensive than standards-setting and accountability.

Andrew Porter is the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

‘The Name Of The Camel Is Truth’

By Major R. Owens

For the past decade, serious and sincere efforts to address the crisis in American education have been sidetracked by the obsession of elected officials at all levels of government with empty quick fixes and rhetorical solutions. A Nation at Risk. Back to basics. National education goals. School choice.

If it does not cost a penny or require elected officials to do anything differently than they did the day before, we have embraced it. And, as a result, urgently needed education reform has begun and ended with a stream of photo opportunities and press releases.

Opportunity-to-learn standards are an antidote to this consuming, vacant chatter, a font of truth that promises to set out for parents, teachers, and communities a more practical projection of what must be done to achieve educational excellence. To end the cynical swindling of the children of America, opportunity standards must be a component of any education-reform package.

Systemic reform, driven by challenging content and performance standards for all students, holds enormous promise for improving education, but it is not sufficient. There are no ruby slippers in American education: Merely setting higher goals and exhorting schools to meet them will not magically create the world-class system we need.

We must also examine the kinds of curricula, professional-development opportunities, and other resources that our schools need to help students attain these challenging new performance standards and work to insure that all the necessary resources are available to every child.

This is the central premise behind the opportunity-to-learn standards included in the “goals 2000: educate America act” school-reform legislation passed by the House. Once states have determined what they expect all students to know, they must then take the next step to identify what every school needs to effectively impart that knowledge to students.

If a state expected 11th-grade students to be able to perform and understand a set of basic chemistry experiments, for example, then one opportunity-to-learn standard might call for each school to have the laboratory equipment necessary to perform these experiments. Opportunity standards are intended to be a road map that schools and communities can follow to help their students achieve world-class levels of performance.

The substance of opportunity standards is left entirely to each state to decide, based on what it sets out in the student-performance standards it adopts under Goals 2000. The U.S. Secretary of Education is specifically prohibited in the legislation from influencing or dictating what a state includes--or does not include--in its opportunity-to-learn standards. No state or school is required to meet a set of uniform, predetermined standards; they are actions, activities, and guidelines meant to assist parents, teachers, and communities in their efforts to realize student-performance standards.

Though it is likely that in many states there will be serious consequences for students and schools that do not meet state performance standards under Goals 2000, absolutely nothing happens if a state or school does not meet opportunity-to-learn standards. There is no federal control of education here. There is no federal mandate here--except that states speak honestly to the public about the curricula, support services, and delivery system their children need to achieve the state’s performance standards.

Rather than debate this modest and simple concept on the merits, opponents of opportunity standards have responded with deliberate distortions and untruths, conjuring up delirious images of teachers counting pieces of chalk and of communities being compelled to build schools they do not need. This is absurd--and they know it.

Because opportunity standards are voluntary models, they cannot and will not force anyone to do anything. Moreover, states themselves are solely responsible for deciding the content of their standards. If a state is inane enough to determine that the number of pieces of chalk in a school is critical to attaining its performance standards, then, yes, teachers might wind up counting pieces of chalk. But if they do, they have only themselves--and not the federal government--to blame.

Equally absurd is the claim that opportunity standards would undermine the reform movement’s emphasis on outcomes by fixing our attention on the development of a checklist of “meaningless inputs” instead of student and school performance.

On the contrary, one purpose of such standards is to encourage state and local policymakers to sort through the myriad input requirements now imposed on schools to identify which inputs are meaningful and necessary for student attainment of higher performance standards and which ones are not. Nor are opportunity standards a sinister, backdoor means of promoting school-finance equalization.

They are, instead, intended to change the dynamics and terms of the school-finance debate in this country, shifting the focus away from how much is being spent on our schools to the quality of what is being bought and the extent to which it contributes to student learning and achievement.

Given all of this, then, why is it that conservatives and some elected officials are so ferociously opposed to these standards? The real answer was inadvertently blurted out by one of the opponents during a debate among members of the House Education and Labor Committee. “If you start telling people everything their schools are supposed to have,” he exclaimed, “they’re going to expect their schools to have it.”


Conservatives oppose opportunity standards because they fear they might lead voters to demand that additional resources be provided at all levels of government for our children’s education. Others, such as the National Governors’ Association, oppose them because they might make elected officials do more than just talk about education.

If their constituents are told what their schools should be providing children to educate them effectively, they might actually insist that elected officials give it to them. Though the governors are eager to hold students and schools to high standards and punish those who fail to meet them, they shudder in horror at the idea that they, too, might be expected to do something other than give speeches.

Opportunity-to-learn standards are critical to insuring that systemic education reform driven by world-class content and performance standards will truly produce comprehensive and meaningful changes in the quality of American education. Without such standards, the systemic-reform movement will surely suffocate under the enormous, entrenched power of political inertia that has stymied other equally sincere efforts at reform. It, too, will begin and end with a press release.

To be fair, we must admit that the conservatives have been correct about one thing in their attacks on opportunity standards: They do indeed represent a “camel’s nose under the tent.” But the name of the camel is not “federal control of education.” The name of the camel is “truth in educational reform"--and after a decade of hot air and obfuscation, it is long past time for us to make some room in the tent for a little truth.

U.S. Rep. Major R. Owens of New York, a Democrat, is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on select Education and Civil Rights.

‘A Failed Policy About Inputs’

By Bill Goodling

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the President’s proposed “goals 2000: educate America act,” the debate on opportunity-to-learn standards continues. In fact, opportunity standards have now eclipsed school choice as the most divisive education issue facing Congress.

Believe it or not, school choice and opportunity-to-learn standards actually have something in common: Supporters of both proposals believe they have found the panacea that will almost single-handedly solve the ills facing American education. School-choice supporters argue the magic of competition is the only way to bring about radical improvements in America’s schools. Those who support opportunity-to-learn standards do so on the theory that equalizing resources for all children will insure equalized outcomes.

Put me in the camp that says both of these theories are wrong; there is no panacea that will reform education overnight.

In both instances, particularly school choice, there may be times when states and school districts may wish to experiment with these concepts. But, in my view, this is not a decision for the federal government.

As a former educator, and as the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, my opposition to federal opportunity-to-learn standards is rooted in my lifetime of involvement in education policy. Experience tells me that education is a state and local responsibility, and that the federal role should be extremely limited.

The highest-quality federal education programs are those that provide flexible assistance to schools, allowing them to develop programs their communities truly need. The worst programs are fraught with red tape and are “unfunded mandates"--new requirements imposed on states and local governments that the federal government fails to pay for.

Opportunity-to-learn standards are examples of the latter. According to some of the proposals considered by Congress, states, school districts, and schools would be forced to develop standards about everything from the availability of curricula to the extent to which schools do not discriminate based on gender. The U.S. Secretary of Education would have veto power over state and local opportunity-to-learn standards, and would be able to issue even more regulations regarding the development of such standards. Obviously, all this activity would have an enormous impact on tax policy at the state and local levels.

Yet, while requiring the development and implementation of opportunity standards, most Congressional proposals fail on two counts: to provide funding to develop them and to address the question of how the standards are supposed to be met once they are set.

Imagine for a moment that you are a local school official. In your community, times are tough and money is scarce. The problems facing children at your school are more daunting than ever: teenage pregnancy, dysfunctional families, too much television, and so much more.

In concert with your local school board, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other members of your community, you work day in and day out to help students learn. All you can hope for from the federal government is a relatively small amount of flexible assistance that helps zero in on raising the achievement of educationally disadvantaged youths.

The last thing you need is more meddling from the federal government. But, with opportunity-to-learn standards, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Regardless of your community’s financial situation or other funding priorities, opportunity standards may compel your school to use scarce local dollars on such things as developing a “gender neutral” curriculum, reducing class size, or building a laboratory. You will also find yourself filling out even more forms and issuing reports on everything from how many books your school has in its library to how much training teachers are to receive.

Your entire state may find itself in the midst of an endless, circular debate about education “inputs"--encompassing everything from the credentials of school personnel to counting pieces of chalk and school supplies--that few people outside the national education establishment understand. Your state, school, and community are thrown into controversy. Quite possibly, because opportunity standards are so broad and ill-defined, this whole controversy ends up in court at every turn.

All in the name of opportunity-to-learn standards.

What bothers me most about these standards is this: We know from years of research that providing a child with an opportunity to learn is far more complicated than equalizing school resources.

If such standards are adopted, I’m afraid that even the most caring and committed educators will find opportunity-to-learn standards an irresistible excuse when schools and school districts fail students--particularly disadvantaged children. Rather than engage in difficult and often painful analyses of educational processes and the actions of educators to discover how the system failed, the temptation will be to point to opportunity standards and claim that that failure is rooted in a lack of resources.

This explanation may get them off the hook and may even generate more money for the system, but when the next accounting comes around, the sad reality will be that the schools will still be failing the same children. I, for one, would rather see federal money spent to set high academic standards for all children and to support programs designed to raise student achievement.

Because I am a member of the minority party, I have had to forge compromises on opportunity-to-learn standards in both proposals to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and to create Goals 2000. I did this because of my commitment to developing a bipartisan consensus on education legislation, as well as to insure that the House passes the best possible bills heading into conferences with the Senate.

These compromises insured that implementation of opportunity-to-learn standards would be completely voluntary, that they could not be enforced through litigation or be used to mandate equalized spending, and that they would not be unfunded mandates.

I am hopeful that the opportunity-to-learn provisions will either be further watered down in House-Senate conferences or that they will be struck outright. These proposed standards are nothing more than a failed policy about “inputs,” and they have little to do with improving student learning. Judging the quality of a child’s education based on inputs is never successful.

In the end, the only measure of quality in education is how much a child learns.

U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania is the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor committee, and a former teacher and high school principal.

This is a special Commentary report--one in a series that will bring together leading thinkers and education policymakers to focus attention and frame the debate on a key issue--is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Opportunity to Achieve: The Debate Over Standards and Equity


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