Standards for Educational Leaders

Could California's Reading Results Show the Way?

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The growing debate over standards of all kinds for students, teachers, and schools ignores what are possibly the most important standards of all: those for the leaders who offer solutions to the problems of American education. The public is becoming increasingly impatient with long lists of promised solutions and meager results, as illustrated by these recent newspaper headlines from California, once a beacon in the school-reform movement: "Can't Read" (Modesto Bee); "The New New Math Is a Good Idea That Will Add Up to Less Than Zero" (San Jose Mercury-News); "You [Educational Leaders] Are the Problem" (San Francisco Chronicle).

Some, like Ron Brandt, the editor of the magazine Educational Leadership, explain these accusations as part of the new political landscape. They are, says Mr. Brandt, "quite consistent with a headlong movement in the United States and other parts of the world that is labeled conservative but that seems to be a confusing combination of fear, self-interest, libertarianism, and privatization." But the recent conservative shift is not the only explanation for public dissatisfaction. Much of it stems from the failures of the innovations mandated by education leaders.

California has been the trendsetter in American educational reform. Now California students score last in reading among all states included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When results are broken down by race, California's white students are last in the nation; its African-American students are fourth from last in the nation; its Hispanic students are third from last. Concerned individuals from throughout the entire political spectrum may find reason in these results to question recent educational trends.

A San Francisco editorial explained California's educational shortcomings in this way: "[T]his latest education transgression brings to mind the all-too-familiar phenomenon of wide pendulum swings in educational theory followed by lemming-like conformity by schools and teachers." Even Bill Honig, who was state superintendent for public instruction when California wrote its nationally acclaimed "whole language" curriculum framework, said that whole-language teaching had cost California's students dearly, that the "true believers" had gone too far, and that too many people had bought the movement.

Mr. Honig's identification of "true believer" scapegoats draws attention away from the poor guidance and insufficient oversight of the California Department of Education, as well as that of district curriculum offices, national curriculum organizations, local school boards, teachers' unions, and business groups, and the leadership responsibilities of state superintendents themselves. Until now, such organizations, groups, and individuals have been able to make demands of front-line educators for standards and accountability, without subjecting themselves to any similar demands. Organizations are quite facile at criticizing and offering solutions to schools, but seldom reflect critically on how their own organization actually contributes to the problems of American education.

The failures in California, most especially, should serve as a wake-up call to organizations offering guidance to front-line educators. What standards do these organizations apply to ensure the quality of their guidance? How do they measure the extent to which their guidance results in continuous school improvement?

Probably the best way to illustrate the relevance of standards for responsible reform is to describe how they might have prevented the current educational crisis in California, both in student achievement and in public confidence in California's educators and educational leaders. As a member of the recently formed Early Identification and Intervention Work Group for the state of California, I can attest to state Superintendent Delaine Eastin's serious interest in applying standards that will improve student achievement. Here are some of the suggestions:

  • Standard 1. Support public review. The organization will support representative public review of major changes in schooling practices and intended results.

Much of the public controversy over educational reform could be avoided by (1) taking into account findings from public surveys about educational priorities, (2) widely distributing information about proposed changes and the intended student results from those changes, and (3) obtaining systematic input from the community and others before mandating those changes (for example, by gaining approval from a given percentage of school boards for a set of statewide changes). For large-scale, untested educational initiatives at the local and state levels, both pro and con positions should be distributed to the public.

Had California conducted such a review of whole language's almost total elimination of skill instruction, only a small number of schools might have tried out whole language, rather than all of the schools in the state. Such a trial test would have revealed the present problems, except that the number of failing students and angry citizens would have been much smaller.

  • Standard 2. Distinguish innovative from proven practices. The organization will support the review of new (and existing) education practices and tools (textbooks, computer programs, methods, etc.) to determine whether they are unproven innovations to be closely monitored as part of a small-scale pilot, or effective practices to be adapted more broadly.

    The goal is not to stifle innovation but to ensure that innovations are carefully tested on a small scale to determine if the innovation earns designation as an effective practice warranting wide-scale adoption. By providing answers to these questions, education agencies would enable schools and districts to distinguish innovations from effective practices: (1) Are the approach and its intended results clearly defined? (2) What valid experimental-research evidence (not testimonials) exists to demonstrate that the approach is effective? (3) Is an efficient, manageable accountability process built into the approach, including check points to determine if the implementation is producing the intended benefits for students? (4) Is the approach sustainable for students, families, teachers, and administrators? (5) Is the approach equitable for a diverse cross section of learners, for example for children of poverty, students with disabilities, and students who do not speak English as their first language? (6) Are the costs of the approach and its implementation reasonable?

    California once had a law that required that learner verification of instructional material had to precede statewide adoption of that material. When the state said it would not follow the law in its adoption of whole language, a suit was brought; the state lost all the way to the state supreme court. Soon after that, the legislature repealed the law.

  • Standard 3. Use valid and reliable assessments. The organization will support the use of valid and reliable assessments that provide information valued by the public.

    California abandoned its state assessment because it could not validly and reliably produce individual student scores. A clear explanation to the legislature of this shortcoming might have led to a revision of the assessment plan that would have survived.

  • Standard 4. Replicate high-performance practices. The organization will support the identification and replication of validated practices and of high-performing schools. Schools that are already performing reasonably well can profitably ACT on knowledge about specific validated practices. However, schools that need substantial changes to improve student achievement, particularly the achievement of diverse learners, require a complex set of practices, best found in a high-performing-school model.

    California did not focus on high-performing schools. Doing so would have prevented the statewide mandating of whole language, which proved to be ineffectual for many students.

  • Standard 5. Focus on results. The organization will support accountability for student achievement: Both rhetoric and action should focus on results. Periodic reports during the school year, based on schoolwide or districtwide standards for performance, should inform students, teachers, administrators, and families about the progress of each child.

    If California had reported annually on the reading performance of children in the early grades, the failure of whole language would have caused a public uproar and corrective action much earlier.

  • Organizations should review how well they implement these standards for responsible reform. The findings from the review would be shared with the leaders and members of the organization. The organization would ACT on the findings with incentives and corrective feedback and, if necessary, changes in personnel or in the nature of the organization itself. Organizations that exercise influence and control over schools should be accountable for results just as schools should be accountable for results.

    Last month, Superintendent Eastin acknowledged the shortcomings of California's innovative whole-language framework. "I think what we made was an honest mistake," she said of past reforms. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.) Honest mistakes will be less likely to have large-scale damaging effects if standards for responsible reform are in place. The purpose of having them is to prevent future innovations from failing on such a grand scale.

    These standards do not apply to teachers, families, or students; they are standards that leaders must apply to themselves and their organizations. Through them, organizations can better understand their own responsibilities. Those that accept these responsibilities will see their contributions to American education grow dramatically.

    Vol. 15, Issue 06, Pages 42, 52

    Published in Print: October 11, 1995, as Standards for Educational Leaders
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