The Road Not Taken
and Millicent Lawton
At the end of a marathon day at the recent national education summit in Palisades, N.Y., weary participants endured an unexpectedly prolonged bus ride to their hotel. The shuttle-bus driver got lost, stretching the 30-minute ride from the conference center into a 45-minute trip.
And much like that roundabout bus trip, the journey toward rigorous academic standards for all students promises to be lengthy, bumpy, meandering, and saddled with back-seat drivers. Because of the course the leaders at the summit chose to take, it may detour down as many side roads as there are schools and never reach its desired destination, educators and policymakers say.
"The way it's being gone about now will be a slower and more circuitous route," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which promotes high standards in schools. But Mr. Cross said he hopes all the parties will end up in the same place.
Many observers say the chances that they will are undercut by state leaders' seemingly contradictory desire to avoid national standards and yet still be able to compare student attainment across state lines.
"The more decentralized you get with standards, the less you have standards," said John J. Mahlmann, the executive director of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va.
Forty state governors, 49 business leaders, and 38 "resource people" met at ibm's conference center in Palisades last month to promote the concept of high standards and assessments that will demonstrate what students should know and be able to do. The governors and corporate executives reaffirmed state and local goals-setting, steering clear of national standards. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)
The conference was widely seen as a sequel to the 1989 summit in Charlottesville, Va., where the nation's governors and President Bush agreed to set national education goals. Those goals propelled the development of voluntary national standards in key subjects to promote excellence and equity in K-12 schools for all children. Standards advocates envisioned a day when students in the poorest schools in rural Alabama would be taught the same high level of content--but not necessarily the same curriculum--as children in the toniest Boston suburbs.
The federal government was very much a player at the 1989 summit. But this time around, the governors essentially eschewed federal involvement, apart from an address to the gathering by President Clinton.
In the current hostile climate in many states toward a federal role in education and other areas, some governors insisted that the word "national" be stricken from the policy statement they adopted.
Standards by Default
Despite state leaders' aversion to national standards, many educators point out that schools already have them by default. Such standards can be found in textbooks sold nationwide and in broadly administered standardized tests.
And while the governors said they don't want to subscribe to others' ideas of model standards, they said they want to be able to compare their students' performance with that of students in other states. And therein lies a clear incongruity, observers say.
"There's a degree of contradiction there," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. "I don't think we're going to serendipitously come up with directly comparable standards, though in some subjects we might," said Mr. Finn, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan.
The observation is bipartisan. "If they want comparability, they will somehow have to agree on some standards somewhere," said John F. Jennings, a longtime Democratic congressional aide who is now the director of the nonpartisan Washington-based Center on National Education Policy.
The Republican governor who spearheaded the summit, however, said he doesn't see a conflict between comparing standards from state to state. "We can compare how we're doing economically without federal standards," said Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin. "We know how we're doing in football leagues and baseball leagues, in welfare reductions. There are a whole plethora of laws that are different--workers' compensation, unemployment, welfare. We are all able to find out how we're able to match up."
To keep the momentum from the summit going, as well as to enlist educators and others who were excluded from the Palisades event, Mr. Thompson and other state and education groups will have a follow-up meeting in Milwaukee next month.
Talking About Same Thing?
In the absence of a national model, the search for examples to emulate is inevitably going to focus on state standards efforts.
Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based interstate cooperative that works to improve education, said states may benefit from comparing their standards. "You may conclude your standard is lower than your neighbor or higher than your neighbor. But then I think you have to ask another question. ... Is it about right or is it high enough?" Mr. Musick said.
Many educators worry that some--or perhaps many--of the states' efforts will be weak.
"When everyone shouts hurrah for standards, you have to wonder if we are all talking about the same thing," Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, writes in a newsletter posted on the World Wide Web. Ms. Ravitch, an assistant education secretary in the Bush administration who was a guest at the summit, reviewed the existing state standards distributed to participants and concluded: "Some of the state standards are excellent; some are vague aspirations that have no resemblance to real standards."
Ms. Ravitch is not the only observer with doubts about the worthiness of some state standards.
Although a number of politicians and educators have touted Virginia's work, for example, others are dubious about its approach. Unlike nearly all the national standards, which have been completed for 11 subject areas, the Virginia ones spell out what students should know at every grade level.
Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, says such a detailed approach makes all students march in lockstep. "If you have a 1st-grade benchmark that requires all 6-year-olds to read at the same level, you are going to be holding back kids, possibly unnecessarily." The Education Trust promotes high achievement, especially for minority and disadvantaged students.
Short on Resources
Many states are likely to end up with as many sets of standards as there are districts within their boundaries.
In Arizona, some groups worry about top-down mandates, whether from Washington or Phoenix. Consequently, state officials still haven't decided whether districts will have to meet state standards or whether so-called high-stakes graduation requirements will be imposed.
Just this month, Alabama's state school board passed two new sets of graduation requirements, one tougher than the other--an approach that some people believe represents a reasonable transition and others feel sends the message that not as much is expected of some students.
Many educators say states, left to their own devices, would find it difficult to devise standards that are superior to the national ones. For most of the national subject-matter projects that have been completed, the leaders solicited hundreds of classroom teachers, scholars and other experts, and interested parties from across the country to forge the guidelines.
"No state has the resources ... to develop them and to involve those kinds of people," said Charles N. Quigley, who directed the national civics-standards project. Moreover, Mr. Quigley said, some states and districts have done superficial jobs of adapting the widely praised civics standards.
Gloria Sesso, a high school history teacher in Dix Hills, N.Y., points to the latest draft of that state's beleaguered social studies standards. "They are called standards. That is just a euphemism," said Ms. Sesso, who worked on the national history standards. So generalized are they, she said, that "we'll all live up to them."
With the frequent movement of students from one school or state to another, some experts call for consistency.
"We are in fact a nation," said Ruth Mitchell, a principal partner at the Education Trust. "To talk about something being applied only locally is simply hitting your head against the wall."
She and others recommend some kind of national coordinating council or other body to offer assistance and assess the quality of the myriad standards generated by states, districts, and other groups.
The governors and business leaders at the Palisades summit agreed to create an independent, nongovernmental entity to provide guidance to states and school districts. Whether it will confer a stamp of approval or serve strictly as an information clearinghouse is yet to be decided. The summit leaders were scheduled to meet this weekapril 25 to begin designing the organization.
Whether the entity will bear any resemblance to the all-but-defunct National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which Congress created in 1994, is also uncertain. Nesic's mission was to review and certify state plans and national standards, but once the backlash against national standards began, the Clinton administration backed away from appointing panelists.
Some educators who are watching the governors and business leaders' post-summit activities have misgivings about the involvement of such an entity--even one the governors create.
Mr. Cross, who attended the summit, said the entity should stick to identifying key sources of technical and policy assistance. If it attempts to match states with groups that could offer assistance, he argued, the mechanism will become heavy-handed.
"I see it as presenting another layer of bureaucracy," said Mr. Cross, who is the president of the Maryland state school board and served as an assistant education secretary under President Bush.
The governors hope that both any new national entity and the business community will provide states with incentives to raise their academic standards.
In the summit policy document, business leaders pledged to consider high school transcripts in hiring and to consider state standards when locating facilities.
But one of the gravest concerns of educators is what the governors and business leaders' plans portend for the original goals of the standards movement--excellence and equity.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado acknowledges that some states may take their obligation to high standards more seriously than others. As in setting pollution standards, for instance, progress by a state will be "based on how much interest and commitment the state makes," the Democratic governor said.
Officials have to ensure that a child who moves from Mississippi to Wisconsin will not lag behind his or her classmates, Ms. Mitchell of the Education Trust said. To do that, "you can't have true equity without some comparability."
Vol. 15, Issue 31