The Standards Wars: Some Lessons Learned

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In the past decade, the push for academic-content and performance standards has become the most important and most enduring change to impact schools. The development of standards and the early stages of implementation happened in nearly every state and in more districts than one can count. Since 1993, the Council for Basic Education has worked across the country assisting states and districts, large and small, in their efforts to set rigorous content and performance standards. We have also assisted some states by critiquing their standards, others by benchmarking them against the best in the nation and the best in the world.

What have we learned in five years of working with states and districts on standards? Here is a checklist:

A bidding war seems to be raging that has some states engaged in a 'My old man (standard) can whip your old man (standard) any day of the week.'

Despite the research literature (and logic), the process of putting in place a standards-driven system is not as linear as it is described. Both policymakers and practitioners often must cope with a bewildering array of tests, professional-development models, standards, and budgets.

There are enormous arguments around the level of detail, with conflicting interests battling issues of local control vs. the need to provide clear guidance to teachers and a clear understanding to parents.

Accountability remains the most elusive component of standards-driven reform. The adults in the system scorn it, students generally favor it, political and business leaders support it, as do parents until it appears that it will affect their children.

In some states and districts, standards have become the surrogate battlefield upon which power battles are waged that have little to do with standards, such as who will exercise control over the education system. Combatants may include boards, unions, central offices, special commissions, governors, and state legislatures.

There is no simple, cookie-cutter formula for setting standards. While many states begin with standards, other states have found the need to "back fill" to create standards that align with other components of the system. While all of that might not create a pretty picture, the most important principle is having systems that align, so that standards, assessment, professional development, and the other components are all aligned.

While the momentum for standards continues and grows, a great deal of resistance to the idea of standards remains. We have found that the resistance may be greater at the state agency level than among teachers, who are more likely to see both the fairness and importance of standards. Parents, particularly low-income and minority parents, are usually the strongest supporters of standards.

Not much thought has been given to the really hard work involved in implementation. Even less thought has been given to the true impact of a standards-driven system on budgeting, professional development, and teacher education. Less thought still has been given to how long it will take for states and districts to thoroughly implement standards and see broad-ranging results.

While there are many differences among the standards adopted by various states and districts, the fundamental similarities are far greater than the differences. In five years' time, I rather suspect we will discover that we have created a de facto set of national standards, building from the ground up rather than imposing a set from on high. This "bottom up" approach is likely to be much more effective, although certainly not as efficient, as the "top down" strategy which was pursued earlier in the decade. It is both uniquely American and highly effective in building a national consensus. I believe that by 2003 we will find that 50 percent to 70 percent of state standards are quite similar.

Much confusion remains about what constitutes good standards, and there are many, many qualities standards must possess to be excellent. For example, they must be clear. They must focus on what we call "the big ideas." They must be measurable. They must be rigorous. They must permit various methods of teaching.

The concerns of the conservative parents who raised objections to the affective nature of "outcomes-based education" have been largely dealt with by concentrating on academic-content standards. Concerns now seem to focus on whether or not standards are rigorous and specific enough, a sure sign that we are making real progress in achieving an appropriate academic focus.

A bidding war seems to be raging that has some states engaged in a "My old man (standard) can whip your old man (standard) any day of the week." While this has spurred some states to excellence, it has also resulted in standards that are not just higher but often unreasonably higher, even to the level of an advanced college curriculum.

Not much thought has been given to the really hard work involved in implementing these standards.

Interest groups have been created or energized to serve as "guardians" of a particular discipline, usually in math, history, or English. Often these groups adopt a "take no prisoners" approach rather than engaging in a productive dialogue that would thoughtfully engage people on multiple sides of an issue. The result can be the defeat of any standards at all. The notion that standards are subject to continuous improvement is ignored in the interests of purity.

The national-standards documents have been and remain influential. In our work in states, we consistently find people using documents like those produced in science, geography, math, and economics. These standards are an important resource for groups to consider as they write state or district standards. It is true that some national documents are far more influential than others.

The process of having teachers, parents, community, and business groups engaged in the process of thinking through what they want in their own standards is tremendously useful. It often serves to bring people together, create common understandings, and raise expectations. Teachers consistently call this exercise the most important thing they have done and say that they learn more here than through scheduled professional-development programs.

Even if a state has standards, most districts, especially large districts, need to engage in the process of examining, refining, and supplementing the state standards. There is simply no other way to have people "own" the importance and the power of standards, or the standards themselves.

Most policymakers have yet to understand that content standards are only the first step in a process that also encompasses performance standards, assessment, accountability systems, professional development, teacher education, and resource allocation. Educators at the state and local levels are beginning to understand that none of this will work without close alignment among all the components and that the ultimate "test" is whether or not student learning is improving.

The motivations of those who advocate high standards seem to be exceedingly diverse, ranging from those who simply seek higher performance from all students in the interests of improving public education to those that may wish to see public schools fail as a way to create support for vouchers, home schooling, and private education. That diversity of motivation should not be used to derail standards, but rather to redouble efforts to make standards work as the leverage for reform that leads to greatly improved student learning.

Only a few states have even thought about, much less tackled, the issue of the impact of higher standards on systems of public higher education. For those who have given this issue consideration, the motivation has generally been concerns about retention and remediation caused by students who don't meet the content-knowledge requirements of higher education. The impact of higher standards on the content of freshman courses and the need to give high school exit exams positive incentives by having them do double duty as college entrance exams are two vital issues.

The responsibilities of the higher education system to prepare teachers to enter classrooms that will operate under these new standards have not generally been accepted by the higher education community. Few colleges and universities have faced the need to dramatically increase the content knowledge of teachers; fewer still have actually tackled the issue. As teachers who have received CBE fellowships state over and over, "You can't teach what you don't know."

I am often asked in forums across the country whether standards are here to stay or simply a passing fad that will soon be replaced by another fad. My answer remains firm and consistent: Standards are here to stay.

The effort has survived almost a decade of attempts to sabotage it and, in fact, public support is stronger than ever. The existence of organizations like Achieve Inc., created as a result of the 1996 national education summit, has served to solidify support from both political and business leaders, two groups whose backing is critical. And parents and teachers understand the rationale for standards and their importance in achieving equitable opportunities for poor and minority children to gain a decent education.

Without that continuing support, standards would surely die, as they should. The way to assure their continued impact is to take the next steps to create performance standards, align assessments, restructure professional development, revise budgeting, and redesign teacher education. Without all of these steps, standards will be an empty promise.

Christopher T. Cross is the president of the Council for Basic Education, located in Washington.

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 35, 48

Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as The Standards Wars: Some Lessons Learned
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • The Council for Basic Education's Academic Standards Services gives an overview of services it provides for states in the standards-setting process.
  • Achieve Inc. houses a national clearinghouse in which it has gathered all available state standards for comparison.
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