Standards Opinion

Throwback Thursday: National Standards

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 25, 2014 3 min read
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In 1990 President George H.W. Bush called for public attention to educational quality and the establishment of national performance targets by the year 2000. This year marks twenty five years since that presidential agenda was set. This reported in a September 24, 2014 EdWeek article:

Twenty-five years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors took an unprecedented step that poured political accelerant on the nascent movement for standards-based education reform: They proclaimed that the country needed to set educational goals on issues ranging from early-childhood education to adult literacy, and to hold itself accountable--somehow--for meeting them.

In response to the President’s call for action 25 years ago, Bill Honig, then Superintendent of Public Instruction in California wrote an EdWeek article in which he affirmed that,

... Setting targets is a good first step. But a successful strategy to improve student performance demands much more. A winning approach would be based on the methods of districts or states that have improved performance. It would require educators to define specifically the kinds of subject-area content and skills students must learn if the nation is to compete internationally. It would necessitate determining the best ways to teach each subject to a diverse student population. It would mean developing better testing, undertaking heavy investment to bring teachers up to speed, and giving educators the necessary technological tools to improve their productivity. Finally, this strategy would provide schools and districts with planning and implementation grants to translate these ideas into reality and make structural changes to move from a rule-driven system to a performance-based one.

Timeless advice that brings us to think about today’s challenges. The Common Core Standards are an incarnation of the national performance targets of which President Bush was speaking. The implementaion has fallen upon local districts. And because of constraints (both perceived and real) that seemed to rob the time needed for sense making in the process, a forced implementation ensued. But, didn’t we have 25 years notice? Honig’s advice from 1990 does offer some guidance about how the local school district can lead the implementation to the best of their ability with the welfare of the students held as the beacon for the change. These are not seven easy steps. There is local control to be seized even in this current national standards debate. And a guide to that control lies in these seven decisions and the actions that will ensue. Back then, he suggested:

  • Study how similar schools implementing the changes are doing so successfully.
  • Decide on the subject area/content skills required for the students to compete internationally, not on standardized tests alone, but in career paths. (We think strongly that STEM offers the route to take)
  • Decide on best ways for the implementation to impact all students, considering the diversity that lies within the community.
  • Even in places where external standardized testing is mandated, the local school district should decide on how they are going to assess student growth and achievement in ways that can inform instruction and decision-making.
  • Decide, even in these difficult financial times, that investing both time and money in targeted professional development is a value that cannot be compromised.
  • Decide that productivity can be enhanced through the use of technology and investment in technology and training is essential.
  • And finally, if the governing bodies are not offering suitable grants, or if districts do not qualify, other grant avenues and alliances with higher education and businesses can be of service.

The controversy over these Common Core State Standards, the current materialization of a set of national standards, is well documented, and opined. But a duality remains for educational leaders in that they have a responsibility for implementation while verbalizing opposition (for some) and railing against the accompanying standardized testing (for most). While all that continues, the children are sitting in classrooms waiting to learn and teachers are working to teach them. It is the responsibility of the leader to maneuver through the complexity of that duality in order to both engage in leading the use of the standards while holding the children and their experiences at the center of their work. It may be 2014, but advice from 1990 seems worth taking.

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