Riley Urges ‘Review’ Of Standards

By Joetta L. Sack — March 01, 2000 7 min read

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s call for a “midcourse review” of the standards movement comes at exactly the right time, supporters of the effort to raise academic expectations for students said last week.

For More Information

View the full text or video webcast of Mr. Riley’s Seventh Annual State of American Education Address. Includes a 5-Year Report Card on American Education.

“His caution is important because we’re at a time where states have developed standards, but I don’t think states have begun to put in place all the things they need to do to meet those standards,” said Velma L. Cobb, the director of education policy and youth development for the National Urban League.

Secretary Richard W. Riley

Mr. Riley issued his call at a high school here Feb. 22 during his seventh and final State of American Education speech. The address covered a wide range of proposals, including a pitch for making teaching a year-round profession.

His remarks on standards were designed to help states that are instituting higher academic standards head off criticism about how those changes are playing out, said Michael Cohen, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“This is the first time all 50 states have ever tried something so ambitious. ... So it is important,” Mr. Riley said, “that we have a midcourse review to make sure everybody understands what the standards movement is all about.”

While stressing that state leaders and educators should press ahead with their reforms, he said they also “need to listen hard to legitimate concerns.” Mr. Riley told states, for example, that their standards should be “challenging, but realistic.”

“Setting high expectations does not mean setting them so high that they are unreachable except for a very few,” he said.

The secretary also advised states not to rely on a single test to measure students’ knowledge of the standards.

Standards ‘Backlash’

Mr. Riley’s admonitions were timely, several education leaders said, because debate over the accountability measures states are putting in place as part of their standards-based reforms is growing.

“In several key states, the possibility of consequences for kids is suddenly becoming more real, as people face that significant numbers of kids may not graduate or be promoted,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit, Cambridge, Mass.-based group formed by governors and business leaders, which organized the third National Education Summit last fall to discuss such concerns. “It’s been easy to get the public to accept the general sense of standards, but now it’s at the point where the rubber meets the road.”

“This is not a signal to back off,” Mr. Schwartz added, “it’s a reminder that you better be paying attention to these issues.”

Vincent Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, agreed with that assessment. He said he had talked with dozens of principals who were struggling to mesh academic standards with day-to-day curricula.

“There is most definitely a standards backlash affecting America’s schools and communities, as the demand for high standards seems often to boil down to passing one test, repeating grades, or not graduating from high school,” Mr. Ferrandino said. “Local principals become the ‘fall person’ because they haven’t been given the resources or time to produce the results people want.”

And Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools superintendent in Maryland, said she worried that many states would give up too soon on standards-based reform, once such hard decisions had to be made.

“In order to achieve high standards, there has to be sustainability of effort,” she said. “Some states are very discouraged because they are not meeting the standards immediately, and it’s not politically palatable.”

Most education observers say the standards movement that has emerged over the past decade remains popular in concept. But some states, experts say, have rushed to put high standards in place without aligning them with curricula or giving teachers enough training to implement them in the classroom.

“The curriculum issue has been more difficult than policymakers thought it would be,” said Patte Barth, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates high academic expectations for all students.

Reaction to Secretary Riley’s proposal to rethink teachers’ work year also was generally favorable. But the big question, to many people, was where the money to pay for it would come from.

Longer Year, More Pay?

Mr. Riley suggested that teachers work 11 months of the year, for large increases in pay, to promote professionalism in the field. Currently, the average teacher contract covers 91/2 months, according to the National Education Association.

“I have come to the conclusion that we will never really improve American education until we elevate the teaching profession and come to grips with the issue of teacher compensation,” Mr. Riley said in his speech, receiving loud applause from the audience of hundreds of state and local education officials. “School districts should begin moving to make teaching a year-round profession over the course of the next five years and pay teachers accordingly for these additional months.”

Teachers could use the extra time, he said, to participate in professional-development activities, meet with parents, and teach students who needed additional help to catch up on their studies. He made clear he was not calling for year-round schooling.

Mr. Riley’s senior adviser, Terry Peterson, said later that paying for such initiatives should be up to states and local districts. Federal funding, such as a matching-grant program, could be proposed in coming years, he added.

Others said they doubted the expanded work year was financially feasible.

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, estimated that the change could increase local school budgets by as much as 25 percent.

“I certainly agree with [the proposal], but I don’t see how we can get there,” said Ms. Grasmick, the Maryland schools chief. States would probably have to phase in the necessary salary increases because they would be so expensive, she added.

But the idea drew praise from the teachers’ unions and some local officials.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1 million employees, has been discussing ways to extend the school day or year to help teachers meet the demands of the accountability movement, said Bella Rosenberg, the assistant to the union’s president, Sandra Feldman. Such decisions would have to be made at the local level with teachers’ involvement, Ms. Rosenberg said.

While some teachers might object to the additional working time, many already take summer jobs to pay their bills, she added.

“People have the image of teachers traveling around, having a good time, but that is the exception rather than the rule,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

Many of the 2.4 million members of the National Education Association would also be favorable to such a plan—under the right conditions, said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the union. “If it’s done gradually, in ways that uses the time productively, and doing it in the context where people are getting paid for their work, most people are going to think that’s a good thing to do,” he said.

Betty Mangum, a veteran educator who is now serving as a county commissioner in Wake County, N.C., said that year-round teaching was a realistic goal, but that it would take some willpower from the states.

“There’s no way county governments have enough money, but state legislatures do have the power to do that,” said Ms. Mangum, who attended Mr. Riley’s speech. Choosing to become a teacher, she added, “does not mean we should have to forfeit a living wage.”

Republican Response

For More Information

Read “A Parent-Focussed Agenda for America’s Schools,” Majority Leader Dick Armey’s response to Riley’s speech.

Mr. Riley initiated the annual education speech seven years ago, using it as a bully pulpit and follow-up to President Clinton’s annual State of the Union Address. He devoted much of his hour-plus talk here to promoting initiatives already announced by the White House.

“The secretary often raises issues, and tries to get the debate going, but doesn’t always propose federal solutions,” said Mr. Cohen, the assistant secretary.

For the first time, Republican lawmakers delivered official speeches in response to Mr. Riley’s remarks.

Speaking the same day from a charter school in Pasadena, Calif., House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey of Texas called the state of education “alarming” and urged the federal government to relinquish more control to local school officials and parents.

“We’ve got to free the local school boards from the mountain of Washington regulations and paperwork, so they can do what they know works,” he said. “The school board will get it right, because the school board is accountable to the parents.”

Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico echoed those sentiments at another Republican response, delivered at an Albuquerque high school.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2000 edition of Education Week as Riley Urges ‘Review’ Of Standards


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