******************************* NOTE: THIS IS A FOUR-PART POSTING, EACH PART FOLLOWING WITHIN A DAY OF THE PREVIOUS ONE. From Rethinking Schools, Winter, 1999/2000, Volume 14, Number 2, p. 3. ----------- PART I: National Summit - Testing: Full Speed Ahead PART II: National Summit - Testing: Full Speed Ahead PART III: National Summit: What Wasn't Said. PART IV: The Jobs of Tomorrow ************************************* PART I *******
Testing: Full Speed Ahead
Governors and CEOs met at the National Education Summit to press their system of standards, high-stakes tests, and "rewards and consequences."
By Barbara Miner
PALISADES, NY - President Clinton, 24 governors, 33 business leaders, 19 state superintendents and education commissioners, and 35 invited guests gathered at the National Education Summit at IBM headquarters in early October to discuss standards and plot the next stage in the reform of U.S. schools.
In an improvement over previous summits, representatives of education organizations were invited, ranging from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to the National Association of State School Boards. But no principals or teachers were allowed in, no students participated, and the only representative of a non-white advocacy organization was Hugh Price of the National Urban League.
After a day-and-a-half discussion, conference participants dispersed, by and large convinced that they held the answer to ensuring that all children will reach high academic levels. Their answer, at its core, is twofold. First, to have every state adopt standards backed-up by standardized tests (a process well underway). Second, to set up a system of "rewards and consequences" for teachers, students, and schools based on those tests (a process that has only just begun and was the main conference topic).
Conference leaders were well aware that there is growing discontent among many teachers, students, and parents about their agenda - in particular the use of high-stakes tests as the guiding principal of education reform. (The term high-stakes tests refers to the use of a single test or battery of tests as the main and sometimes only determinant of whether a student is retained or is denied a high school diploma.) One of the clear purposes of the conference was to send a message that the discontent will not deter the governors and business leaders.
In a keynote speech riddled with terminology more appropriate for a wartime general rallying his troops, Louis Gerstner Jr., summit co-chair and IBM chairman and CEO, told participants that "it's going to be tough. Institutional change always is. But we have to bear the pain of the transition. ...We've got to have the guts and political will to press forward."
President Clinton delivered a similar message. Adopting a framework of "tough love," he said that accountability policies that flunk children or deny them a diploma are for the child's own good. The President told the business and political leaders that they must not be afraid to tell students, "We'll be hurting you worse if we tell you you're learning something when you aren't." (Clinton was too smart to use the term "flunk" but instead used the wildly popular euphemism "no social promotion.")
It might be tempting to dismiss Gerstner's and Clinton's statements as political posturing with few consequences in the real world. But the summit leaders have shown they have the clout to pass legislation and influence the media in a way that guarantees, at least for now, that their vision of standards and accountability is the norm. Further, at a time of highly partisan bickering at the congressional level, the governors and corporate leaders have forged a bipartisan agreement that, while sometimes fuzzy in its details, is clear in its overall thrust. Meanwhile, progressive educators opposed to the reliance on standardized tests have not yet been able to adequately articulate an alternative system of accountability that can capture widespread public support.
"Right now, this [the governors' and business leaders'] view of standards and testing is the centerpiece of what passes for education reform," acknowledges Monty Neill, executive director of the national group FairTest. "People have to address this view very centrally."
The meeting at the IBM headquarters was billed as the third National Education Summit. The first was in 1989, when President George Bush convened 49 of the nation's governors and established Goals 2000; (None of the goals - which ranged from wiping out adult illiteracy to making U.S. students the world's top achievers in math and science - are yet within reach.) In 1996, at the second summit, corporate leaders were brought on board and a more focused agenda was set, based on standards and accountability.
While calls for standards and accountability pre-date the 1996 summit, the governors and business leaders took the standards movement and reshaped it in their image. With calls for national standards stymied by opposition from both the right and the left, and with district and school-based efforts deemed too prone to influence from teachers and educators who conservatives had decided were part of the problem, the governors and corporate leaders forged ahead on the state level. They set up state standards, often heavily influenced by conservative ideologues and think tanks. Perhaps most important, they decided that high-stakes standardized tests were the best way to determine if schools were reaching the standards. (One of the most interesting yet untold stories of the history of standards is how the governors and corporate leaders, aided by conservative think tanks, took over the standards movement and transformed it into a top-down process that establishes an official version of knowledge and sets back efforts to forge a multicultural vision, in the process valuing discrete facts, memorization, and "basics" over critical thinking and in-depth understanding. But that is another story.)
Since 1996, the governors and corporate leaders have had an impressive track record - not so much in guaranteeing true reform and academic achievement, but in setting up their system of standards and high-stakes tests. At the time of the 1996 summit, only 14 states had established state standards in the four core academic subjects. By the next school year, 49 states will have such standards. (Iowa, which consistently scores at the top of various national academic measurements, is the only hold-out, prompting the comment from author and anti-testing advocate Alfie Kohn, "Thank God for Iowa.") Furthermore, the number of states that will be requiring students to pass high-stakes tests in order to be promoted or to graduate has jumped in the last three years from 17 to 27, and summit leaders are pushing to increase that number.
The governors and corporate leaders are quick to cite such statistics as proof of reform. On one level, that's not surprising. Both groups exist in a world where bottom-line numbers are all that matter: you either win an election or lose; your profits are either up or down. It seemed to escape conference leaders that the complexity of school reform cannot be so easily captured in hard-and-fast numbers. (A distinction must be made between the conference leaders and sponsors - the governors and business leaders - and the co-sponsors and invited guests, which included representatives of educational organizations. The true power rested with the corporate leaders and governors. A number of those invited seemed to realize that to not take part would leave them on the sidelines of what is the main game in education reform, unable to influence the proceedings and unable to use the summit's promise of "high standards for all" as a way to possibly leverage more resources for education and underscore the importance of teacher training and quality.)
There was a disorienting disconnect between the conference setting and the reality of most U.S. classrooms. As in 1996, the summit was held at IBM headquarters, a feudal-like conglomeration of office buildings and well-manicured grounds just north of New York City. It is a self-contained world, complete with restricted entrance (not even taxicabs were allowed onto the grounds), helicopter landing pad, swans and goldfish lazily swimming in a moat-like stream, guest hotel (reportedly with computers in every room), health spa, game room (also with computers), and gourmet dining facilities.
For those unattuned to IBM corporate culture, the media packet stated: "Dress for the Summit is business attire."
Little at the conference was left to chance. The draft of the final action statement was distributed weeks in advance and changed little over the course of two days. Media observers were given few opportunities to ask questions and were shuttled at night to a hotel 30 minutes away. The media were able to attend the main sessions, which consisted mostly of speeches and pre-planned questions and answers, but were barred from attending the discussion groups. Except for a few rare moments, when a Hugh Price or a Bob Chase talked to reporters in the halls, the media heard by and large what the governors and corporate leaders wanted them to hear.
As a result, the U.S. public heard mostly what the conference leaders wanted them to hear. One notable exception was a report by the Christian Science Monitor, which focused on funding inequities and a glaring contradiction facing summit leaders: If they believe all students should reach high standards, shouldn't all students be given adequate and equitable resources to do so?
The "1999 Action Statement" issued at the summit's end lays out three key challenges: Improving Educator Quality; Helping All Students Achieve high Standards; and Strengthening Accountability. Each section ends with recommendations on how the three groups represented at the conference - the governors, the business leaders, and the education leaders - will meet the challenge. (The action statement, along with other key documents from the summit, can be found at the website of Achieve, the non-profit organization that oversees implementation of the summit's recommendations. Its URL is: http://www.achieve.org./achieve/achievestart.nsf .
The action statement makes for dry reading. But sandwiched in between the rhetoric and oftentimes vague phrases is an indication of how the governors and business leaders hope to implement the next stage of their standards reform.
--- Improving Educator Quality. One of the notable differences between the recent gathering and previous summits was the emphasis on teacher quality. Linked to this was the acknowledgement that teacher salaries make a difference, especially in trying to attract people with math and science backgrounds. As Bob Chase told a group of reporters, "People are realizing that if you're not going to pay for quality, then you're not going to get it."
The action statement calls for "competitive salary structures to attract and retain the best-qualified teachers and school leaders." But the statement, unfortunately, also links resources for professional development and teacher training to "standards." (The problem is that even though the action statement does not explicitly equate standards with standardized tests, just about everything else at the conference led to that conclusion.)
The document also encourages several emerging trends such as alternative certification programs and standardized "content" tests that teachers must pass before they are certified.
In one of the most specific recommendations in the entire action plan, this section calls for merit pay plans, under which teacher salaries will be tied to student achievement. In particular, the plan outlines that business leaders "will help interested school systems and teacher organizations in at least 10 states incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans into their salary structures, based on lessons learned from the private sector."
Education leaders, meanwhile, are asked to "develop salary agreements that provide salary credit for professional development only when it is standards-based, linked to state and district priorities, and part of a school-wide plan to raise student achievement."
It remains to be seen how these directives on teacher quality will work out in practice, especially since these are not solidified trends. Chase, for instance, talked of the need to move forward "at a reasonable pace," and not to jump onto initiatives such as merit pay as the "fad de jour." He also underscored that teacher performance "cannot be solely based on the results that students have on a standardized test."
Clearly, one of the battles ahead will be over how much teacher quality will be judged by "standards," a broad concept that can justify a variety of approaches and initiatives, and how much merely by student results on standardized tests.
********************* Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools. Rethinking Schools is a non-profit, independent newspaper advocating the reform of elementary and secondary public schools. Its emphasis is on urban schools and issues of equity and social justice. It stresses a grassroots perspective combining theory and practice and linking classroom issues to broader policy concerns. It is an activist publication and encourages teachers, parents, and students to become involved in building quality public schools for all children. It is published in the Milwaukee area by teachers and educators with contributing writers from the around the country. Rethinking Schools focuses on local and national reform. Address: Rethinking Schools, 1001 E. Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212; Phone: (414) 964-9646; Fax: (414) 964-7220; E-mail: email@example.com ; Subscriptions: contact RSBusiness@aol.com - subscriptions are $12.50 per year. ********************** End of Part I -- Part II to follow shortly. **************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org