************************************* From Rethinking Schools, Winter, 1999/2000, Volume 14, Number 2, p. 3. ************************************* THIS IS PART II OF FOUR PARTS *************************
--- Helping All Students Achieve High Standards. The only unequivocally positive thing that can be said about this action is that it mentions that all students must have access to high-quality instruction.
The section stresses the need for "curriculum and assessments aligned with standards." ("Alignment" was one of the summit's main buzzwords. Alas, there was no call for state budget priorities to be "aligned" with educational needs.) On the surface, aligning curriculum, assessments, and standards seems logical. The problem, however, is that because high-stakes tests are driving standards-based reform at this point, there is a growing danger that curriculum will be geared toward standardized tests, regardless of what the standards say. This raises the clear specter of classrooms across the country focusing on "teaching to the test," and, in the process, narrowing the curriculum and emphasizing memorization over critical thinking. There is also the equally important question of who decides the standards and how, and whether they reflect a multicultural, democratic consensus on what children should know. Finally, who gets to decide the nature and content of the assessments?
Similarly, the section calls for professional development programs "aligned with state standards and tests." How these various "alignments" play out will be a key area of struggle. Paula DiPerna president of the Joyce Foundation and a former classroom teacher, said that while there were several positive developments at the conference, she was disturbed by, among other things, the tendency to equate tests with standards. "Tests are a tool and only a tool," she said. "They must not be the beginning and end of the answer."
Somewhat curiously, this section refers to the parallel and no-so-hidden agenda of some at the conference: vouchers. "Many of us believe that choice and competition within public education is both healthy and desirable," the document said. "Some of us believe that publicity funded parental choice programs should be extended to private schools as well." Throughout the summit, there was the sense that if standards-based reform doesn't work, then vouchers will jump to the top of the agenda in education reform.
Nowhere does this section mention funding equity or adequate resources. Instead, in an approach echoed throughout the conference, schools are told that in place of more money they will be given "substantial flexibility, freedom, and control over personnel and resources."
Most disappointing, the document lets the governors off the hook on redressing the "savage inequalities" in school funding. In fact, in looking at the various tasks assigned to conference participants in this section, there is disturbing imbalance.
For their part, the governors are merely asked to "work with their legislatures and state and local education leaders to strengthen the quality of standards and assessments, eliminate or waive regulations that inhibit state and local efforts to help all students meet them, and initiate or expand charter school programs."
The business community also gets off easy. It's asked to undertake such arduous tasks as encouraging their employees to volunteer in the schools and targeting their K-12 grant-making to standards-based reform.
The only difficult assignment was given to the educators: "to ensure that virtually all children can read well by third grade and master the fundamentals of algebra and geometry by the time they enter high school." There was no mention of how the educators are to fulfill this responsibility without additional resources and reforms such as smaller classes.
--- Strengthening Accountability. The heart of the summit's approach to accountability is a system of "incentives for success and consequences for failure." Despite the nod toward the carrot of "incentives," much of the document focused on the stick of "consequences." The threatening tone of the summit's approach is best captured in this section's first paragraph: "Accountability is the cornerstone of standards-based reform. To date, our education system has operated with few incentives for success and even fewer consequences for failure. The job security and compensation of teachers and administrators have, in large measure, been disconnected from teachers' success in improving student achievement. Students, except for the relative handful seeking admission to highly selective colleges and universities, have had little reason to work hard in high school because access to further education or employment has not depended on their performance in school. This must change."
Even though vouchers are not to be on the summit's agenda, this section also makes reference to vouchers, obliquely but unmistakably offering them as a consequence should standards-based reform fail. If low-performing schools do not measure up after intervention of extra help and resources, the document notes, "we will be prepared to restructure or reconstitute schools or provide parents and students other options."
Throughout the conference, the consequences for low-performing students was clear: being held back or denied a diploma. Even at the conference's end, however, consequences for schools and teachers were still somewhat vague.
But one powerful political figure, presidential hopeful George W. Bush, has made clear his view of "rewards and consequences." (George W. did not attend the conference but brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, did). In a statement a few days after the summit's end, George W. said that, if elected president, he would require states to annually test all students from third through eighth grade in reading and math as a condition for federal aid. States that showed progress on test scores would receive bonuses from a $100 million "Achievement in Education" fund. States that did not show progress would lose 5% of their federal grants. Earlier, Bush had linked student testing to vouchers, saying that schools that do not make progress on state tests would have their Title I money transferred into vouchers for parents.
How might the summit's standards agenda unfold in coming months? One indication will emerge when governors present their "state-of-the-state" speeches at the beginning of next year.
Will money - especially during this era of economic prosperity and budget surpluses - be forthcoming to improve teacher training, reduce class sizes, and provide additional resources for low-achieving schools?
The other key factor, which is beyond the governors' control and which clearly has summit leaders worried, is how the voting public will respond.
Of course, in some cases the sheer unworkability of the reforms will cause them to implode. In San Diego, for instance, a year after the board banned the promotion of low-achieving eighth-graders to high school, the "no social promotion" policy was deemed a disaster and rescinded. The district found that it was unprepared to sufficiently help, or flunk, the 15% of eighth-graders affected by the policy.
In response to the governors' standards movement, several approaches (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) are emerging. For progressives, the challenge mirrors that facing activists in any number of social movements. And that is, at a time of conservative dominance, how does one strike a balance between becoming involved in and trying to influence conservative reforms and mitigate their worst tendencies, and yet maintain a strategic, independent perspective that continues to educate the public to an alternative vision?
Some argue that progressives should concentrate on using the rhetoric of "high standards for all" to reopen the discussion on "opportunity to learn standards" (that is, providing sufficient resources and "opportunities to learn" before instituting across-the-board expectations for results.) The idea is to use the summit's rhetoric to push demands for more resources for schools, especially in poor communities.
Others emphasize the importance of legal action and filing suit against high-stakes tests on civil rights grounds. In Texas, for example, a decision is looming in a case by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund which argues that the state's high-stakes exams disproportionately deny diplomas to African-American and Latino students. A similar discrimination complaint was recently filed against the Chicago district, whose "no social promotion" policy has been repeatedly praised by Clinton and other political leaders.
Many progressive educators emphasize a stance of active resistance and, where appropriate, of boycotting the tests and adopting a "just say no" approach. A number of parents, teachers, and students, particularly in Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, have been organizing along these lines (see Rethinking School, Spring 1999, Summer 1999, and Fall 1999 issues.) They have been especially upset by the grueling nature of the statewide tests and how they distort and narrow the curriculum. In Massachusetts, for example, the fourth grade test takes about 14 hours - one hour more than the Massachusetts bar exam.
As Monty Neill of FairTest argues, "Should you go along with the dominant definition of reform, or do you fight it if you think it is an educational disaster? And I think it is an education disaster."
In addition to active resistance, Neill highlights two other important tasks: to demand better and more authentic methods of public accountability, and to develop high quality classroom-based assessments that can help teachers better teach. (FairTest, as part of the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, recently released a report advocating a new system of accountability in Massachusetts. For more information, go to the FairTest website: http://www.fairtest.org )
Theresa Perry, vice president for community relations at Wheelock College in Boston, argues that many African-American educators and parents are leery of a "just say no" approach and worry that the African-American community can't wait forever for better assessments to come along. She underscores the need to help African-American students pass the tests, and to use the tests to redress the chronic problem of low expectations and sub-standard curriculum for many African-American students.
"Fundamentally, the only way you can gain access to opportunity is by passing through these gatekeeping tests," she said. "Unless the tests are going to go away tomorrow, the real issue is, how do you ... help poor kids to pass the test?"
"The tests are flawed, but what is the alternative?" she continues. "And are the white progressives willing to take a stand in their local community to equalize outcomes?"
Michael Apple, an education policy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stresses the importance of a dual stance. While it's important to recognize that the tests are not going to go away anytime soon, he said, one must still point out "how these things have worked historically. That is, they exacerbate social problems, they blame the same students, teachers, and parents who have been blamed before, and they serve as an excuse not to equalize material resources."
Apple cautioned that progressives who are opposed to high-stakes tests must be careful not to allow themselves to be painted as anti-reform and as defenders of the status quo. "The idea is to think strategically," he said, "and not to form a rejectionist front that allows your enemies to position you in a way that makes you even less powerful."
Asa Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University, argues that, "For the segment of the community that doesn't have power, the worst thing they can do is to drop out of the game and not take the test," he said. But, he adds, after helping kids pass the test, "you have to then turn right around and challenge the tests."
Asked for what's the best way forward, Hilliard summed up the problem this way: "I don't think there's a magic solution. The problem is, the people who are advocating the high-stakes tests believe that they have the solution. And they are going to make consequences based on that."
How long the governors and corporate leaders will be able to maintain their system of consequence remains to be seen, however, especially since their dominant strategy appears to be high-stakes tests and "no social promotion."
That idea is appealing in the abstract and parents seem to support it - for now. But what will happen when hundreds of thousands of kids are flunked or denied a high school dilemma? As C. Thomas Holmes, a University of Georgia education professor who is a leading researcher on the topic, notes: "Parents are all for retention, until it's their kid." ----------------- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org ; Subscriptions: contact RSBusiness@aol.com - subscriptions are $12.50 per year. ******************************************************* -- 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: email@example.com