What are Internationally Competitive Education Standards?

The evidence that the concept of high standards for education currently enjoys wide support in the United States is unambiguous. Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents to national opinion surveys support the idea that students and schools should be expected to meet specific standards in basic subjects. The support drops only to 70 percent when respondents are asked whether they support standards that are connected to serious consequences for failure. The support is strong across demographic groups and among both parents and nonparents. Other surveys have documented that the quality of public education is a major national concern and that it was on the minds of the voters during the 1996 presidential election (LeMahieu and Bickel, 1996:9–19). Education standards have also been widely discussed in the mainstream press (Toch et al., 1996; U.S. News, 1996; Gagnon, 1995).

LeMahieu and Bickel provided a valuable grounding for the workshop by exploring both some of the details of the public opinion data and some of the nuances of the views and expectations about internationally competitive standards held by a group of key leaders. They collected opinion data from a variety of sources and conducted a small-scale interview protocol with a few political, academic, and education policy leaders. Their goal was to illuminate the discussion by clarifying what people with various perspectives mean when they speak of internationally competitive standards.

One of their major findings is that the urge for standards that are internationally competitive seems to grow primarily out of economic anxiety—a sense that U.S. students are not being adequately prepared to compete in a global market. Pervasive fears during the 1980s about economic decline were clearly linked to the sense that U.S. schools were failing; people became accustomed to looking to the nation's chief economic rivals not just for insights into economic productivity, but also for examples of success in education.

Though the survey and interview data do not probe deeply into the public's understanding of the content of standards, one interesting concern did emerge. Numerous surveys showed that what the public really wants is “basics first” and that they were likely to be disappointed with standards that did not seem to reflect this priority. As LeMahieu and Bickel noted, this is “a point of potential conflict between reformers and the public” because current thinking about classroom practice has moved away from the language of “basics first” to an approach in which basic skills are integrated with other skills and material (LeMahieu and Bickel, 1996:13–14).1

The focus on international comparisons reflects a shift in thinking

1  

 A study done by the Public Agenda Foundation that explored public opinion on this point suggests that there may not be a conflict (see Johnson and Immerwahr, 1994).



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--> What are Internationally Competitive Education Standards? The evidence that the concept of high standards for education currently enjoys wide support in the United States is unambiguous. Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents to national opinion surveys support the idea that students and schools should be expected to meet specific standards in basic subjects. The support drops only to 70 percent when respondents are asked whether they support standards that are connected to serious consequences for failure. The support is strong across demographic groups and among both parents and nonparents. Other surveys have documented that the quality of public education is a major national concern and that it was on the minds of the voters during the 1996 presidential election (LeMahieu and Bickel, 1996:9–19). Education standards have also been widely discussed in the mainstream press (Toch et al., 1996; U.S. News, 1996; Gagnon, 1995). LeMahieu and Bickel provided a valuable grounding for the workshop by exploring both some of the details of the public opinion data and some of the nuances of the views and expectations about internationally competitive standards held by a group of key leaders. They collected opinion data from a variety of sources and conducted a small-scale interview protocol with a few political, academic, and education policy leaders. Their goal was to illuminate the discussion by clarifying what people with various perspectives mean when they speak of internationally competitive standards. One of their major findings is that the urge for standards that are internationally competitive seems to grow primarily out of economic anxiety—a sense that U.S. students are not being adequately prepared to compete in a global market. Pervasive fears during the 1980s about economic decline were clearly linked to the sense that U.S. schools were failing; people became accustomed to looking to the nation's chief economic rivals not just for insights into economic productivity, but also for examples of success in education. Though the survey and interview data do not probe deeply into the public's understanding of the content of standards, one interesting concern did emerge. Numerous surveys showed that what the public really wants is “basics first” and that they were likely to be disappointed with standards that did not seem to reflect this priority. As LeMahieu and Bickel noted, this is “a point of potential conflict between reformers and the public” because current thinking about classroom practice has moved away from the language of “basics first” to an approach in which basic skills are integrated with other skills and material (LeMahieu and Bickel, 1996:13–14).1 The focus on international comparisons reflects a shift in thinking 1    A study done by the Public Agenda Foundation that explored public opinion on this point suggests that there may not be a conflict (see Johnson and Immerwahr, 1994).

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--> about what can be expected from schools. As Alan Ruby noted in his paper, the emphasis in the United States during the first half of this century was on the uniformity of public schools, which were expected to transcend class and provide opportunity for every child. In the 1960s an influential body of research by James Coleman and others held that socioeconomic factors accounted for most of the variation in student achievement (see Coleman et al., 1966). A response to that work emerged in the 1980s, known as the “effective schools movement.” (Steller, 1988; Lezotte, 1986; Rossmiller and Holcomb, 1993) This newer paradigm holds that differences among schools do make a difference and that what takes place in effective schools can be studied and profitably imitated. Clearly those in favor of standards are in sympathy with the notion of effective schools, and the leaders consulted by LeMahieu and Bickel are no exception. While the group whose views were collected by Bickel and LeMahieu generally shared a belief that standards can be an important vehicle for improvement, there were a few differences within the group. Perhaps the most striking difference in perspective existed between representatives of the business community and those from academic and education communities. The business leaders tended to see the actual development and implementation of standards as a largely technical matter and to see their value as that of a guidepost, a source of motivation. Those from the education and policy communities, in contrast, were far more aware that both developing and using standards are political and social processes, in which decisions among alternative methods of setting and enforcing standards have profound implications. Without a…statement requiring some agreed-upon performance, content standards alone are…likely to give rise to more attention to process: more courses, more seat time, etc. Respondent in LeMahieu and Bickel A related difference lay in what standards-based reform brings to the separate worlds of business and education. For business, which had traditionally focused most of its attention on such outcomes as the quality of the product and its profitability, the application of standards encouraged a focus on process—an examination of alternate methods of production in order to find the most efficient and successful one. Standards in education, however, accomplish the reverse—attempts to improve learning have long focused almost exclusively on matters of process, such as teaching practices, funding, and school structuring. With discussion of standards came a focus on outcomes, a reminder that the primary goal is student learning. LeMahieu and Bickel explained that many of the leaders they consulted believe that specific expectations for performance—beyond statements of goals—are critical to the success of standards. The authors also cautioned that the standards movement brings with it a risk that some will focus exclusively on measurable outcomes and ignore the importance of process. In short, LeMahieu and Bickel concluded that successful standards would need to focus on both process and outcomes.

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--> Another distinction that emerged both in Bickel and LeMahieu's work and in discussion at the workshop was between “world-class” and “internationally competitive” standards. When some people speak of a world-class standard, they mean a level reached only by a few, a model that serves primarily as an inspiration. A different notion of a standard is what many now signify with the term “internationally competitive standard”—a high standard that all students can hope to achieve and should be urged to achieve. Implicit in both of these models, of course, is the notion that the standard is defined through benchmarking to high-achieving students in other countries. Also implicit in both models is the belief that the standard itself should be continually reevaluated and raised to stimulate progress in student achievement over time. Most of the business leaders consulted thought of standards in the world-class sense, as goals for a few; in contrast, the educators and policy makers described a firm commitment to holding all students to high standards. This distinction is significant in part because any group attempting to establish standards must choose one or the other model before specifying the requirements for meeting them. But perhaps more important is the philosophical issue lurking behind the distinction. While representatives from the education and policy communities speak of high standards for all, comparisons with other countries have revealed low expectations for U.S. students. A variety of studies have suggested that U.S. standards of performance are lower than those in many high-achieving countries, that average U.S. student achievement in many subjects is below that of students in many other nations, and that the conditions in which public education takes place in the United States—and, consequently, the opportunity to learn—are in many respects inadequate in comparison to those in other places. What has also emerged from such studies is that there are few systemic incentives for students in the United States to meet high standards or penalties for those who do not do so (Resnick et al., 1995:439; Ravitch, 1995; American Federation of Teachers, 1995b; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995). As many have observed, it is not the case that U.S. children are any less capable of learning than are children in other countries (American Federation of Teachers, 1995a). Case studies, anecdotal evidence, and common sense all suggest that students will achieve at higher levels when they are expected to do so and given the opportunity. Consensus on this point, however, does not fully resolve the tension in pursuing standards that are both extremely demanding on the one hand, and realistic and fair to all students on the other. This tension was explored at a number of points during the day. When LeMahieu and Bickel asked business and education leaders why they were so confident that standards would improve student learning, they generally did not cite data. As Paul LeMahieu put it: “the belief was much stronger than the evidence was deep.” Nevertheless, both the public opinion data and the leaders' comments show

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--> Benchmarking in Business Based on presentation by Anne Miller The education community borrowed the concept of benchmarking from the world of business. The term, as LeMahieu and Bickel noted in their paper, comes from an engineering process for measuring and testing a device by putting it on a test bench. For business it has meant a willingness to look closely at the methods and processes others use and to allow others to look at theirs. It has only been in the past few decades that American businesses have espoused the concept of benchmarking. In the face of crippling competition from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. auto industry recognized that, in order to compete, it had to benchmark—to identify and meet the specific standards of design and production set by the Japanese. The automakers' success using the benchmark process served as a model for other businesses, and it is cited as the impetus for a new quality movement in which many businesses have chosen to adopt new quality standards. Eastman Kodak has adopted benchmarking enthusiastically, and the company currently benchmarks 44 key processes—though Miller noted that they began with overkill, measuring everything down to the size of the muffins in their cafeterias. The benchmarking is done to companies of all sorts, both in and out of the United States, not only ones that are similar to Kodak. She noted, for example, that many companies look to L.L. Bean for benchmarks in the distribution process, since its is widely recognized as one of the most efficient in the world. Miller's description of Kodak's “more than casual” interest in seeing the education community in the United States adopt tougher standards in order to better prepare its future workers is very much in tune with the views of the business leaders presented by Bickel and LeMahieu. She noted that Kodak made a commitment at the National Education Summit to begin looking at the high school transcripts of potential employees, although it has not traditionally done so “because…they haven't given us the information that's important or relevant for the jobs for which these people are being hired.” Kodak administers its own mathematics and reading tests to applicants and will continue to do so despite the desire to send a message about the importance of a high school diploma. For Miller the positive impact benchmarking has had on American business is clear. She acknowledged that the education community confronts different problems in attempting to benchmark—noting that film canisters are easier to measure than is student learning. Her message, however, was that education faces a need to learn from the experiences of others just as urgent as the one that has faced business.