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8 Concluding Reflections T he two workshops provided a wide array of factual information about current state standards and the way they have been imple- mented, as well as wide-ranging discussion of lessons that can be drawn from that information and the possibilities for taking the theory of standards in a new direction. Both workshops provided opportunities for participants to deliberate about what they had heard and for discussants to pull together the primary threads. North Carolina Governor James Hunt provided closing thoughts as well. SYNTHESIS As the conversation evolved over the two workshops, several key points emerged from the presentations and discussions. First, there seemed to be wide acknowledgment that standards are now an accepted part of the educational landscape and that they play multiple roles in public education. Moreover, standards are seen as very importantâand the need to improve them is seen as criticalâbecause they are viewed as a means of achieving educational equity. However, the discussion sug- gested that neither the precise role that standards play nor their effects have been adequately documented. A number of comments reinforced the idea that one reason for the lack of clear answers about the effects of standards is that there is no consis- tent definition of standards and standards-based reform. Statesâ approaches to standards vary in many critical ways, not least in quality. Presenters and participants cited rigor, specificity, focus, and coherent learning progres- 69
70 COMMON STANDARDS FOR K-12 EDUCATION? sions as critical aspects of high-quality standards, but there is no widely shared conception of quality or of the essential components of standards- based reform. The current system is characterized by dramatic variation. There is sig- nificant variability among states in the nature of their content standards, what is covered, and the performance levels they set. It is not entirely clear what effects this variation has, although some view the variation itself as a major impediment to equity. Moreover, there may be as much variation in the ways different districts in a state implement standards (perhaps even among classrooms in a school) as there is among states. It is also not clear whether common standards for states would reduce this variability. The variation in proficiency standards highlights the limi- tations of a model that focuses on achievement to a particular defined level. Many argue that a growth model (an assessment system that focuses on measuring studentsâ academic growth over time) may be a more use- ful approach than a model that provides snapshots of the percentages of students who have reached a particular level. The variability in the implementation of standards-based reforms among states may reflect the lack of consensus about what good standards look like. Some noted, for example, that there is no obvious relationship between the coverage of content and performance on common measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Others viewed the variation as a critical obstacle to the equality of opportunity that is a key goal of standards-based reform efforts. In some ways, assess- ments and proficiency scores have come to stand in for academic con- tent standards, but few see this as a positive development. Many people believe that test-based accountability has made the goal of proficiency dwarf far more important education goals. Poor student outcomes should raise questions about the adequacy of curriculum, instruction, classroom materials, the structure of the school day and year, leadership, and other factors in education. Thus, for example, the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 may be far less useful than establishing firm standards for states related to studentsâ opportunity to learn. The current system of standards is not working as it was intended to. The theory of standards-based reform was that if standards, assessments, and accountability systems were in place, everything else that needed to happen would follow. It seems clear now that this formulation was incompleteâthat it omitted two critical factors. First, it did not directly address teaching itself and the mechanisms through which teachers would adapt their instruction. Second, it did not address the need for political will to address the disparities in the educational opportunities offered to students in different settings by making the needed broader changes. Comments demonstrated widespread agreement that the lack of will to
CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS 71 push beyond the mechanics of standards documents and assessments and make fundamental changes in the way diverse students are served seems to be the reason that systemic reform has not been fully implemented in any state. Strategies for building on what has been accomplished through standards-based reform, such as a push for common standards, will need to take on those issues if they are to make a meaningful difference. However, it is now widely recognized that insufficient attention was paid to how the desired changes would come about. In trying to effect change, states can offer guidance, pressure, and support, but many may be focusing on the pressure and not paying enough attention to the need for guidance and support. Many also argue that assessment has become the principal driver of most statesâ standards-based reform efforts. The result of this unintended develop- ment has been a reduced focus on the broader goals for instruction and learning that are at the heart of standards-based reform as it was origi- nally envisioned. Defining rigor is straightforward if the focus is on the numbers of students who meet a particular proficiency standard at a fixed date, but if states shift their focus to studentsâ development and learning over time, they will need to develop more flexible learning expectations. Thus, consistent standards may be a necessary tool for ensuring educational equity, but simply establishing them will not accomplish the goal. As long as performance standards and content standards are not integrated, the result is likely to be more of the same variability and inequity. Moreover, both teacher quality and focused textbook content are additional signifi- cant factors that would not be directly addressed by more uniform stan- dards. Without them, no real improvement is likely. There are significant practical obstacles to implementing common standards. For example, to what depth is uniformity necessary? By what process would common standards be developed, and who would be involved? Possibilities include collaborations among states, federal involvement, and third-party leadership, but even settling on the most desirable approach could be contentious. By all accounts, to have any chance of success, a common system would have to be voluntary. The effort may require some third party (other than state or federal policy makers) to sustain the effort across political cycles and to serve as an impartial broker of competing interests, but no obvious candidate for that role is apparent. Common standards would not be a promising strategy for saving money, but the significant costs are those of providing a decent education, regardless of the overarching policy strategy. Although the estimated costs of standards- based reform and associated activities are higher than commonly recog- nized, they are still a minor fraction of education spending, especially relative to their importance. On one hand, a system of common standards might yield some savings, in economies of scale, but these savings would
72 COMMON STANDARDS FOR K-12 EDUCATION? not amount to a persuasive argument for this approach. On the other hand, addressing the shortfalls in statesâ capacity to implement all of the elements of standards-based reform, irrespective of whether they are state or national systems, would require significant increased spending. Advocates of common standards would do well to consider the political landscape carefully. Many seemed to agree that a bottom-up, grassroots approach to common standards would be the most likely to succeed, but such an effort may take time. Others argue that a political window is opening now, and that moving forward even with an incomplete and imperfect approach would be preferable to missing that window, given urgent pressure to address the glaring inequities in educational oppor- tunity in the United States. Past efforts to set standards, including con- tentious efforts in individual disciplines (e.g., U.S. history), more recent efforts (such as Achieveâs focus on algebra II for all), and the experience of states that have collaborated (e.g., the three New England states) offer valuable background for any plan to push for common K-12 standards. The most basic political tension is that between the long-standing U.S. tradition of local control and the urge to tackle national problems with central solutions. NCLB has opened the door to a significantly heightened federal role, but states have been very resistant to many of its provisions. It is not clear at present whether a greater degree of commonality would be accepted by states. Nevertheless, it is likely that whatever form com- mon standards might take, states will retain the prerogative to put their own stamp on them and implement then in their own ways. The framing of the issue is likely to be key to its success. If states view common standards as a promising way to address problems that they perceive themselves as having, they are likely to sign on. The establishment of common standards is not likely to lead to a new rush of adequacy or equity lawsuits. A close reading of court rulings shows that the goals they identify for education are much broader than the kinds of content and performance standards states now use or that would be suitable for common standards. The courts are interested in citizenship and the broad parameters of knowledge and understanding that young people need. They might be influenced by common standards to inform the debate, but the specifics are unlikely to shape court rulings. CLOSING THOUGHTS Hunt closed the workshop series with his thoughts on the critical importance of moving to common standards, describing this effort as âabsolutely essentialâ to ensuring that the United States continues to prosper economically and to flourish as a nation. He described the serious threat to the nationâs economy of allowing
CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS 73 significant numbers of students to grow up without an adequate educa- tion. Noting that in his home state of North Carolina, âWe are graduat- ing only 56 percent of our students who start in the ninth grade.â He described the gloomy outcomes for those left behind, both as individuals and for society. A local company, the Bridgestone Tire Company, he said, must interview 100 local high school graduates to find one who meets their hiring requirements. Companies that have been outsourcing increas- ingly desirable technical jobs to other nations, he said, report that these competing workers are not only less expensive, but also every bit as well qualified or better than those available in the United States. To ensure prosperity and equity for Americans, then, it is essential that the nation develop its workers so that they can competeâand for him that means establishing common standards so that all students will have access to a high-quality education and will be held to consistent standards. He identified the four elements he believes will be crucial to making this goal a reality. Leadership is critical. He cited his experience with the development of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in the 1980s to explain how important it is that those with competing views come together to work out differences and settle on a common approachâand as evidence that it can be done. It is critical to involve a range of players, including state legislators and teachers unions, but some entity will have to take the lead. A commission or an existing organization that is viewed as neutral, for example, could shepherd the process effectively. The federal government must play a role. Certainly the federal govern- ment cannot and should not impose common standards on the states, but it does have a critical role to play, in his view. The next president could spotlight the importance of the issue. The federal government could provide meaningful subsidies to states to assist them in building the necessary capacity to implement the improvements that are so urgently needed. Significant private financing will be needed. The federal government cannot be expected to finance the entire effort. Foundations play a very valuable role in stimulating and supporting education reforms, and a firm commitment will be needed in this case as well. Public support must be mobilized. Hunt argued that the public has not been made sufficiently aware of the deficiencies of the education many of the nationâs students are receiving. In his view, if people were aware of the deficiencies and of the risks they pose, they would support the sacrifices and disruption necessary to realign the system. The governor was clear in his estimation of the importance of the challenge, saying âI think this is so serious that the only analogy I can think of is World War II.â