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Standards – Presentation to the Hechinger Seminar on Education and the Media

by Gary Natriello - September 26, 2000

(Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of the lecture delivered. The text is not revised.)

Gary Natriello:

As I thought about talking about standards for this group in particular, I realized this is actually a very appropriate topic to talk to members of the press about, because many of the assumptions about how standards will operate assume certain behaviors on the part of members of the press, who are making public a whole variety of information about which schools are performing, which teachers and students are performing, and which are not. So, you’re not only chroniclers of the standards movement, you’re also participants of the standards movement, at least people hope this will be.

What I’ve decided to do this morning is to break the presentation down into six big themes that I’d like to step you through, and try to give you a background of what’s going on in the standards movement over the past thirty years. It’s a very long-running movement, in different forms, lots of different branches, and sometimes it’s difficult to sort of disentangle them all, and see where they come from. But I’m going to try to do that. I’m going to step through these, but as I do, please feel free to raise questions, make points as we go along, and then there’ll also be some time at the end.

Early Recognition of Low Standards

So what I’m going to do is start with a discussion of the early recognition of a problem, of the lack of standards, or low standards. Much of that activity took place in the mid- to late 70’s, then talk a little bit after that about initial efforts to raise standards. Once there was this recognition that standards were low, there were, of course, some kinds of interest in raising standards, and I’ll talk a little bit, again, about the late 70’s, early 80’s, during a period of time when policy makers were beginning to think about ways to raise standards. Then, for the third part of the presentation, I’m going to talk about the Nation at Risk report, which, to this day, remains the sort of pivotal point in the school reform movement, and the impact of that reform, and the realization of the findings of that report. Following that, I’m going to talk a little bit about the developing infrastructure for standards, because there is actually a very extensive set of actors and organizations and institutions that are involved in managing and maintaining and promulgating the standards movement. I’d like to step through that, because I think that it gives us a lot of insight into where that movement might go. Then I’ll turn to current standards efforts, that is, things that are being done for the contemporary period to promulgate and to support standards, and then finally, I will conclude with at least a brief review of the major critiques of the standards movement, which you probably know, there are lots of critics of the movement. What I’m going to try to do is sort them into a couple of different groups and make it understandable.

So, let’s start with the early recognition of low standards. And so, we’ll step through what the major issue there is. The early recognition of low standards focused on three kinds of actors, or three kinds of parts of the educational system. It focused on teachers, it focused on curriculum, and it focused on students. And I think, if we step through each of them, we’ll get a good sense of how this first phase played out.

In thinking about teachers, there were a number of major issues that came to the attention of policy makers, again, in the mid to late 70’s. The first issue was, the focus on teacher-academic background; and the realization that many of those teaching, many of those entering teaching in U.S. public schools had weak academic backgrounds. They were viewed as having less content, subject matter, because for many of them, they didn’t have academic majors, and certainly, many of them were teaching in areas where they had not studied themselves, and this would seem to be a problem, because they were not in a great position to actually put forward high quality instruction for students.

In addition to their academic backgrounds related to what they had studied as undergraduates, there was a realization that, on most measures of standardized achievement, in particular, the SAT scores, teachers fared quite poorly. They were always in one of the bottom groups, in terms of – occupational groups, in terms of SAT scores. So if you compare teachers to other members in other professions, they were near the bottom, and policy makers focused on that as a problem.

And then finally, as those two things would lead one to expect, there were discussions on teacher performance, and how problematic teacher performance might be. And questions were raised about what teachers were actually doing in classrooms, and people focused, in the press and elsewhere, on relatively small-grained aspects of teaching performance. So, for example, there were reports of teachers writing on the board, and the misuse of the English language, or poor construction, and poor spelling. There were reports of the kind of homework assignments the teachers would write and send home, that had basic skills problems.

I’d say, you had this whole constellation of information being put forward before policy makers and the public, focusing on how the individuals who were at the front line of the educational system were, in fact, not the strongest people, or not performing in the strongest possible way. So there was this sense that the situation was problematic, and moreover, there was a sense that the situation wasn’t going to get better, it was probably going to get worse, because if you look at the people moving into teacher preparation programs, their backgrounds look as weak or weaker than the individuals who were actually teaching in the schools.

The second group that came under scrutiny for low standards were students. And when people looked at student populations in the mid and late 70’s, there was a growing realization that students in public schools, and particularly urban students, were not performing very well. And as states phased in standardized testing programs and the data became more available on student performance in a formal way, that picture was just reinforced and confirmed. And so there emerged this very pervasive sense that there was a problem in student performance. And in addition, some more fine-grain studies also seemed to suggest that in addition to having poor levels of performance, students weren’t working very hard, that they weren’t devoting a great deal of effort to school. And that was coupled with some concerns over school district policies. So, for example, there was a lot of discussion of grade inflation. So you had students who, on standardized tests were not performing well, when you looked at their effort, they didn’t seem to be working very hard, and yet their grades, in many schools, seemed to be okay. And this was sort of coupled with this continuing observation of the decline in SAT performance. So again, there was this sense that the situation was problematic in terms of low standards, it’s not getting better in and of itself.

I wanted to mention one particular study that set off a lot of this discussion. I mention it primarily because I was actually involved in the study myself, back in the 70’s. And that was a study that was conducted in the San Francisco public schools, in the mid-70’s, in which there was an attempt to really look at what high school students were doing in San Francisco. And San Francisco is a great place to look at that, because it’s a large system, with a diverse set of students. And in that particular study, there was an attempt to try to understand how hard students were working, what their performance was like, and what they thought about that performance. And we found a couple of things, looking at those students in San Francisco in the 70’s.

First of all, we found that if you go in and ask students how hard they were working, they tended to report that they were working pretty hard. So, you know, we’re really, we’re really working, doing a lot, compared to other people I know, I’m working hard. But then we asked another set of questions, and we actually asked them to tell us what they were doing. That is, how they were spending their time. So we asked them, you know, how much time were you spending on homework tonight. And what we found was, sure enough, the kids who said they were working very hard, these high school students were spending 15-20 minutes a night on homework. And not only that, but their peers were spending that much time, or less – so, in fact, they were working harder than their friends. And they were feeling pretty good about it, and their grades were not all that bad.

So, what that gave us, in that one city, was, I think, a really graphic example of how pervasive low standards were growing, in, at least, that one city. And we found that in addition to it being a general problem, it tended to be a problem for certain groups of students. So it tended to be a problem for certain minority groups. I mean, San Francisco at that time, the groups, where there was the greatest disjuncture between the perceived effort and their actual effort, tended to be African American students and Hispanic students, and sure enough, those were the students who had, on standardized assessments, the lowest patterns of performance. So, you know, the consensus coming out of studies like this one, were that the performance problem that existed was a performance problem related to effort. And it was a performance problem related to effort because students and their parents didn’t have a clear sense of the effort that was really necessary to be successful in a traditional curriculum.

So, again, with studies like this, they gave policy makers, I think, a real clear sense that the problem was low student effort. The third area in which there was a perception that standards were too low was in the area of content or curriculum. And there were a variety of questions raised about curriculum at the time, and one of the things to keep in mind – to keep in mind about these questions, was that they were all related, in one way or another, to the curriculum reforms that American public schools had gone through in the mid to late 60’s. And during that period of time, there was a kind of, I guess you could call it a liberalization of the curriculum, or introduction of greater flexibility in the curriculum, departing from, sort of, standard curriculum packages, introducing a greater diversity in courses in literature, in social studies, and social sciences, and the sciences.

And the perception was, in the mid 70’s, was that school had become this sort of bazaar in which you could pick and choose a little bit of knowledge here and a little bit of knowledge there, but it was pretty easy to move through the standard school system and not get a complete treatment of the kind of skills that you need to actually succeed, whether that’s in literacy or in mathematics or social science or science. So there was a sense that the curriculum, in some sense, was a little bit out of control.

There was also a sense that the tracking of curriculum content contributed to the problem. That is, at that time, there was a multiple track system in most American high schools, and the students in the middle or lower tracks were getting curriculum materials that were less demanding than the students who were on the college-bound track, and one of the things that policy makers focused on was that when you got out of the college-bound track, and got into those middle or lower tracks, the demands placed upon students were even less than they were in the overall program. So, that tracking was seen to be a problem, primarily a problem because in certain tracks, the demands were particularly low.

Finally, there were questions raised, more generally, about the value of a high school diploma. And those questions were raised by a number of actors, but perhaps, the most prominent set of actors raising those questions were individuals who would be likely to employ the graduates of high school. So, when employers came out with all kinds of little studies, looking at the people that they were looking to hire, and find that, among those folks who were just out of high school, that there was a lack of basic skills. That, in fact, employers were having to engage in a lot of basic skills education in order to prepare entry-level workers to be suitable for their environments. So you have report after report, groups of high school students who couldn’t pass basic performance tests, and these, again, were for entry-level jobs designed for high school graduates, and the focus was on basic literacy and mathematics skills.

So, when you put all these three things together, that is, this feeling that teachers were not particularly well-prepared or were not particularly strong academically, that student performance patterns were problematic in that students were not working very hard in school, and that finally, the actual material that they were being presented with was not particularly demanding and actually quite undemanding, as students moved through the school. You see this clear sense coming out of the 70’s and into the early 80’s, that we’ve got a problem. And the problem is a lack of standards.

Now, I want to just say one thing before we go on to talk a little bit about the early efforts in regard to standards, but I think it’s at this point where one of the sort of key themes that is going to pick up again and again comes out, and that is that it’s one thing to learn that there is a lack of standards, and for most of us, the obvious solution to that would simply be to impose it, or raise it, or set them. But what we didn’t know at that time was exactly how to do that. So, there’s a different kind of knowledge that you need, between deciding that folks are not performing at a level that you’d like them to perform, because you’re not asking them to or you’re not demanding it – that’s one thing, but knowing how you actually go about changing that situation is something else. But – of course, that didn’t stop us, and it didn’t stop the policy makers, because as soon as they recognized that there was a problem, and the public began to clamor for some kind of solution, people started to move toward the development of those solutions.

Early Efforts to Raise Standards

So we find out this second set of issues that I want to talk about – a whole set of early efforts to raise standards, and the thing to, I think, recognize about these early efforts is that in most cases, they end up being just experiments. That is, things that hadn’t been tried before, to move the system from a low standards mode to a high standards mode, the things that seemed to people at the time to be reasonable ways to proceed.

There are a couple of things that characterize these early efforts to raise standards, and again, they’re going to be directed at teachers, they’re going to be directed at students, and they’re going to be directed to content or curriculum. One of these things that categorizes many of these efforts is that they are attempts to connect information on performance to public notice via public reporting. So, a lot of these attempts are simply saying, if we let people know that this is what’s going on, we think corrective action may be taken, that people will not stand for this if they know that their children or their future employees or their neighbors are in a system that’s not, in fact, delivering what we all hope is going to be delivered. So one thing was to connect performance problems and lack of standards to information systems.

The second strategy was to begin to connect these performance patterns to resources. So, the notion being that, can they somehow reward with resources, those systems and those individuals who have high standards, and correspondingly, can they somehow penalize by restricting resources or withdrawing resources, those systems, those individuals, and those institutions that are not evidencing high standards. And you’ll sort of see that play its way out as these connections start to get made. And again, that was at a time when these connections were not that – not that well developed, and not that strong.

So, we turn our attention to early efforts to raise standards and start with teachers; you can see a variety of strategies that get developed, again, the late 70’s, early 80’s. First of all, we have teacher recruitment strategies. There grows an interest in figuring out how do we get people who at least on standard measures of achievement, look to be more talented. How do we convince these people to go into teaching? So there are outreach programs, there are recruiting programs, there are attempts, for example, to reach graduates of high quality colleges and universities and convince them that teaching might be a viable career.

One of the ways that policy makers tried to do that was to raise teacher salaries. So you have, again, in the early 70’s – early 80’s, attempts to bring teachers’ salaries up, to make them a little bit more competitive. And for the most part, policy makers are caught in a little bit of a dilemma as they do this, because they want to raise teachers’ salaries, but they really don’t want, I think, to give those higher salaries to the existing teachers. The existing teachers are the problem in many policy makers’ minds. So, what they really want to do is to create a salary structure that’s going to bring in a new group of talented individuals who are going to sort of save us from the teachers who are there. So what we see, at that time, with a lot of salary reforms, is an attempt to raise the floor. So there’s a big attempt to raise the entry for teachers, the starting salary, so that when an individual is coming out of college and they’re trying to decide what career to go into, teaching, at least, is not so unattractive because the initial salary is low, as it might otherwise have been.

What they tend not to do is to think too much about what that does to the whole salary scale, and when you take a starting salary and move it from 16 to 24 or something of that order, you can compress that scale, and it’s later on that they find that the scale sort of sorts itself out as collective bargaining takes over, and people try to push for higher salaries on the other end, that is, on the more senior ranks. And, of course, for policy makers, that’s a little bit of a problem, because that’s where the bigger money in the system is, and it’s also going to those individuals who have been deemed problematic in terms of the system. So there’s a little bit of the catch-22, but it doesn’t stop them from raising the floor and trying to make a big press on teacher recruitment.

In addition to that, there are attempts to improve teacher selection, and these attempts primarily focus on putting in some competency testing for teachers. That is, adopting one of the national teaching exams, or figuring out some other kind of process to actually test teachers on their skills. And again, there’s a lot of emphasis on doing this for teachers entering the profession; later on, we get some emphasis in doing it for teachers in the profession and sort of identifying problematic teachers with the notion that we can somehow either remediate those problems or move them out of the system. But at least, at this period of time, there’s a lot of focus on doing it for – for entering the system.

It relates to that third element I – the teacher preparation programs, in an interesting way, because it’s not just that those individuals going into teaching are perceived to be a problem in terms of standards, but the institutions and organizations preparing people to go into teaching were also seen as being problematic. That is, institutions like Teachers College, or – we hope, not Teachers College, but institutions like Teachers College, schools of education, schools that prepare teachers. And policy makers begin to associate those institutions with the problematic graduates that they’re putting out. And they say, well, you know, who’s taking these students in, who’s recruiting them into teaching, and then, who’s certifying them as fit to teach? It’s folks in schools of education who are doing that, so when we implement standards for teacher selection, that is, testing standards, on the one hand, policy makers are putting some pressure on the individuals, but on the other hand, they’re putting pressure on the institutions that prepare those individuals, because they then begin to identify groups of individuals coming out of teacher preparation institutions, they do things like, sort of, calculating the average scores on these standardized assessments that a particular cohort of graduates from a particular teacher training institution might have, and then they start looking at those institutions that turned out lots of graduates who score low, and identifying those institutions as part of the problem.

So there’s a real interest in getting at the higher ed part of the problem at the same time that we get at the selection and preparation part of the problem. And you’ll see that this plays out, as the years roll on, as state after state adopts policies to, in fact, curtail the amount of time that individual teachers spend in teacher preparation. Now, that seems a little counterintuitive, until you think through the perception that lawmakers have, in many states, that teacher training was the problem, not the solution. And so you find, particularly up here in the northeast, you find a whole series of states taking what used to be sixty-credit teacher preparation programs, that is half of an undergraduate career, and crunching those down to about thirty credits, and the goal is not to – is not so much to strengthen teacher prep, although that’s part of it, the goal is really to make sure that these individuals have arts and sciences undergraduate degrees, because they believe, particularly for secondary teachers, but also, in many states, for elementary teachers, that those kinds of degrees in traditional academic programs are going to be the key to equipping teachers with the kind of standards that they’ll be able to work with the kind of curriculum that the reforms might imagine. So there’s a complex set of assumptions and interactions playing through the system.

The last piece in improving teachers has to do with teacher support, and this just begins, I think, in this period of time, and that is some of the real attention to professional development of teachers, once they’re on the job. And this gets connected to efforts to change the curriculum, to increase standards, and one of the ways people begin to think about doing that is to spend more time and attention on in-service preparation, and in-service training for teachers. And we’ll see that when we cycle back around the contemporary reforms that, in fact, it’s a theme that plays through the reforms until today.

So those are the sort of early efforts to try to increase standards for teachers, to try to address the problem of teachers not ending up in classrooms with the skills and the capacities and the demandingness that we think they might have, that the policy makers think that we might like them to have.

If we switch to thinking about what we do with students during this period of time, there is another set of policies that come about, designed to attack the problems I identified earlier, and that is that students are not working very hard and are not – their lack of progress and lack of performance is not really being identified. Probably the most important of these standards-raising efforts during the late 70’s, early 80’s, is the rise of testing. And the rise of testing of a standard nature that we hadn’t seen in quite a while, in U.S. education. In the 70’s, it takes the form of minimal competency testing. As policy makers decided that they were going to raise the floor, they’re going to put a floor under the performance distribution, they’re going to raise up the lowest part of that distribution, and you see at this period of time, a whole range of stakes adopted minimal competency tests. These tests, if we looked at them today, are not anything like what we’d want students to be able to do, they’re actually very low level tests, exactly what the tests say, minimal competence. But there were large numbers of students in a large number of districts for whom these tests were new, different, and in fact, challenging. They focused on basic literacy, basic numeracy.

But one of the things that turned out, I think, perhaps to be more important than the tests, and the nature of the tests, is the fact that with these tests comes a growth of state assessment systems. And state after state develops testing offices, testing bureaus, and during this period of time, these offices and bureaus begin to grow. They’ve taken on more personnel, they’ve taken on more functions, they’re now administering standard assessments on a pretty regular basis, and sort of, in some states they are being – they’re done voluntarily, in other states, they’re imposed. But as we move through this period of minimal competency testing, we get greater infrastructure around testing and assessment as a standard setting – as a standard setting process.

And you get initial public reporting requirements associated with these tests. So, superintendents get used to the fact that not only are these tests going to be given, but these tests will very likely appear in the newspaper, at least in certain states and certain districts. And so, we’re not so sure, then, that students or teachers or parents notice, if that’s not bad enough, but we’re sharing it with the public at large, and in certain districts, given the distribution of students and the distribution of families, in certain districts, it means it’s going to be bad year after year after year after year, which gets to be a problem. But in fact, it was designed to be a problem. It was designed to bring public attention to those schools and those districts where the performance was lower than folks would like.

A couple of other things, I think, sort of, ripple through, small things, at this period of time – one of them, I think, is that we’re thinking about these promotional policies, or, I should say, the end of social promotion, or an attempt to end social promotion. There’s a widespread perception that students are being passed from grade to grade and level to level without much attention to whether they’re learning anything. There are reports of students, of course, graduating from high school who can’t read and write,. There are some scattered reports, at this time, of parents who turned around and decided they’re going to sue the school district for educational malpractice, because their son or daughter was not able to perform basic reading and writing. And so, then it becomes an interest, at this point, in looking at these promotional policies, and at least, in scattered states and scattered districts, you find the attempt to reform them, you find the attempts, putting some hard stops, hard breaks, and say, you know, if you’re in this grade, you can’t pass this level, you’re going to stay here. Again, not a widespread – not as widespread a discussion as it is today, but nonetheless, something that appears at that time –

Audience Member:

What time period?


Late 70’s, early 80’s. Last piece of this early set of reforms is a set of things designed to strengthen the curriculum. And this actually had been going on a little bit earlier in the 70’s, known as the back to basics movement, which was really an attempt to take what looked, to some people, to be this sort of chaotic and poorly organized set of curricular experiences and rein them in. And move back to a much more basic kind of curriculum, as in terms of the kind of knowledge that people were going to be exposed to, particularly in literacy and numeracy, but also an attempt to raise the pedagogical practices a little bit, to go back to what people thought of as traditional teaching. And a lot of this, again, is, I think, a reaction or an attempt, at what people perceived to be a correction into the excesses of the 60’s and early 70’s, where, at least in the minds of some, all manner of chaos broke loose into the system, where all kinds of strange and bizarre teaching strategies appeared, where all kinds of curricular content flowed in the door, and became dignified as part of the curricular. My characterization – that’s the sort of fear and the characterization that many gave to the system.

And of course, there were – there were divisions. There were many people on the other side saying that the back to basics school movement was constraining, was old-fashioned, was reactionary, as there were people in the back to basics movement saying, please save us from the curriculum chaos that the 60’s left us with. So, there is this attempt to strengthen the curriculum, and it bobbles up and down for a while, it’s stronger in some places than others.

A Nation at Risk and Responses

And all these things, that the attempt to strengthen the curriculum, the attempt to strengthen teachers in their preparation, the attempt to focus on schools and hold them accountable – all those things are sort of bubbling in the environment in the late 70’s and the early 80’s, and in 1983, a catalyst hits. And that catalyst turns out to be a report from a commission that wasn’t supposed to do much, and that is the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which I think was just supposed to go away and make it seem as if the federal government was interested in education, even though it wasn’t, but in fact, this commission came back with a report that was actually very brief -- many of you could probably take a look at it; it doesn’t take long to read, you can move through it; it’s pretty lively. It has pretty dramatic language, says the nation is in peril, you know, and that there’s an enemy attacking us, and if someone was doing this to us, from an external threat, we’d all be up in arms, but in fact, we’re doing it to ourselves, and it’s our educational system. And the report begins by sort of ticking off a litany of all the things I’ve talked about, and puts them all in one place. And these things have been floating around, you know, different states and different venues and different locales, for the prior seven or eight years, but it’s this presidentially-appointed commission coming out, this national report that really sort of sets the whole thing on fire.

I just want to sort of give you a few of the things that are in, they’re sort of prefatory material, when you talk about the documentation of the problem that we’re in. The report says, for example, that international comparisons of student achievement revealed that on nineteen academic tests, American students were never first or second in the comparisons to other industrial nations, we’re last, seven times. That some twenty-three million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading and writing and comprehension. About thirteen percent of all seventeen-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as forty percent. The average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than twenty-six years from that date, which was when Sputnik was launched. Over half of the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school. The College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test, demonstrating virtually unbroken decline from 1962 to 1980. The average verbal scores falling over fifty points, and average mathematics scores dropping forty points. College Board Achievement Tests also reveal consistent declines in recent years in such subjects as physics and English. Both the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement on the SATs, also declined. Many seventeen-year-olds do not possess the higher-order intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly forty percent of them cannot draw inferences from written material. So it goes on and on.

It’s really just sort of ticking up all the things that have been bubbling around, and putting them in one place, and painting this picture of this system in chaos. And the thing that also helps set the tone for all this, if you recall, in the 80’s, is the rather dismal state of the economy. So, all of a sudden, the schools are a problem, the economic problems, they get joined together in the public mind, and they’re – it’s created this intense public interest and focus on the problem of standards.

I pause only to note that the last four or five years of an incredible, robust economy have not led us to the opposite conclusion. And that is, we have not said schools must – they must have been working magic, while they were supposed to be destroying the economy as recently ten, fifteen years ago. Because now the economy is booming. Well, somehow that connection is not made, so the one thing you can count on – there is actually in a sense, stability in the world – whether the economy is terrific or whether the economy is bad, you can count on the schools always to be bad. It seems stable beside that. In fact, now the economy is succeeding despite the schools. People are doing the – I guess they’re doing independent learning of some sort.

So, but this all ties, in the 80’s, to this sense that the U.S. economy is in decline, that we can’t compete with other countries. There’s a lot of focus, on the Japanese miracle of the Japanese education system, and American educators get on planes and boats and go over to Japan and look around, and scratch their heads, and try to figure out what is it the Japanese are doing – teaching Japanese kids. But, you know, we’re trying to figure out what they’re doing that’s so marvelous, and a lot of the reforms that we come up with sort of try to model the Japanese model.

If you start a little bit further at the end of the Nation At Risk report, we see some recommendations. And their recommendations follow in the areas that we’ve been talking about, and extend the discussion of them. For example, they call for curriculum reform, and their curriculum reform, perhaps not surprisingly, is termed the new basics, and it’s going to consist of five new basics the students are going to take during their four years of high school. They’re going to take four years of English, no more of these single-semester, you know, modern cinema courses for English. They’re going to take three years of mathematics, and they’re going to take real mathematics, whatever that might be. They’re going to – you know, they’re not going to take, sort of, business calculation as math. They’re going to take three years of science. They’re going to take three years of social studies, and they’re going to take a half year of computer science, and then for college-bound students, there’s going to be two years of foreign language. And the recommendation is that everyone should be doing this, and back at that period of time, every school was certainly not doing that, certainly not every student was doing that. So there’s an interest in a recommendation to the curriculum, we can consolidate it, that low tracks be eliminated, and that there be a focus across the curriculum on a higher level of thinking.

There’s also an interest, as we move further into the report, on a renewed interest in student testing. The report says that grades should be toughened up, they should be accurate indicators of academic achievements, so that we can rely upon them, to know whether our students are ready for other study.

They call on four-year colleges and universities to actually have stiff admission standards, and to polish those standards, and to let kids know that’s what’s expected of them. One of the problems, not only are colleges and universities implicated because of their teacher preparation programs, but they’re implicated because the American higher education system is seen as a place that will admit anyone. You know, and most guidance counselors say there’s a college for everyone. And some parts of the policy making community may be thinking that that’s a problem, that we need to let kids know there’s not a college for people who aren’t working hard in school and so forth. So they call on the higher ed community to stiffen those standards, to make it very clear to students that there will be no college for you, that you will not get to go away from home. You will have to – if they want that kind of stiffness in the system.

And then, finally, there’s this renewed interest in standardized tests of achievement, and there’s a call for greater use of testing, and greater uses of standardized assessments. And it calls for standardized test assessments in more grade levels, and to demarcate more transitions, and to hold schools even more accountable. One of the other – actually, well, in addition to the very standard notion that schools were only problematic, the other thing that you find, what with this whole period of time, unbroken, is the growth and interest in testing. And the growth in, in fact, the adoption of testing. So, something that we can pretty much count on is that testing is on the upswing, and it continues on the upswing, despite attempts to counteract that.

If we turn to the third area, where standards get imposed, or recommended standards come out of the Nation At Risk, it, again, focuses on teachers, but this time, it’s on teacher testing. So there’s an interest, there’s a call, and persons preparing to teach should meet high standards, or they should meet the standards in the academic disciplines, because we want the demand in the content instruction going on. And that colleges and universities and their teacher education programs will be judged by the performance, that is, the outcome performance of their students, how well their students do on these tests.

There’s again, a call for adjustment to the teacher salaries, but a tying of these adjustments in teacher salaries to teacher performance. So, again, there’s an attempt to link performance to resources, which is clearly coming through.

Another thing that – what I think comes out of this time – another strategy that comes out of the nation at this period, but perhaps not recommended by them, is the whole strategy of doing school reviews and in fact, taking over schools. So you see, in states, during the 1980’s, certain states, the development of school monitoring programs, where the entire school is going to be monitored, its performance, its resources, its outlets are going to be monitored. And if there’s a problem, an identification of those problematic schools and initially, in the 80’s, some experimental plans, almost, to take over those schools. When the state comes in, takes over the local school district, and the local Board of Education and, in a sense, restores the system, or at least that’s the theory behind the policy.

And a good example of that is the one that took place right here, just across the river, in Jersey City, where the state department of education in New Jersey, one of the earliest such communities came in and essentially took over the entire local school district. They’ve taken over several since that, a number of other states have taken over schools and it’s also a piece of the contemporary reform movement. Well, in some states, schools are taken over that the state monitors are brought in, state administrators are brought in, the local school board is suspended. And a state appointed board is put in place. In other cases, schools are just put on notice for a period of time, and then, if their problems are not identified, more corrective action is taken. Sometimes schools can be deconstituted, which is, next year that school won’t exist, it will reconstitute the school with a new administrative staff, a new faculty, and perhaps even a new group of students.

So there are a number of ways in which policy makers try to hold schools and school districts accountable, again, based upon performance, or lack of performance. That takes us through, I think, we sort of – the main current’s coming out of the Nation At Risk, and coming out of the mid and late 80’s, and of course, there are lots of consequences of these reforms, that a number of individuals focused on, consequences for what these new standards, and what these new efforts to raise standards, and what these new kinds of tests might bring for certain groups of students; we want to come back to those, when we get to the critique near the end, but they’re in the environment that is, they are in the dialogue all the way along, so as the standards movement is rolling along, the critics are right there, talking about what’s problematic about it.

The Standards Infrastructure

What we want to try in this little next phase, is discuss the growth of the standards infrastructure, which I will suggest takes place in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There’s a whole set of pieces, that get fully in place, that really arm the entire system at the state, local and federal levels, to operate in this sort of standards environment. And I’ve identified six pieces of this infrastructure, which I think we have with us today. And I’ll talk a little bit about each of them.

The first part is national goals, national goals that we want the system to accomplish. The second one is content standards, content standards in different areas of the curriculum. In addition to both of those, there is a lot of discussion and talk about national testing, and although that runs into all kinds of political issues, it keeps going forward. Growing out of those earlier pieces, there’s a set of curriculum frameworks that states adopt. There is, in the academic community, and then in the policy community, an embracing of a concept called systemic reform, which is, you know, one of the themes of the Clinton administration policy on education. And then, finally, there’s what I call the failed standard, which is the opportunity to learn standard, and I want to talk about that, because that’s a standard – that’s a standard, the aspect of the standards that kind of haunts the whole process, as we move forward.

Let me just step through a little bit, say a little bit on each of these, but I think the important point is not so much that any one of these things exists, but the fact that they exist altogether. That is, we’ve now developed a whole set of systems and processes that are pushing the system toward standards, as we move from the late 80’s into the early 90’s, and then in the late 90’s, even today, most of these structures are continuing to exist today.

The first part is the national goals. And the national goals come out of a summit that’s held by President Bush and the nation’s governors in 1989, and leadership from the governors comes from Bill Clinton. So, the interesting thing about the national goals is, they come out of the Bush administration, but in a sense, the state leader of the national goals movement is the succeeding, the president for the succeeding administration. So we got this unbroken, in a sense, commitment to these national goals. And the national goals have pledges attached to them, which states what it is that all American students will be able to do by the year 2000.

So I am just delighted to be here in the year 2000 to discuss the national goals. In 1989, it seemed like a safe bet, I suppose that the people in 1989 who were proposing the national goals were also the people who were coding two-digit dates in computer programs. They called this Y2K problem Goals 2000 without thinking that they’d still be involved in the system. But let me just – let’s say, though this deals with sophisticated segments of the national goals. It’s right on the tip of your tongue. The national goals, I think, six or seven, they added a few more, but the first set looks about like this:

There’s, by the year 2000, all children in America will start school, ready to learn. And there’s a full set of expectations that go along with that.

By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will be at least 90 percent.

All students, by the year 2000, will leave grades 4 and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including English, math, science, foreign language, civics and government, economics, history, geography.

And every school in America will assure that all students learn to use their minds well, so that they can be prepared for responsible citizenship and for positions in our nation’s modern economy.

United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

Every adult American will be literate, and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy, and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and unauthorized presence of alcohol.

And this will all make a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

The nation’s teaching force will have access to programs, through the continued improvement of their professional skills, and the opportunity to acquire the models necessary to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.

And every school will have a partnership that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social and emotional and academic growth of their children.

Those are the national goals coming out the late 80’s, early 90’s. Those are the goals that were committed to by the Republican administration, and re-committed to by the Democratic administration, and every year there is a report coming out from the national goals panel, that assesses our performance on achieving those goals.

And every year, there is progress, that I think in some cases, the other party, or attempt to be, with some success, to identify progress for national goals. But I think in most cases, most folks would agree that we have not yet achieved those goals, but we’re still in the year 2000, so, there are probably six months left, and who knows what can happen in a few day’s movement of the administration.

But the importance about, then, the national goals is that they’re out there, they continue to exist, the reports continue to come out, and in fact, they have – they have spawned a whole monitoring system. So that you have the public and private groups now, watching the system, and amassing data on the system, in terms of the national goals. You know, for example, the ready to learn goal was one that people were very interested in, because it has to do with the health and welfare of their own children, and there are a number of public and private groups that every year, produce reports and talk about what is the health goal for children and the whole system, and how close are we to having realized that goal, that every child will enter school ready to work.

So, they served a very important function, in terms of focusing attention, focusing some data gathering, and continuing to hammer home the fact that these problems exist. In addition to the national goals, there are content area standards that also developed during this time. The content area standards go hand in hand, I think, with the national goals, as part of what I called the standard infrastructure. The content area standards come from a variety of different directions. They come from professional groups focused on particular educational subject matters, so, for example, probably some of the earliest and most frequently discussed standards were the national standards for math, that come out of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, but there are also standards for history, which come out of the government-funded effort from the National Center for History in the Schools. There are standards in science and mathematics that come out of the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council, as well as a number of private groups.

Most recently, the last couple of weeks, you have seen the technology summit, that I guess was held in Atlanta. There was the introduction of the national technology standards, for what it is that students might have access to, whatever it is that teachers might know, and what it is that schools of education might have in their preparation to prepare teachers to teach with technology.

And then there are standards in a variety of other areas, the arts, language arts, health, economics, music, social studies. And again, I think what the standards do, is they contribute to this infrastructure, that is, they contribute to this set of statements and positions and articulated aspirations, at least, of what the system should achieve. And they now exist in, I think, almost all areas of the curriculum.

In addition to those content standards, and in addition to the national goals, we have a movement towards national testing. And you may have followed this, I’m not going to go into detail, but there’s been a lot of discussion about national testing. There is both local support for national testing, as well as political opposition to national testing. Despite all of that, national testing rolls on, and the national assessment government board has been charged with developing these voluntary national tests. You may remember that at one time, the tests were going to somehow be mandatory or optional – have people to try to sort of get through the political process, but right now, they’re defining these as voluntary national tests, and they are being developed, and it’s supposed to focus on fourth grade reading and eighth grade mathematics. And these tests are, in a sense, also driving a general interest in assessment, part of this general interest in more testing, but again, they are part of this infrastructure, which continues to exist.

Curriculum frameworks are another element of this standards infrastructure, and the frameworks started, or were supported at the beginning of the early 90’s by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Funds were provided to develop curriculum frameworks in each state. And the notion was that these frameworks were, in a sense, beginning to specify what it is that students should know of the various areas of the curriculum. The frameworks are interesting because they have, in a sense, or at least the framework process, has been adopted by all or almost all of the states, that everyone has kind of embraced this sort of discussion going on about these frameworks. They are quite different, as you go from state to state, so, if you look at the New York frameworks, they are of one nature, if you look at the New Jersey frameworks, there’s another nature, for Connecticut, they’re a little bit different, again.

And just so that we carry on our enthusiasm of assessment, there are even assessments done of the frameworks, so every year, one publisher is, you know, publishing a review of the current state of frameworks, and some state get scored high on their frameworks, because they are of a certain nature, and other states get scored low on their frameworks, because they exist but they’re really not as full as they might be. And again, the interesting thing about the frameworks is not that they’re without controversy – they’re not the subject of a political dispute, because in state after state, there have been some political disputes, and people have argued about the tone of the frameworks, the nature of knowledge that’s getting worked into the curriculum, what was being proposed or adopted. But the interesting thing about the frameworks is, they, too, roll on. Now, we are, in most states, arguing about the nature of the frameworks, we’re not arguing about whether there should be frameworks. So, we’re arguing about the details, and it becomes, again, part of this infrastructure of standard setting and performance that the system has adopted.

Next piece of the infrastructure is this notion of systemic reform. And I think that this is an interesting notion to sort of think about and to track. It grows out of some writing in the late 80’s, early 90’s, about the fact that the systems – the way we tried to reform the system in the past has been piecemeal, that it’s sort of, we try to do one thing, then we try to do another, so, you know, at one point in time, we change the curriculum, there’s another point in time where we change the tests. There’s another point in time when we invested in teachers. And what the systemic reformers say is that the problem with those earlier efforts, and the reason that they haven’t brought us the success that we want, is that they haven’t all been in concert. That, in fact, what we really need to do to change the system is to do all of them. That is, you need to think of education as a system that has multiple levels and multiple players and multiple inputs, and you have to align all of those in the same direction if you want to get that big system to give you the output that you’d like to have.

And that means you need to have, you know, curriculum reform, that is supported by teacher preparation reform, and teacher professional development, and that it all needs to be aligned with testing. And you know, in a sense, that has been the mantra of a great number of educational policy makers and educational researchers. It’s certainly been the theme of the Clinton administration, and all it means is that it needs to get aligned.

I’m going to pause for just one moment in this era of standards to just observe that the big alternative to systemic reform – and in fact, a big alternative to these kinds of standards infrastructure items that I’m talking about, is the sort of free market approach. And so, the alternative way of getting the system to increase performance is to go to a variety of choice mechanisms, whereby the individuals who, if you pay for the education and apply the education, could pick and choose, and if the market was right, towards higher levels.

For the most part, we’re talking about the standards movement, we’re talking about a certain government-driven centralized movement. There’s the state, federal, and local levels, and in the systemic reform part of it it is particularly easy to see this whole picture of being a sort of single system that works from the top down. And, of course, depending upon how you feel about that, there can be all kinds of unflattering characterizations of the standards movement, and the systemic reform movement, including that, you know, people say, well, this is a system that didn’t work, indeed, the Soviet Union didn’t work, when they had a state-run operation; why should it run – why should it work this well in the United States. Those are a very few of the kind of, criticisms. So you come up with all kinds of ways of waging the battle. But nonetheless, it’s part of what structures and what conditions, the way people thought about the system, and is one of the dominant pieces of the standards movement.

Finally, I want to talk about, in this section, I want to talk about the – what I’m calling the failed standards, which is the opportunity to learn standards. Opportunity to learn, as opposed to student outcomes and performance, has to do with the conditions that we think are necessary for all students to actually achieve all the things we’ve just talked about, whether it’s the national goals, or scoring well on tests, scoring well on the SATs, graduating from high school, passing employment tests – all of those things have to do with the outcome, but opportunity to learn has to do with the conditions necessary for all students to achieve that, and one of the reasons that the folks who focused on opportunity to learn talk about the conditions necessary for all students to achieve, is that the standards reformers talk about the standards applying to all students. And the test reformers talk about the tests being taken by all students. So, for example, in New York State, where we recently revised the state testing program, we moved from a system where Regents tests, which are the higher level tests, used to be taken only by students who elected to take those tests. And there would be this regular diploma to receive without taking them, where, now, every student in the state is expected to take the Regents exam, and take the Regents curriculum and to succeed at it.

So what the opportunity to learn folks point out is that if we expect all students to achieve those standards, and indeed, if we’re going to punish and penalize them and their schools if they don’t, then we need to be equally concerned about all students and all schools, and all districts having those conditions necessary – in order to take place, and they include things like a safe environment, quality instruction from well-prepared teachers, professional development for teachers to improve even further, and new instructional tools.

An opportunity to learn opens up a whole variety of issues, typically thought of as equity issues, sometimes known as finance issues, because opportunity to learn, if you think about it as a standard, brings to the fore the fact that there are vast differences, not only among states and the levels of resources that are available, and the differences among states are truly dramatic. From northeastern states, we’ve got $20,000 plus expenses for students to excel; western states only have got $3,000 per year for expenses. It opens up issues of vast differences between districts, and between and among districts within states. Under the same state jurisdiction, we’ve got huge differences in the resources that are available, and it even opens up questions of differences among schools within districts. Within districts, some schools have better resources than others. So there are these huge differences in the resources, and in the opportunity for students have to learn, yet the standards that students must meet at the end are the same for all students.

So, some believe that there was a wonderful opportunity, for an opportunity to learn, to be picked up and captured in the standards movement, and for there to be a very robust infrastructure of statements about what it is that’s necessary to learn. And the thing that’s interesting about it is that we didn’t have it, and that we have, you know, large numbers of dollars being spent all over the country by public and private agencies, identifying the outcomes that we want students to achieve in all variety, of all aspects of the curriculum, and we have very little being spent on achieving the conditions to realize those outcomes.

And we have, even, you know, right here in New York State, we have some wonderful examples. We have a state Regents examination, and a state set of curriculum standards, which, if you haven’t looked at them, I invite you to go to the New York State Department of Ed web site and look at them, and they have terrific materials. It talks in great detail about what students should know, or how they should learn it. But it makes a whole set of assumptions. For example, there’s a set of science standards which assumes that students starting in middle school are going to have access to state-of-the-art science laboratories. And in fact, part of taking one of the state’s Regents examinations, is demonstrating proficiency in labs, and doing lab exercises, and doing some lab exercises and then reporting on it in the Regents test itself.

The thing that’s curious is that there are many, many, many schools within New York State that don’t have science labs, or that don’t have working science labs. And little attention was given to putting in those conditions that would allow students to actually succeed, prior to actually phasing in the curriculum standards and the tests.

So there’s an enormous problem, there’s an enormous disjuncture between setting the conditions in place that would allow students to be successful, and identifying the outcomes of – that we would all like. And the dilemma, of course, for the policy making community, is achieving those conditions is a lot more difficult and lot more expensive than simply stating the standards.

So, if you’re a policy maker, and you’re trying to be perceived as forward-thinking and progressive and a proponent of better schools, the easy way out is to announce a new set of standards. form a commission, assemble some inside folks, some outside folks, produce your report, publish it, put it on the web, you’ve got standards. What you don’t have is the conditions to achieve those standards.

Getting the conditions to achieve those standards turns out to be enormously expensive. How enormous? If we simply take things like the facilities issue, the GAO estimates that to bring all of our schools in America up to some reasonable standard, then they’re not talking about policies, you’re talking about health and safety, it would be over a hundred million dollars. New York State, probably, the estimate is – would be four or five million, just to bring schools up to that kind of standard. So, it’s very challenging to try to make the budget assumptions that are going to be required to actually bring things to bear. It’s much easier to simply put in the standards and the expectations, and then the punishments, for people who don’t achieve the standards, and of course, to the extent that you can portray a fault - of not achieving the standards as being the fault of students and their families, as opposed to the fault and lack of the appropriate conditions, then you’re off the hook. But, we’ll get to that in a little – in the end, there’s a little bit of that critique.

I want to talk a little bit about current standards efforts, again, focusing on teaching and curriculum, testing, curriculum in teachers. Testing rolls on, it rolls on, in more forms, in more ways, in more places than ever before. There’s an interest in making the tests more demanding, so the contemporary version of the 70’s minimal competency tests are now high standards tests, high demand tests, critical thinking tests, more challenging tests. Testing is now seeping into more areas, so it’s broadened from literacy to numeracy. A lot of states now have tests in social studies, tests in science and health, so it’s creeping into more areas of the curriculum, and as my students tell me, that they’re trying to get new teacher certifications because it’s getting harder and harder to kind of teach in areas not subject to the state test.

Testing is becoming increasingly tied to high stakes for students, and now, their families, as testing, in state after state, is now being tied to high school graduation. And that’s probably one of the hottest topics in the last year or two, at least when reporters call me; everyone calls and wants to know what to make of high stakes testing. But it’s hitting state after state, and in a number of states, it’s causing a backlash. It’s kind of interesting, how the backlash is forming. As long as we were testing minimal competencies that were identifying urban and minority kids as not being able to meet the standards, there wasn’t a lot of protest. In fact, I think they were calling for more. Now that we’re testing middle class kids, and the standards are higher, and the kids in the suburbs are not going to get diplomas, the story is changing a little bit. So, when a husband and wife, who are both lawyers, come home and find that their sixteen-year-old is never going to go to college, because they are not going to get a high school diploma, because they didn’t pass the state’s Regents exam, people in the state capital get a call. That changes the equation in a dramatic way, and I think we’ve only seen the beginning of it, because we really haven’t seen the beginning of the kind of failure that we might expect. And don’t forget, the policy makers are intent upon continued implementation of the standards. So, it will be interesting to watch, as that unfolds.

There are also protests coming from students, and students themselves are doing things like, in Massachusetts, they’re staying home on test day, and I think their motto is, you know, take a zero for the cause. They’ve banded together, and are saying, you know, enough is enough. So it will be interesting to see how far this gets pushed.

In the area of curriculum – curriculum reform rolls on. A lot of attention’s being paid to curriculum coordination through K-12, because I just saw today, picking up the mail, a new interest in coordination curriculum K-16, the notion being that, as you think about these higher standards and as you think about these more demanding tests, whereas the minimal competency standards, the minimal competency tests, you could take kids in ninth, tenth grade, who had had poor preparation prior to that, you could put them into crunch crash courses and get them to pass the test, but the more demanding tests, you really can’t start at that point, you really have to start down at elementary school, where you do lots of work and make sure that they’ve got very solid skills, so that as they move forward, the more demanding skills and abilities they’re able to acquire, and they’re able to succeed with the test. There’s a real interesting coordinating across to that.

There’s also continuing interest in aligning the curriculum with the assessment, and in state after state, that’s, in fact, what’s going on. The curriculum frameworks are now in place, and they’re now being aligned for testing programs. Test developers, you know, have now, they sort of, it’s a little bit of a windfall, because even if you have great tests, you know, it has to be aligned, so, they’re not supposed to be done in the alignment process.

For teachers, we’re going through an interesting period, with teachers and standards. There’s a continued emphasis on teacher quality, and the same things we talked about before. We’ve improved certification preparation, lots of interest in investing in professional development, there’s the growth of popularity of something that’s been around for a while, that is, national professional standards for teachers. One of the dilemmas, it’s not an unlikely dilemma that got us, I think, at least in the minds of some people, into this problem with teachers – one of the dilemmas is, there’s going to be a huge need for new teachers in the years ahead, as retirements continue to hit, and the student population continues to grow. The question will be, how will we meet the demands for the new teachers. The last time there was something quite this large in the late 60’s, the gates were open and everyone was allowed to come into teaching, and in the minds of some people, that’s how we got large numbers of teachers who weren’t all that well prepared. So one of the questions is, are we going to be better prepared this time around? Is the system going to have enough capacity? Are we going to be able to attract enough people into teaching? Enough of the people that would be good, and most effective at it? So that’s, I think, the contemporary issues that continue, I think none of them show signs of tapering off, despite the fact that there are back and forth critiques of this kind of reasoning. I want to talk about those critiques as a way of kind of wrapping up, and I think – I may sound as if this movement is unassailable.

Critiques of the Standards Movement

I want to argue that there are really three kinds of critiques that have been mounted against the standards movement. Now, you’ll – I find there are a lot of different critics of the standards movement, and what I’m proposing to do is try to make sense of them by saying, look, there are three big things that have been going on among the critics. One is this sort of macro critique at the political level, a second set of critiques occur at the organizational level, and the third set of critiques focus on the motivational level. Let me just say a little bit now, about each one of those, in fact, I’ll say exactly what the meaning of each one of those is.

On the macro, political critique, here, the argument is that if we just step way back, and you look at the standards movements, it’s not all that tough to explain. That in fact, the standards movement is simply the established players in society trying to maintain their advantage. And particularly, trying to maintain their advantage in the face of a population that has become more diverse, and that is increasingly diverse because of increasing immigration, and if you look over a large historical period of time, the argument is, here, that every time there’s an influx of new folks into the country, or different kinds of folks into the country, the establishment has to react in some way. This time, one of the ways that it’s chosen to react is by re-asserting standards. And by curtailing opportunity for those individuals who are newcomers.

The kinds of evidence people point to here, have to do with the failed standard. That is, the absence of the opportunity to learn standard. Some people say – like, I’ve said it myself – if you were serious about having all kids achieve these standards, wouldn’t you put into place the conditions necessary to achieve them, before you begin the tests and the penalties? So, who do we would really want to deny a high school diploma, and then, who do we really want to deny job opportunities to, and who do we really want to deny, even, entry into the military service to? Well, here the argument is, we want to deny it to people who are different, who don’t fit the traditional mold, who aren’t in the advantaged groups. In fact, the system’s going to work if it stays the way it’s working now, to do that relatively well. Suburban parents and wealthy parents will find ways to make the standard system work for them, and here, my argument is, they’re all manner of compensatory programs and resources and options that wealthy people have at their disposal, and you know, everything from suburban tutoring services to private schools that step outside the testing systems, to private colleges that have standards that are very different than the kind called for in the Nation At Risk, but nonetheless, confer a college degree, a certain level of respectability, and entrée into a nice profession. So that’s that argument, that it’s really a lot of political jockeying for advantages.

The second thing – and so, in that sense, we have to question it really seriously – the second critique, what I call the sort of mid-range or organizational critique – and here the critique focuses on the fact that you know what, this is just another bureaucratic mechanism that’s fundamentally flawed, and it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work, because in the end, the standards won’t be implemented all that well. They will all be implemented in the way they’re meant, they’ll be implemented kind of half heartedly, and so you’ll get things like routine teaching for routine testing. You won’t get more learning; in fact, test scores will go up, because if the bureaucracy says so they must go up, and we’ll find a way to teach so narrowly, that the kids, in fact, will do better. One of the ways we may find to teach narrowly is that it will increase the amount of time and energy we devote to cheating. If you’re teaching for the test, and cheating is not all that great distance away; you just step back far enough. If I teach you to the test today, and you come in and take it, it’s just one day’s difference between me giving you the answers on the day of the test. So we make nice about the fact, and we hoist off those teachers in schools that are caught cheating, but in fact, the system is designed to put pressure on them, and for those people who think that standards wouldn’t work at all, we should be taking comfort in the fact that people are cheating, because it means that the pressure is on. If no one were cheating, that would mean that people were oblivious to the fact of the standards.

And another critique here, coming out of the organizational critique, is that standards are not going to be implemented uniformly. They’re going to fall on some more than others, that the nature of testing itself is flawed, and there are advantages for some at the expense of others. And it’s just not a very good strategy.

But what of the other critique, the micro-motivational critique? Here, the critique basically says, doesn’t worry about society, doesn’t worry about the organization, focuses on the individual, and says, look, we’ve got two kinds of individuals who are in this system, who have to change their behavior in the face of these standards. First of all, we’ve got teachers. And here, the critique is, is if you look at the research on motivation, what’s likely to happen is that when teachers are faced with rigid standards and this narrow accountability and sanctions attached to them, they’re going to become more controlled, they are going to become – because they have to control the situation that their students are in, they’re going to become unresponsive to students, because they’ve got to be responsible to the standard, and they’re going to become alienated in the process, in fact, they’re not going to be very effective. So it’s not a very good motivational system for teachers. And if, you know, if in fact, if you want to attract people who are the most talented, and the most competent and the most interested and interesting to work in schools, that bringing them in, giving them this menu of things to teach, and giving them the set of tests to prepare the kids for, is not terribly exciting. I mean, in fact, we find talented people all the time, leaving the profession, saying, you know what, enough with this! I’m going to go some place and work as an adult, where my every move is not subject to this kind of scrutiny and control, and I’m going to do creative and interesting things.

For students, the critique is, that students lose interest in the subject matter, that they’re going to learn superficially, and they’re not going to desire future learning, and the reason is because all of the standards, and all of the sanctions are external, and if all the students were working for is to satisfy these external demands, that, in fact, you’re not going to internalize an appreciation for learning and a lifelong commitment to learning, and it’s going to make the educational process, in fact, less motivating for students. So that critique basically says, try all you want, if you succeed, and if you surpass all the bureaucratic problems, and if we actually implement these standards, then, in fact, you’re going to have just the opposite effect, that you are going to weaken the system further. And I think it’s that kind of critique that a lot of the – a lot of the more, I guess, one of the more dramatic writers have written about, and we’ll see, coming out in the next six months, because I know we’re getting lots of new material into the journal – lots of studies of students, and how they’re reacting to standards when they finally get them. Sort of a roster of accounts of how students react when test scores get published, and they and their peers are not doing well on these tests, and you’ll see accounts of students who lose part of their graduating class, not because they didn’t get good grades and complete their classes, but because they couldn’t pass the state assessment. And there’s a sense brewing in this, this motivational perspective, that the injustice of this is going to further corrode the process. So, there you go. Thirty fun years of standards, all in not too big a package, but since you’re all in the process of working on this, you probably have lots of questions.


Gene Maeroff:

That’s a great tour. We certainly appreciate it. And let’s go into questions. And identify yourself, please.

Audience Member:

What type of results are coming from testing in the initial wave of kids. In the states where kids are failing, do you have any information about this?

Gary Natriello:

In the couple of states where that’s happened, it looks like people start to just move the cut points on the test, or wondering – and keep in mind, I think, that’s not that hard to do, because cut points are usually set arbitrarily anyway, so there’s an adjustment made. In some states that are now looking at that process, I think what we find people doing is trying to anticipate what the failure rate is going to be, and then adjust the test scores so that the failure rate is not so great, and preemptively keep that from happening. But the state legislators do seem to be susceptible to the pressure, and as soon as they feel the pressure, the state ed bureaucracy then feels the pressures. So there are those kinds of adjustments happening. In some states, I know they’re supposed to suspend the test for a period of time, things of that sort.


Audience Member:

You said that some that are – the high stakes tests, are only high stakes, and pass or fail on the assessment tests. What’s happening there? Excuse me, what’s the result.

Gary Natriello:

Well, I think it’s a little early in many of those states. I think some of the states we’ve seen the first wave, that is, we take the first administration and we show them the task, kids are still in the system, they have, you know, a year or two to go. But there is pressure to have exceptions, to have some kind of procedure for people in the school to vouch for the kid’s accomplishment, as an alternative path through the system. There’s pressure to change the standard, in some sense. I think what we’re – and I know, for example, that a number of civil rights agencies, including, as I understand, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, is looking into the possibilities of litigation. Once a high school diploma is denied, actually challenge the legality of that process. And I think so – I think there’ll be some court action coming along, as soon as there are enough cases that are up and coming.


Audience Member:

And how about special ed, and these tests?

Gary Natriello:

Special ed’s been interesting, and if you go from state to state, you see different provisions in place. I think, in general, the policy makers have been very reluctant to create an exception. They’ve created some alternative paths, that is, they’ve allowed some students to fall under modified testing conditions, some have actually fallen under modified tests, but there has been a lot of criticism of the earlier wave of assessments, and in some states, in some districts, you see a lot of kids under a special ed or a special provision, and they got criticized for having, yes, your scores are high, but look at the high number of kids that you exempted. So I think there’s pressure to not do that. But states are different in the way they’re approaching it.

Audience Member:

I have a question about teaching to the test. We have, in Florida, we have a writing test but the kids did phenomenally well in the writing test, because they were taught. The press question the teachers, to say that, you taught to the test. The teachers said, we do not teach to the test. We taught a formula that’s going to work for these kids, throughout - learning how to take tests. What do you think about teaching to tests and how that affects a child’s overall learning?

Gary Natriello:

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a real interesting question. I think it’s seldom as clear as they make it seem to be, whether someone is actually teaching to the test or not teaching to the test, and whether that’s good or bad. I mean, people are increasingly saying, it depends upon the test. But I think the fear that people have is that in teaching – if you think about tests, the test is supposed to be a sample. So, it’s supposed to be a sample that represents a student’s broader performance. And the problem that people have identified when they tell me about teaching to the test, is if – it’s okay to teach them the test, except that then they get a score that’s so narrow, that it doesn’t generalize to the student’s broader performance. And that, I think, is the concern, and I think that becomes a greater concern as the tests get more and more focused on high stakes, and as so much, you know, falls on one test, as opposed to a broad range of performance indicators.

But I think a lot of the discussion about teaching to the test is probably unfair to teachers, because on the one hand, we want them to prepare the kids and everyone who is trying to actually prepare the kids would spend a lot of time looking at the assessment. That’s how you make sense of it. And then, you do whatever you do to prepare the kids to take the test. And I think what we ought to expect, particularly as the assessments become higher and higher stakes, we think there should be more teaching to the test. I mean teachers are caught in this situation where their students have a lot riding on their performance on the test. If they can do anything to help them succeed in the test, they’re going to be motivated to do that, and if teaching to the test is one way to help students achieve, I think there’s no reason not to expect them to do that.

By the way, it’s the same thing – I want to point out – it’s the same thing in higher education. There’s now been a wave of reforms in states that have said things like, we’re not going to let people have teacher certification with a GPA below, and then they set a certain level. So, sometimes they say 2, sometime it’s 2.5, sometimes it’s 3. But these are the same folks who speak out against grade inflation. But I can tell you, as an instructor, people who are entering teaching, if I know that giving someone a C or a B, may determine whether they can enter teaching...I’m going to think carefully about giving it. Can I give them that B in any way? I mean it would be inhuman not to think about that. It’s not as if most people going into education are here to deny services to students. And the system is, in effect, trying to force educators to be the selectors, and I think educators are often not comfortable in that role. And that’s not what their orientation and training is.

Audience Member:

Can I just follow up, one, quick? But, when – I mean, is there a percentage of classroom time that should be put to this? I mean, if you’re spending 75 to 80 percent of classroom time, you know, seven months a year, until that test comes, I mean, how can they argue that kids are learning other things like arts or some sciences, and stuff like that?

Gary Natriello:

I think that’s a really good point, and I think the observers that have been out there say that there’s large portions of time being spent teaching to the test. In fact, in lots of districts around the country, you know, the testing is done in the spring, and probably the whole spring is spent getting ready for the test. That’s the reports, for example, in Texas, where reports are that students are doing very well on the tests, but people who have been observing in classroom say, gee, the reason they’re doing well on the test, that’s all that’s going on between January and April. And then, you know, after April, then other things go on.

So, there’s this sort of – the part of it is, you sort of have to realize what we’ve done when we’ve moved to this direction. We’ve essentially said, without saying it, the fundamental point is, don’t trust the teachers. That we’re going to have a system in place that’s going to externally validate whatever business’s going on in classrooms. The alternative could have been to invest a lot of energy in preparing teachers to be really careful assessors of student performance and careful documentors and careful reporters of it. And they could have imagined a more natural assessment system operating throughout the year in the classroom. But in a sense, what we’ve done is, we’ve said, we don’t trust the teachers to do it. So then, what is the motivational environment we set up for teachers, we set up all the motivational environment elements to have them do exactly what they’re saying, which is to meet the external demand. In fact, we count on them doing that, that’s why we set it up that way. At the same time we’ve done that, by the way, we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in standardized testing. In most states, we have reduced the amount of time teachers spend studying assessment practices. So that twenty years ago, teachers were getting much more time in the classroom and teacher preparation, studying how to do assessments of student learning and student learning problems and looking for a diagnosis, than they are now. Now we’ve invested lots of time and energy in these external tests; we’re investing much less in preparing teachers, so teachers are doing whatever they can, to sort of meet these external demands.

Gene Maeroff:

You really have to be careful about this business about teaching to the test, about automatically saying, well, that’s wrong. Well, first, what’s it that you want people to know? Then, you decided, for example, would it really be worth your while, if reporters writing on the standards movement, to know about the history of standards, and where this modern standards movement came from, and we’re going to give you a test on what Gary was talking about, and we’re going to spend the rest of the day delving into it, talking about it some more, to make sure you really know about it. But tomorrow, we’re going to do – write an essay test, which is going to be used to show that you have an understanding of that – well, what’s so bad about extending the day, teaching to the test? It’s a matter of – what is the substance of what you want people to know? Is it narrow, is it wide, is it deep, or is it shallow, and how are we going to test someone for it? Sometimes it even could be a multiple-choice test. Although I’m not saying it would be an ideal – so be careful about just dismissing teaching to the test. Good education includes an awful lot about it, if it’s done in a substantial way.

Audience Member:

Hi, Pamela Martin, I’m with the Sacramento Bee. You know, one of the things that I’m curious about is, in the movement for standards, there seems to be a rise in a lot of programmatic, scripted curriculum, like reading, like Open Court, and how much of that are you seeing across the country? And how do you think that impacts the – it seems to me that the view of teachers in districts where they use that, is like – they’re sort of facilitators, they even pull anybody in off the street and put them in with this Open Court program, and they just follow it day by day by day, and it’s there for them, in the book. Do you have any thoughts on these curriculum –

Gary Natriello:

Well, I think, you know, I think you can imagine that there’s a real opportunity for that to happen, as states formulate these state-wide standards, these statewide curriculum formulas, so – group of frameworks. So, there’s now – they’re now creating this large market for people, all who need the same thing, which is, teaching for these frameworks, or teaching within these frameworks. They can imagine these kinds of programs being developed, as opposed to a system that was more diverse, that had, you know, diverse methods, diverse content, all of whom may have taught social studies but may have taught it in very different ways and very different times. So I think it’s just sort of a natural part of the market evolving. And I think – you know, from the district’s perspective, it’s a way to try to control process. And that means controlling both the curriculum and controlling the instruction, and guaranteeing some level of consistency. The down side, of course, is that people argue that it takes the flexibility and the freedom and in fact, a lot of the motivation out of the process.

Gene Maeroff:

One of our journalist-presenters this afternoon will address this issue.

Audience Member:

Getting back to the teaching and the test issue, I wondered whether you have investigated the notion of what tests are worth teaching to, whether some states – like, I know the new standards, for example, people have talked about as being a great test, but very few states are very reluctant to invest in it, because it’s complicated and it’s long, and it takes a long time to score it, it’s not that easy to score, and whether it’s possible to have a cheap multiple-choice test, are worth teaching to, and whether any states have them, and, you know, who is investing in that?

Gary Natriello:

I think that the consensus would be that the tests are getting more worth teaching to, that the standardized tests of today are substantially more demanding than the ones of twenty years ago, that, for example, if you were to look at the New York Regents exams, most of us would probably agree that we’d like students in high school, in our state, to be able to do well on an exam such as the New York Regents exams. The dilemma, I think, is that – not that the tests are no longer adequate or challenging or interesting; the dilemma is that there’s no one putting in place the mechanisms to prepare people to get ready for those tests. So that’s the challenge that I think – I think is still unaddressed at this point. And I think states are caught now, in fact, some people argue that states are exactly where they deserve to be, which is now higher, if they are to deliver the goods. And it’s not so much the kids, although that’s where the penalties are. But it really is the state, and that we ought to be holding them accountable for delivering the resources that are going to allow kids to achieve these wonderful standards that many people have put in place, and most of us would want our own kids to achieve.

Gene Maeroff:

One – two - three.

Audience Member:

Joanne Smith, Dayton Daily News. Ohio has long had the ninth grade exit exam to graduate from high school. Kids can start taking it in eighth grade, and take it fifteen, sixteen times before they graduate. You know, the the success rate, but, you know, kids are taking stress relief classes, they’re taking yoga, they’re trips and overnight stays, and trips to Disneyworld, in order to pass the test. Ohio now has a fourth grade test, in the fact that they think it works. And my question is, you know, these fourth graders don’t have five years to pass this test, and what kind of stress are we putting on the younger population, you know, what’s going to happen to them? There’s much talk and debate in Ohio about lowering the standards, if the standards were – in fact, this year, half the fourth graders did not pass. Where do we go with these young kids?

Gary Natriello:

Well, I think it’s probably – you probably should expect that. I mean, that’s what this is all designed to do, is to grab people’s attention and focus them at the task at hand. Now, we may not like what comes with that, but it’s not the case – it’s not simply the case, as I think people, early in the standards movement, thought, it’s simply reminding people that they should do this kind of thing. It’s just not saying, oh, gee, you know, you forgot to teach it in a demanding way, teacher, go out. I mean, it really is a lot of hard work, and it’s hard work with the kids, and it’s hard work for the teachers. And it’s hard work for the parents of the kids, who are going to have to also provide the support in the environment, and what we’ve heard lots of accounts about, in addition to the kids being under stress, is families being under lots of stress. And the families, you know, suburban families not taking their vacations because of fears of what they will do to the test preparation cycle that the kids were in, which sounds very much like it sounds in some other countries, where the tests have very high stakes, where the families are forced to mobilize their family resources and not do things that they would ordinarily do, do less recreation and more academic press. For some kids, is that going to be stressful? It is. And the question is, is that a trade-off that we want to make? But I think it’s inevitably a trade-off that’s there. It’s not as if we’re going to get these great, high test scores and terrific outcomes without that kind of stress, and particularly for families that have less adequate resources, there are going to be fewer ways to deal with that stressful situation. So, it falls disproportionately on certain kids and families.

Audience Member:

Well, is it inevitable, as states put these standards into place and make tests high stakes, then we will have years where we do have no fifth grade population, because they’re all back in fourth grade?

Gary Natriello:

Well, that would certainly be my fear, if I were running the system. But my guess is that they will adjust it. That’s what will happen, you know, if your policy – I suspect. I haven’t been – I haven’t worked in a state department of education in a long time, but I suspect, if I were there, that what I would try to calculate is what would be an acceptable proportion of failure. The same way the commander in battle decides what’s an acceptable proportion of casualties, that the public will not accept more than that. The other question is, what percentage of kids will be allowed to fail, and the school will think that’s okay.

Gene Maeroff:

Well, let me just interject, you know, and this is never really talked about because there’s all this focus on standards, but on the bar examination, in a lot of different states, what happens is they raise the rolling passing point in order to get more people passing, or fewer, and depending on the outcomes, and that would be just okay, because these are professionals, and they went to law school. But the same thing could happen with fourth graders, too.

Audience Member:

The Rochester school board just had the superintendent explain to them why they’re offering, three, four, five years of a single course to help kids pass. Is that common?

Gary Natriello:

Well, it’s certainly the case in a lot of them, a lot of situations, what’s necessary to make progress is time. And that time can either be taken from a fixed block, where the students would work more intensively, so, for example, let’s hold on to the four years, but let’s have the kids in summer school or let’s have them in after school, let’s have them in a variety of other intensive programs. And the other alternatives will be that – which would be to say, let’s take a fifth or sixth year to move through high school. And that would give them increasing exposure and anything we know about that kind of exposure says that they will continue to do well under those conditions.

It’s also not that different than what has been going on, for example, in New York City for at least the last ten or fifteen years, just to achieve the regular diploma, as kids have started pacing themselves, so there’s a pretty high proportion of New York City high school kids who don’t graduate in four years, especially in five or six, and there are some that graduate in seven. And it’s a kind of self-pacing process, where it’s managed by the kids. So, one of the things that is probably better about the superintendent’s plan in Rochester is that it at least makes this option known, and makes it legitimate. And there are lots of reasons, by the way. We could really sort of get into all of this, but, lots of external reasons why people might need more time to finish. There are some high school kids who have to work because of family circumstances, who are spending a lot of time caring for younger siblings or older relatives, who have lots of other competing demands on their time. We know, for example, that the majority of high school students work. Now, whether they work because they have to work, because they want to work, it’s not entirely clear in all cases, but a certain proportion of them have to work, and it’s a serious issue. And when we now have these standards on top of that life circumstance, we create some real dilemmas. And so, lengthening the time that people might achieve that diploma might make a lot of sense.

Audience Member:

I just wanted more of a clarification on what actually started standards – what was going on in the 70’s? You mentioned the San Francisco study, but was that the spark that got everyone in the country to start thinking about standards?

Gary Natriello:

Well, I think there – I think – I think there were, you know, different places, it took on different forms. I think, in some cases, it was simply the observation that things had gotten – moved in a direction that was untenable, whether that was curriculum – the San Francisco case, it was student performance-focused. But in other cases, it was curriculum-focused, where people started paying attention to what was going on in the curriculum, and didn’t like things that were – that they were seeing, or didn’t like things that were going on in instruction. So the back to basics movement was a reaction to those sorts of things, and I think what happened was that it percolated in different ways in different localities. And then, gradually what happened, as people began to look more carefully, that was because we had more performance data – you get higher level problems. So, as we got these standardized assessments in localities and states and that information became more public, there was more and more evidence to point to it. Now, what, you know, the question is, the bigger question is, how real was the problem? And there are critics of the whole standards movement who say, look, the problem was not as real as the people have cast it, that there are always ebbs and flows in performance, and that there’s always differences in these patterns, and probably the – the part of the problem that I think is most real, in a sense, is the part of the problem that focuses on urban kids in urban schools, where there have been, you know, serious issues with performance. But it’s really serious issues in resources that are driving those performance issues.

Audience Member:

What was the name of that San Francisco study? Is that available somewhere?

Gary Natriello:

Yes. In fact, if you – you’ve got my e-mail – if you can just e-mail me, I’ll send you the citation for that.

Gene Maeroff:

I hesitate to do this, because I know a lot of people still have questions. Gary will stay here for a bit. And I’d like to make sure people get the questions answered, but we let his presentation run longer than we usually do, because it really was an important survey of this whole time, and I know it will be very useful to you. But we’re going to close this session, pretty much stay on time, Gary will stay around, we have a coffee break now, next door. And we’ll start again, and then let’s reconvene at 10:55.

Gary Natriello:

Thanks a lot.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10556, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:31:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Gary Natriello
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Gary Natriello is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the editor of the Teachers College Record.
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