Recent Trends in State Educational Reform: Assessment and Prospects
by William A. Firestone, Sheila Rosenblum & Beth D. Bader - 1992
A discussion of recent trends in state educational reform stresses the importance of addressing two challenges: teaching all students higher order thinking and developing more systematic, coherent policies. The article describes the challenges, examines how state policies in the 1980s addressed them and how districts responded, and suggests future directions. (Source: ERIC)
The mid-1980s were an exceptional period for state activity aimed at improving public education. During the decade, a distinct brand of "educational excellence" reforms that dealt directly with the substance of regular education swept through the states. The rhetoric of educational reform was widespread and pervasive. State legislatures passed numerous education-related bills, increased state aid, and examined the findings of hundreds of task forces and commissions. Governors vied to be first with new programs, and reforms spread rapidly from state to state.(1)
By the end of the decade, the rate of reform was slowing. An economic downturn, resistance to increased taxation, and perceptions that substantial educational improvement was difficult to achieve seemed to dampen enthusiasm. Researchers differed about the relative success of the 1980s' reforms. Some agreed with Murphy that the movement had realized surprising successes.(2) They believed that the high level of local district compliance showed promise for future progress and that dramatic upswings in college attendance and advanced-placement test taking and passing rates in some states were important indicators of improvement.(3) Others were more skeptical, believing that the reforms were more of the same and showed little cognizance of lessons learned from previous experience.(4) A more moderate view saw advancement without dramatic improvement in a tendency to adopt easy reforms, that is, those that were relatively inexpensive, that states knew how to implement, and that avoided redistribution of wealth and authority.(5)
As the excellence reforms stabilize and attention shifts to a new round of finance-equalization measures-such as those under way in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas- it is appropriate to take stock of where state education reform is now and what directions should be taken in the future. This article suggests that it is important to address two challenges: teaching higher-order thinking to all students and developing more systematic, coherent policies. These challenges are interrelated. An important reason for limited progress in changing what and how well students learn is that the governance system is fragmented along two dimensions: the vertical one representing relationships between states and districts and the horizontal one reflecting articulation among policies at each level. To consider these issues, we first describe the challenges in general terms. Then we examine how state policies in the 1980s addressed these challenges and the ways in which districts responded to the same issues both directly and indirectly through their responses to state policies. We then use these observations to suggest directions for the future.
Information comes from a study of the progress of educational reform in six states-Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania-between 1983 and 1990. Numerous site visits were made to state capitals and to twenty-one districts in those states. Additional information was obtained from documents as well as telephone interviews with respondents first contacted through site visits. All this information was supplemented by tracking the reform literature and reports on state policy and its impact during this period.(6)
The two challenges for future state reform efforts are to develop policies that promote higher-order thinking for all students and to increase the coherence in state educational reform.
HIGHER-ORDER THINKING FOR ALL
It has become common to distinguish between achievement of basic skills and higher-order thinking.(7) The first includes discrete skills like decoding words and addition and subtraction, as well as knowledge of specific facts- for example what happened in 1776, 1865, and so forth. This view is compatible with behaviorist psychology, and there is a strong testing technology for measuring these skills and facts. The second is often viewed as synonymous with critical thinking, problem solving, and understanding. Its theoretical base is in philosophy and cognitive psychology. Because the emphasis is less on recall than on using knowledge in context or putting information together in new and useful ways, the technology for measurement is more complex and less developed. The phrase higher-order thinking implies a sequential relationship with basic skills, but some experts now deny the need to teach one before the other and suggest that the two can be learned simultaneously.(8)
State policy in the 1970s emphasized basic skills. The public worried that students were neither learning how to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic operations nor acquiring basic facts of history and geography, among other things.(9) In the 198Os, reformers, under the banner of excellence, began to argue for a tougher standard by stressing higher-order thinking and more advanced knowledge. This was apparent in frequent references to international achievement comparisons showing American students falling behind children from other developed countries, in cries against scientific and technical illiteracy, and in an interest in developing individual problem-solving skills, all of which could be found in A Nation at Risk(10) and other reform reports as well.
Two kinds of data suggest the need to attend more to problem solving and higher-order thinking. First, results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that the educational progress of American children during the 1980s was in learning facts and discrete skills rather than in developing more complex cognitive reasoning and problem-solving capacities.(11) Another NAEP study shows that the number of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 who were able to perform at high levels of proficiency in science had declined in 1990 from previous years.(12) Second, international comparisons continue to show great discrepancies between American children and those from other developed nations, and there is a concern that such discrepancies are greatest with more complex cognitive processes. For instance, the Second International Assessment of Educational Progress recently reported that American thirteen year-olds scored behind twelve other countries in science, outperforming only Jordan, Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, and Ireland.(13) In a changing world economy where "'knowledge workers' have already become the center of gravity for the labor force,"(14) it is particularly important that American schools should prepare better informed graduates who have the capacity to solve the problems created by their work.
Under the heading of excellence, interest in higher-order thinking grew among reformers and policy makers during the 1980s. However, interest in educational equity declined from its heyday in the 1960s. There was still concern about equity. The authors of A Nation at Risk did "not believe that a public commitment to excellence and educational reform must be made at the expense of a strong public commitment to the equitable treatment of our diverse population.(15) Nevertheless, other issues took on prominence, which may explain why there was an upswing in school-finance-equalization suits.(16)
Whatever attention reformers now give it, the equity concern is increasingly important on economic as well as moral grounds. The number of children who bring significant linguistic or other challenges to school is increasing. For instance, during the 198Os, this nation's Asian population more than doubled and the number of Hispanics grew by 53 percent.(17) Moreover, the number of single-parent families grew by 41 percent in the 1980s after increasing by 82 percent in the 1970s.(18) As the nation's student population and future work force becomes more diverse, it will be increasingly necessary to help all students develop advanced problem-solving skills. In spite of limited attention to the equity agenda, achievement scores of Afro-Americans rose faster than those of the majority population, although a significant gap remained.(19)
Efforts to teach complex skills and content more effectively to a wider range of students are complicated by the governance of American education, which is much more fragmented and decentralized than that in many other countries.(20) According to Smith and O'Day, the American educational system
consists of overlapping and often conflicting formal and informal policy components on the one hand and, on the other a myriad of contending pressures for immediate results that serve only to further disperse and drain the already fragmented energies of dedicated and well meaning school personnel. School personnel are daily confronted with mandates, guidelines, incentives, sanctions, and programs constructed by a half-dozen different federal congressional committees, at least that many federal departments and independent agencies, and the federal courts; state administrators, legislative committees, boards, commissions, and courts.(21)
This picture suggests to some that the problem is not just a matter of centralization versus decentralization but also of government overload and contradiction.
Government fragmentation can be described along two dimensions. The vertical one runs from central agencies to peripheral ones- that is, from federal and state government to districts, schools, and ultimately classrooms. The study of policy implementation since the 1960s has been a history of efforts to identify ways for agencies at one level to influence those at the next level down; authoritative direction and responsive compliance turn out to be the exception. The best that can usually be expected of efforts to get districts to implement state and federal policy is mutual adaptation through which central expectations adapt to local preferences at least as much as the opposite occurs. High-quality implementation is the exception and reflects local interest in the policy as well as effective application of state authority.(22)
Much of the public discussion in the 1980s focused on this vertical dimension, but commentators disagreed about whether educational governance should be centralized or decentralized. This debate was played out through two waves of reform reports: one centering around A Nation at Risk in 1983 and a later one in 1986.(23) The first wave generally advocated promoting more complex cognitive development through such tougher central standards as a common curriculum, increased graduation requirements and more rigorous tests to control the advancement of students, and more challenging certification requirements for teachers. The second wave emphasized local initiative through professionalization, empowerment, restructuring, deregulation of the process of education (usually linked to more accountability for educational outcomes), and shared responsibility with educators more than on regulating from the outside as the earlier wave did.(24)
The horizontal dimension or the relationship among various substantive policies has only recently begun to receive attention. The insight for this concern comes from classroom studies showing that achievement can be most efficiently increased when students spend more time learning the content on which they are tested.(25) Until recently, there have been few efforts to coordinate content and assessment, much less to link policies in these areas with others. Cohen and Spillane suggest that instruction can be coordinated through five kinds of policies: instructional frameworks that establish broad conceptions of the purposes, structure, and content of academic work, to which the next four areas can be keyed; instructional materials, especially textbooks; assessment and testing methodologies; monitoring instruction by administrators or (in some countries) state inspectors; and teacher training and certification.(26) They suggest that there is little coordination within or across these areas in the United States. For instance, American school districts typically choose from a wide variety of commercially available achievement tests with little guidance from the state on how to proceed. The same is true with textbooks; in fact, each is designed to be used independently of the other. The overlap between tests and the content presented in a district's textbooks may be no higher than 50 percent in some subject areas.(27) Similarly, there is little relationship between teacher preparation programs and state curricular goals.
This analysis suggests that the limit to policy impact on local practice stems in part from inadequate authority but also from the horizontally fragmented application of whatever authority exists. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that districts and even individual teachers have a great deal of leeway in determining what is taught. Moreover, teachers often lack the tools and the training to help all students develop more complex cognitive capacities.
There have been efforts to make the horizontal dimension of educational policy more coherent in the last few years. One manifestation of this effort is the National Science Foundation Systemic Reform initiative, which, true to the American political tradition, is far from a central part of the federal educational reform agenda. Efforts to increase central policy coherence and, in the process, to have more systematic effects on local practice have been going on for a little longer in some states. To examine the extent to which state policies have become more coherent and their implications for school districts, the next level down, we now turn to the study results.
STATE EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITY SINCE 1983
State activity in the 1980s was concentrated in three areas: student standards, teaching, and governance. In each of these areas, a great deal of activity took place, but there was also considerable ambiguity about what should be accomplished. Standards and teaching reforms could have been used to develop higher-order thinking. Their impact in this direction was initially limited by both a tendency to focus more on basic skills and failure to coordinate reforms in different areas. As the decade progressed, however, a few states began linking standards policies to focus on more complex cognitive capacities. Links between these reforms and those affecting teaching have not yet been made in any significant way. Governance reforms could affect policy coherence, but efforts to do so were limited by confusing efforts to simultaneously increase centralization and decentralization.
STUDENT STANDARDSOne of the primary ways states tried to raise student standards was through new testing and graduation requirements.
Over forty new state testing provisions went into effect in the 198Os, a continuation of a trend that was well under way in the late 1970s.(28) By the late 1980s the typical state had a comprehensive assessment program that tested students in most subjects at several grade levels, as well as basic competency or proficiency tests in reading, mathematics, or language arts. At one point twenty-one states had high school graduation tests, and eight used test results to determine grade-to-grade promotions.
The states we studied began the reform period by increasing their testing. Pennsylvania passed its first ever state-mandated program, the Test for Essential Learning and Literacy Skills (TELLS), to assure that remediation money would be targeted to appropriate students. In 1985, Georgia's Quality Basic Education Act expanded existing testing programs to include norm-referenced testing in four grades and criterion-referenced tests in five different grades, graduation.with passing the tenth-grade test being a requirement for graduation.
By the end of the decade, the massive increase in state testing was beginning to be criticized for several reasons. Since most tests were of minimum competencies, some feared that they would direct instructional attention away from complex problem solving as well as substantive areas not tested.(29) here was also a concern that more stringent tests and other standards would push minority and at-risk students out of school. Although studies to date both support this concern and contradict it, (30) our district informants seemed to agree with it. Finally, in some states people just objected to the quantity of testing.
Toward the end of the decade, several states responded to the criticisms. Some reduced their minimum competency testing. Pennsylvania quit using its test as a way to distribute funds to school districts, and the chief state school officer was committed to discontinuing it altogether. Florida, one of the pioneers in using minimum-competency tests as a criterion for high school graduation, dropped that requirement, scaled back testing at other grades, and delayed the expansion of testing.
Other states revised their testing programs to assess higher-order thinking. Since 1983, the California Achievement Program (CAP) has provided achievement data on school and district achievement in grades 3, 6, and 12. Samples of students were tested, but individual results were not reported. In 1983, grade 8 was added. Over time, the state added a wider range of con-tent and tried to employ items more geared to higher-order thinking. Throughout the 198Os, Arizona tested students extensively using norm-referenced tests. These were used as gate and graduation tests. In 1990-1991, the state initiated a new criterion-referenced test in selected grades. The test moved away from multiple-choice items to more open-ended for-mats that require more complex cognitive processes. These tests are of all state-required subjects. All these changes were part of a national movement to revise and upgrade testing programs to reflect new technologies and an interest in higher-order thinking.(31)
The most dramatic change in the 1980s was in toughening high school graduation requirements. In line with A Nation at Risk, forty-five states modified their high school graduation requirements after 1980. Three-quarters required between eighteen and twenty-two courses with two-thirds in academic subjects. Most of the increases were in mathematics and science. These reforms followed research showing that students learn more when exposed to more content and that higher expectations translate into better performance. Over the decade, however, some limitations to this approach appeared. First, simply mandating numbers of courses does not necessarily affect the content covered. A new mathematics course could either repeat material covered earlier or move on to more complex material. With some exceptions, such as Louisiana, which requires that students take algebra to graduate, most graduation requirements avoid specifying content. Second, what seem to be large increases in requirements may lead to small changes in what students actually take. One study found that only a quarter of high school students take an added math class and a third take another science class because of increases in graduation requirements. These tend to be middle-track students; higher achievers are usually guided more by college entrance requirements than by state mandates.(32)
Finally, these requirements created difficulties for at-risk students. There remains no hard evidence on the effects of tougher requirements on dropout rates, but districts reported that these students sometimes could not both fit in remedial courses (especially if they could not count toward the new requirements) and take some of the more experiential or vocational courses that might have helped keep them in school. There were also stories of students’ being counseled into easier courses to ensure that they graduate, thus actually undermining efforts to introduce them to more complex content.(33) Some states, like Florida, became aware of this problem and allowed more remedial and vocational credits to count toward graduation.
To address some of these problems, especially the content to be taught, educators in a few states beqan trying to think more comprehensively about their student standards. This usually entailed developing curriculum frameworks or guidelines and trying to align course content, textbooks, and tests. The theory was that such an alignment would reduce the fragmentation of state government and send more consistent messages to districts about what was expected.(34)Florida, for instance, devrloped a standardized set of course titles and specified guidelines for each title. It also experimented with developing course-specific tests, but this idea did not go far.
California is best known for its work in this area. The state has subject area task forces that on a regular basis assess what should be taught in each area and develop content frameworks that are shared with districts, approve a set of textbooks compatible with the guidelines, and revise the CAP to ensure that it tests what the guidelines specify. Improvements are also being made in coordinating staff development with frameworks.
Late in the decade, Arizona and Minnesota began developing systems with a similar intent, although these states usually lack the authority to govern textbook selection. While efforts continue to develop more comprehensive content goals and curriculum frameworks, alignment of testing and curriculum is still unusual.
The traditional ambiguity in teacher standards has less to do with curriculum content than with the need to balance concerns for quantity and quality. With a few exceptions, the large teachcr shortages that were expected early in the decade did not materialize. However, there has been a recurring concern that the best and the brightest did not go into or stay in teaching.(35)
These traditional issues have rarely been linked to questions of curricular and student standards. However, if one educational goal is to improve the quality of mathematics and science education, it is important that most elementary teachers have only a rudimentary education in these fields and many junior and senior high school teachers in these areas lack adequate preparation.(36) In addition to general motivation and intellectual capacities, teachers need strong pedagogical skills and relevant content knowledge and an understanding of the standards they are expected to help students achieve. These are matters for both preservice and in-service education that can be influenced by state policy.
There appeared to be a general intention to put quality ahead of quantity during the 198Os, but there was almost no effort to link the general concern about quality with the more specific issue of preparing teachers to help students achieve new standards. These trends are apparent in an examination of compensation, certification, and differential incentive policies.
Increased salaries should promote teacher quality, and progress in this area was dramatic early in the decade, although when allowing for inflation and experience, teachers’ incomes did not reach the levels achieved in the early
1970s.(37) By the end of the decade, however, declining fiscal conditions appeared to slow the rate of increases. In some districts we visited, salaries were holding up at the price of class size. Some districts could not maintain past pupil-teacher ratios because of substantial declines in state support.
The biggest growth area in certification was in teacher testing. Forty-live states now test teachers in some way, usually at college graduation or before receiving certification. However, the tests used rarely assess teachers’ higherorder thinking, their knowledge of the pedagogy needed to build such thinking, or specific content knowledge. The most frequently used teacher tests emphasize basic-skills knowledge of the sort that might be asked of the general public, although the National Teacher Examination (NTE) includes a component of professional knowledge of teaching and can test some specific subject areas.(38) Such tests are generally limited to ruling out fundamentally unprepared candidates rather than ensuring that teachers know how to teach the curriculum for which they are responsible.
Among our six states, California, Florida, and Minnesota added or expanded existing teacher certification and testing standards. Cost considerations and a strong protest led Minnesota to repeal its new subject-matter tests for teachers already in the classroom. Pennsylvania recently introduced a basic teacher certification test, but it was not terribly different from what other states have been doing.
Another development related to certification was’ the establishment of statewide performance assessments for new teachers in a handful of states. By 1988 only seven had such systems.(39) Georgia pioneered this approach although it recently modified its system to shift from selection toward training. The state also limited the requirement to first-time teachers so that newcomers to the state with previous experience would not have to be assessed. The old system was geared largely to direct instruction and general classroom management. While it helped prepared teachers to teach basic skills, its contribution to critical problem solving was less clear.
Tightening certification requirements was accompanied by the growth in alternate routes that allowed people to become teachers without taking conventional teacher preparation courses and to bypass some certification requirements. While advocates argued that such changes would open teaching to those bright candidates who found teacher training stultifying, others argued that they were disguised forms of emergency certification. They allowed unprepared, unqualified people to bypass tightened regulations and become certified. Yet fewer states twenty-three according to Feistritzer (40) introduced alternate routes than increased testing, and those alternative programs generally certified relatively few teachers.
Right after 1983 there was considerable interest in merit pay programs that gave teachers bonuses or permanent salary increases for superior performance. These programs were an effort to improve teaching quality by creating incentives for accountability.(41) Like teacher certification programs, these policies were usually only loosely linked to student standards and efforts to specify curriculum. They were often based on an image of effective classroom pedagogy, but this image was grounded in the research on direct instruction and its contribution to complex problem solving is questionable. North Carolina’s teacher evaluation and reward system exemplifies this approach.
The earliest incentive programs were politically explosive, creating a teacher backlash that contributed to the termination of Florida’s program and the modification of Tennessee’s. Moreover, considerable research evidence suggested that such programs did relatively little to improve teaching quality or teacher motivation.(42)
By 1986, with the publication of A Nation Prepared,(43)the rhetoric shifted to professionalizing teaching. A variety of strategies were discussed, including career ladders or sequences of jobs with increased responsibility and remuneration, improved preparation, and greater opportunities for teacher collegiality and influence over work. Such programs changed the mix of incentives by including working conditions and other nonfinancial factors.
They also changed the emphasis from making teachers accountable to some higher authority to giving them more prestige and autonomy, factors thought to facilitate the recruitment and retention of more able candidates.
The rhetoric of professionalism was not especially attractive to state governments, however. Although career ladders in Utah and Arizona, among other states, included some professional elements, there was still a strong effort to emphasize accountability and control. Arizona required that teacher evaluation for salary increases include a student assessment component, and
Utah’s complex career ladder included a merit pay piece. Thus, the states that experimented in this area’exhibited a new form of ambiguity as to whether policies should emphasize improvement through bureaucratic control or professionalism.(44)
The tension between bureaucratizing and professionalizing teacher-incentive programs is partof the first-wave versus second-wave debate about whether control over education should be centralized or decentralized. Contradictory trends toward both centralization and decentralization impeded any efforts to make policies more coherent.
The dominant trend in the 1980s was toward centralization. It is apparent in some of the areas already discussed: teacher testing, high school graduation requirements, and student testing, although the backing away from minimum-competency testing near the end of the decade suggests that some limit may have been reached.
There was also a countertrend toward decentralization through such ideas as restructuring, professionalization, and site-based management. However, the most frequently cited programs were usually generated by school districts. These included site-based management in such districts as Miami and Santa Fe and programs to give teachers a more professional role or greater control over certain decisions in Rochester, New York, and Cerritos, California. Teachers’ unionsoften played a major role in such changes.
Nevertheless, some state-level developments did work against the persistent trend toward centralization. Some policies-such as the school-parent councils required by Georgia’s reform legislation and the school-level governing boards mandated by state law in Chicago-gave parents more input into district decisions, Others-particularly in Minnesota, but also in Iowa and Arkansas-promoted parental choice. Still other policies gave teachers more input. Pennsylvania’s Act 178 required teacher input into the design of local staff-development programs. Utah’s and Arizona’s career ladders required teacher input into the local design of programs. Another development was the reduction of some state departments of education. Utah, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Mexico, and Virginia are considering reducing their departments, often to give them less of a regulatory mission and to delegate authority to the local level.(45) In Pennsylvania, where personnel were reduced in the early 198Os, however, what was sacrificed was technical assistance rather, than compliance monitoring.
It is difficult to find any overarching pattern in these simultaneous movements toward centralization’and decentralization, but a tendency toward moderation is apparent in’thesix states we followed most closely. Those that were initially most directive-notably Florida and Georgia-progressively reduced regulations fromsa peak’in the mid-1980s shortly after their omnibus reform bills passed,) while states like Minnesota and Arizona that traditionally supported local control and’used incentives to persuade locals to take action became more active in testing and curriculum development. Nevertheless, simple changes in regulation have not in themselves increased the relationships among policies.
DISTRICT REPONSE TO STATE REFORMS
Our repeated visits to twenty-one districts in six states highlight the weak vertical linkage between state policy and district (and sometimes classroom) practice in three ways. First, in this vertically fragmemed system, the state was still only one part of izach distritt’s complex environment. Local conditions often took priority over responding to state reforms. Second, when examining at the district level the same policy areas tracked in state capitols, one finds a complex mix of local initiative and reaction to state policy. Finally, there is some notable and sometimes disturbing, variation among districts in how districts respond to state policies. Big-city districts with large concentrations of at-risk students are especially poorly served by existing state policies.
Districts had to cope with a lot mdre than state policy. Relevant contextual factors included changing demographics, political-legal factors, and locally initiated reforms. One significant issue that increased attention to equity concerns was an influx of minorities, immigrants, native students with limited English proficiency, and students experiencing substance abuse, sexual abuse, and teen pregnancy and parenting. Even affluent, suburban districts had to deal with increasing numbers of at-risk youth. Programs to meet the needs of such students addressed their health and nutrition problems, the transition to high school, and issues of morale, attendance, and home-school communication. Most were locally originated or connected to national foundation and private-sector initiatives or federal youth employment programs rather than state at-risk initiatives.
Beyond these changes, districts faced both growth and decline. Ten of the twenty-one districts - mostly in the South and Southwest - grappled with the problems of overcrowding, finance, construction, and staff reassignments that stemmed from rapid growth. Another ten districts faced overall declines in student populations. In these districts, staff reductions were less of a problem than the loss of program options and the need to revitalize an aging staff.
Three political-legal factors were apparent. First, in spite of major changes in federal policy, six of the twenty-one districts continued efforts to foster desegregation, including the development and expansion of magnet schools. Second, contract negotiations, sometimes accompanied by strikes, were major issues in a majority of the districts visited over the last few years. Finally, two-thirds of these districts experienced superintendent turnover in the last two years. In fact, rapid superintendent turnover, especially in cities, has become a national problem.(46)
The most notable local reforms involved restructuring that decentralized authority within the district. Thirteen of twenty-one districts initiated some form of school-based management or related change. Since such changes can focus on principals alone, it is notable that eleven districts included teachers at some level of governance, including personnel hiring, testing, and curriculum. This pattern suggests that such decentralization may be relatively widespread although the magnitude of changes made is rarely as great as in the lighthouse districts that get the most publicity for such changes.
The other notable development was that several districts, particularly urban and suburban ones, developed relationships with business and industry. These occurred at both district and school level and ranged from the symbolic to more meaningful political, financial, management, and substantive assistance.
DISTRICTS, STANDARDS, AND TEACHER POLICY
While districts responded to a variety of environmental pressures, they were changing policies and practices in the same areas where states were active. Sometimes these efforts were a direct response to state policies, but other influences were also felt, most notably efforts at national leadership such as the spread of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. District activities are most notable in the areas of curriculum, testing, and the improvement of teacher quality.
Eight of the twenty-one districts were active curriculum developers. They often had several activities under way simultaneously and tried to incorporate cutting-edge ideas into their curricula. Another seven districts had a maderate level of activity, while the remainder were fairly inactive.
The themes were apparent in these efforts. The first is a strong concern for at-risk youth. This concern was generated by local demographics more than by state pohcy. In the four big cities in our sample, this topic was the national issue above all others. Some took unusual and creative steps. One raised its high school graduation requirements above the level set by the state, but -Influenced by the research on dropouts-allowed students to progress through the grades with their peers even if they did not pass courses. It also had an elaborate system of night and summer schools to help students keep up. Another had an effective-schools program where the extent and nature of district intervention reflected the percent of students not passing district-administered tests.
Another six districts were sensitive to this issue but not overwhelmed by it. These included some of the more sophisticated suburban districts that were just beginning to experience notable in-migrations of children for whom English was the second language, who came from poor or broken homes, or who suffered from substance abuse. In their typically proactive way, these districts developed special approaches like alternative schools and latchkey programs to address the needs of this growing population.
The second theme was an interest in higher-order thinking. It showed up in seven districts with different demographic profiles. In one suburban district, this interest was expressed through a conventional concern with providing solid preparation for college to a largely middle-class clientele. More typically, however, there was an effort to incorporate newer thinking in the field into the curriculum. This interest showed up at least modestly in urban and blue-collar districts as well as in the more affluent ones.
Unlike the interest in at-risk youth, interest in higher-order thinking was influenced by state policy, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Most California districts-both urban and suburban - found the state’s curriculum standards that stressed problem solving useful and challenging, Georgia’s Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) focused more on basic skills, Rural districts with limited experience in curriculum development and large numbers of low-achieving students found this curriculum helpful. However, suburban ones with more sophistication and a more aflluent population found that they had to give up intellectually challenging courses to comply with QCC. While state policy successfully influenced district orientation toward the cognitive level taught, there are indications that curricular changes still did not connect with classroom practice. Cohen and Ball’s early research on the impact of curricular changes at the elementary level found that even when they tried to use California’s more intellectually challenging frameworks, teachers often misunderstood the intent and vision of instructional practice embedded in them so that what resulted was "a remarkable melange of old and the new."(47) This was because staff training has been one of the weakest links in California’s overall vision of curricular reform.(48)
Testing is now one of the universals of American education. Twenty of the twenty-one districts administered nationally norm-referenced tests. In addition, seven districts, including the one that did not administer norm-referenced tests, used criterion-referenced tests. Most testing decisions were made locally. However, seven districts in two states had to use state-mandated tests. Moreover, one district using a criterion-referenced test could do so only because it used a state pilot program to develop its assessment program.
Tests have an impact that curricula sometimes lack. Teachers interviewed said they responded more to testing policies than to changed curricula.(49) Tests can undermine curricula when the two are not aligned. This happened where Chapter 1 testing was at odds with state curricular goals. Part of the power of the tests comes from making results public. These results can have serious consequences for schools and districts by changing the public’s confidence in those institutions. One district had problems getting the public to vote for property tax leeways needed to increase school (funding largely because test cores were consistently low. Lack of public confidence was the reason why that urban district dropped norm-referenced tests and moved to criterion-referenced testing. Administrators often oppose this use of tests. In addition to the effects of publicity, tests have an impact when incentive programs and state-takeover provisions are tied to them.
High-stakes tests also affect students’ careers.(50) Arizona, Florida, and Georgia all had high school graduation tests (although Florida’s was recently rescinded). Two of these states also had gate tests that had to be passed for students to be promoted. Such tests created pressure on students but also on schools to ensure that students made what was considered normal progress.
One issue raised by increases in testing is the extent to which it works against higher-order thinking by promoting drill and practice in the classroom, rote memorization, and a narrowing of the curriculum. Some evidence of such patterns was found in four districts. These had large minority populations and consistently low achievement scores. In one district, mathematics teachers would devote a certain amount of time each day to the skills covered on the high school graduation test before working on the regular curriculum and would assign special drills. One teacher said, "As freshmen and sophomores, we try to teach them the skills. As seniors, we try to get them out. In a district where teachers did not share the central office’s concern about test scores, administrators tried to convince teachers and students to take the tests more seriously. Lest one conclude that such teaching occurs only among low-achieving students, a fifth district used similar strategies to help college-bound students prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Although teaching to the test was a short-term way to align curriculum and testing, more appropriate efforts to coordinate tests and instruction also took place. The best publicized example is California's attempt to articulate curriculum frameworks, tests, and textbooks. In addition, Arizona was developing a criterion-referenced testing program. Even before it was in place, districts in that state began to adjust their curricula to respond to it. One is-sue that it is too early to assess is how alternative forms of assessment will affect the linkage between testing and teaching practice.
Improvement of Teacher Quality
As at the state level, there was generally some relationship, whether positive or negative, between district testing and curriculum. There was, however, relatively little local effort to use actions to improve teacher quality to address goals related to curriculum and testing. Again this finding mirrors state-level conclusions and appears to be an opportunity lost.
The lack of relationship between teaching policy and curriculum and testing was most apparent in hiring. The districts with growing enrollments saw the recruitment problem as a matter of numbers. Those with the greatest need had full-time recruiters to visit colleges and attend teacher-hiring fairs. They emphasized filling slots defined in grade or subject-matter terms. The need to hire minority teachers might also be considered, but issues relating to specific curricula or testing programs were too detailed to receive consideration.
State policy affected hiring in two ways. First, fiscal policy limited the number of teachers that could be hired to cope with growth. Second, certification requirements determined who could be hired. Newer, more stringent requirements like Florida’s detailed subject-matter certification and Georgia’s requirement that teachers demonstrate classroom management competence through in-class observation created difficulties in recruiting experienced educators from out of state.
Districts could also use staff development to promote curricular and testing aims, but other issues sometimes took precedence. The first was assistance to beginning teachers. Pennsylvania and California had programs to support or mentor beginners. The second was the need for general, continuing in-service training for all staff. This need was reinforced by state requirements in Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania for continuing professional development to maintain certification and the failure to link such requirements to state curricular goals.
The linkage between curriculum and staff development was often impeded by the tendency of some larger districts to use a marketing approach to plan in-service programs. Planning typically began with a needs assessment, and a great deal of training was provided on demand. However, what teachers requested did not always coincide with the skills needed to raise student standards. Typically, this demand-based training was supplemented by more focused centrally initiated programs, but the balance between the two was not clear. Given the problems noted with district in-service training in the past-including short duration and lack of follow-up coaching- this dispersion of limited resources across many wants made it difficult to focus training on major priorities.
VARIATION IN LOCAL RESPONSE TO STATE REFORM
While some state policies seemed to influence districts more than others, some districts were also more responsive to states than others. When one begins to look at differential district responses, what stands out is how poorly the big-city districts were served by state policy.
This conclusion stems from our analysis of differential use of state reform. Following past research indicating that districts vary in their response to policy from nonimplementation through mutual adaptation (where the policy is watered down to lit the local context but the district changes too) to active use,(51) we classified our twenty-one districts on two dimensions. The first separated those that responded passively and without enthusiasm to state policies (52) from those that were selective, active users of policy. This latter group did not embrace all state policies, but would make extensive use of some of them. The second sorted districts varied by the activity of their own reform agendas. This classification suggests four groups.
Local Reform/Passive Response
Seven districts had their own reforms and responded passively to state initiatives. Most of these were big cities with large concentrations of minority students; all such cities fell into this cluster. They were so absorbed with their own problems-growth and decline, fiscal shortfalls, labor relations, and especially large numbers of at-risk youth-that the state reforms rarely had much impact. There is an irony here. The poor performance of urban districts was a major impetus for the reform movement, yet informants from those districts believed that state standards reforms often exacerbated their problems rather than helping. Their overwhelming concerns were often keeping dropouts in school and building self-esteem. Thus, they objected to the states’ use of gate tests for promotion and policies that restricted extracurricular activities, believing such policies push students away.
The cities initiated different reforms reflecting their special needs. These included infusing Afro-American history into the curriculum, starting major health initiatives, extending their bilingual efforts, and experimenting with school restructuring. In a different direction, one district provided a mix of assistance and control to schools depending on their test scores. Schools were classified by their average achievement scores into those required to undergo extensive district intervention based on effective-schools research, those receiving less intense assistance from a regional office, and those doing well that received little assistance but were also freed from some of the regulations applied to other schools.
Urban districts did respond minimally to state policies and some derived benefits. One California district, for instance, found the application of that state’s concept- rather than skill-based curriculum frameworks useful and stimulating. On balance, however, big-city districts were actively trying to keep their students in school and improve what they learned, but they did not find state policies helpful for that effort.
Local Reform/Selective, Active Response
The districts that combined local reform with selective use of state policies were frequently suburban and predominantly middle class. The one city in this group was smaller and had fewer at-risk students than those in the previous cluster. These districts were typically innovative and entrepreneurial with strong leadership, a high capacity for change, and a reputation as "lighthouse" districts in their states. They often helped create or pilot state-level reforms.
These districts typically used those state policies that fit their own plans and fought the reforms that did not. One California district, for instance, used the state’s curriculum frameworks but refused to comply with its bilingual requirements. The use of some state policies was more typical than the opposition to others. For instance, another California district saw a high congruence between the state’s curriculum reforms and its own goals. A district in Arizona used the state’s career ladder to support its own interests in curriculum development, staff development, and peer coaching. These districts benefited from state policy, but past experience suggests that their instructional programs were relatively strong anyway.
No Local Reform/Selective, Active Response
The three districts in this group were small city or rural systems that lacked the capacity to develop independent initiatives. However, their leaders were enthusiastic about the potential of state reforms for local improvement. For instance, one small city used Minnesota’s Outcomes-Based Education and Achievement of Mastery program to implement its own criterion-referenced testing program, which it linked to mastery learning. An isolated rural district converted Georgia’s beginning teacher certification requirement into a recruiting benefit by offering personalized assistance to new teachers so they could pass the test. This assistance helped the district recruit good young teachers for a few years who would not otherwise be available. In some ways, the districts in this group benefited most from state policy. While the changes that resulted were sometimes small in absolute terms, they were especially important for those districts.
No Local Reform/Passive Response
The districts that neither had their own agenda nor used state policies for improvement were typically small cities or towns, but at least one was a county district with a major city but no large concentration of minority students, Sometimes the extent of implementation was so limited that the district experienced no benefit. In other cases, the state initiatives filled a leadership void locally even if the quality of implementation was low when compared with other districts in the state. One small city in Pennsylvania exemplifies both tendencies. Increased high school graduation requirements led to little more than administrative shuffling as existing courses were renamed to meet state mandates. On the other hand, the new testing requirement produced some remedial classes that were at least somewhat useful to students and would not have happened otherwise.
The rate of state educational reform in the early 1990s has slowed from the mid-1980s, but there is still a good deal of activity. Moreover, some experts predict that there will be an upswing of educational expenditures and reform activity when the current recession ends.(53) What then do recent reforms suggest as steps for the future?
To some extent, progress will continue to be slow because pedagogical approaches that break down the distinction between basic skills and higher-order thinking and that are consistently effective with low achievers are just being developed(54) and analysts are just beginning to work out the policy implications of these approaches.(55) As a result, there is a tendency to look at efforts to address the equity issue and the content-of-instruction question separately.
States are not making rapid headway on the equity issue. It is discouraging that so many state policies that were adequately, sometimes imaginatively, implemented elsewhere were often ignored in the big cities. In fact, our urban informants often saw these policies as part of the problem rather than the solution. They and their suburban colleagues both developed their own at-risk youth programs with relatively little state input. Currently, one aspect of the equity issue is being addressed through school-finance court cases in states like New Jersey and Texas, but there are no clear pedagogical implications of these efforts to redistribute wealth. At some point, fiscal and pedagogical policy will have to come together if the poor, immigrants, and linguistic and ethnic minorities are to enter the mainstream of society.
More positively, a few states have recently begun seeking ways to teach more complex approaches to problem solving, and we are beginning to learn what works and what does not. On the one hand, simple intensification strategies-increasing high school graduation requirements, increasing student testing, increasing teacher testing and course work requirements-alone are not likely to do the job. As useful as such approaches may be for improving basic skills, the kinds of tests that have been used and ambiguity about what constitutes one year’s work in mathematics allow local educators to avoid addressing the issue. Similarly, coercive strategies like no-pass/no-play rules and withholding driver’s licenses may do more to raise the dropout rate or discourage students from accepting academic challenges than to motivate higher performance.
In contrast, systems of policies that increase horizontal coherence among curriculum, testing, and other areas and include pedagogy for problem solving rather than the regurgitation of facts have real promise. Most progress has been made in linking tests, curriculum, and (in some cases) materials. A great deal of attention has been given to California’s CAP assessment program and its state curriculum frameworks. It is particularly encouraging that district administrators actually find these frameworks useful. Among these six states, initial observation suggests that Arizona and Minnesota also have programs with potential. Still, a great deal of progress can be made in integrating these policies; the states that have advanced the most still do not match the coherence in countries with more government integration and a longer tradition of coordinating tests and curriculum.(56) Building coherence will require important technical developments. As critiques of current assessment policies mount and discussion of national standards heats up, the most needed and difficult area will be developing valid, reliable, and socially accepted tests for higher-order thinking.
The current obsession with testing distracts attention from important elements of a complete system of educational policies. One of the most important problems right now is that even the most sophisticated efforts to implement more cognitively complex curricula are foundering on teachers’ misunderstandings of both policy and the fundamental pedagogical principles.(57) Taking this issue seriously will require districts to rethink their personnel functions, including major revisions in recruitment, supervision, and the management of staff development. At the same time, state policies governing teacher training and certification must be brought into line with the curricular goals expressed through tests and curricular frameworks. If teachers do not accept the new view of instruction behind these policies and understand how to teach to achieve that view, the intent behind such changes will be seriously distorted whether intentionally or not.
Efforts to build coherence run into a number of obstacles. One is the fragmentation at the state level, where legislatures, boards, departments of education, universities, professional associations, and others all advocate different reforms. Under these circumstances, the best that can be hoped for is complementary reforms and the worst is conflict. Usually, the result is ambiguity, as happened in California where district officials were unsure of whether the state’s new science frameworks would be counted by the universities as college-track courses.
Omnibus reform packages are not a solution to this problem. California, Florida, and Georgia passed such bills. They were large legislative packages that set the agenda in their states for years to come. They were also political compromises that reflected the range of interests in the legislature and the state. The parts to such bills rarely fit together. From the districts’ perspective, the result is an overload of programs and requirements that add work and create confusion.
There is also the problem of ancillary policies. At the same time that states initiate major curricular, testing, and personnel reforms, they provide incentives for drug education and middle schools as well as ad hoc fixes like no pass/no-play rules. While rarely central, these policies often conflict with more fundamental changes.
Attempts to promote horizontal integration run into constant debates about vertical linkages in the American educational system. Efforts to decentralize governance through teacher professionalism, site-based management, and deregulation go hand-in-hand with centralizing reforms like merit pay, increased high school graduation requirements, greater state intrusion into curriculum, increased testing for students and teachers, and persistent demands for greater accountability. There is no consensus because the situation is so confused. As Blau and Scott pointed out long ago and McDonnell did more recently, the problem is complex because public schools have obligations to their clients and the public that may conflict.(58) Moreover, neither professionals, politicians, nor the public know how to reconcile these obligations.
One potential solution to this dilemma is proposed in the National Governors’ Association’s "horse trade," where politicians agree to deregulate the process of schooling if educators accept greater accountability for educational outcomes.(59) In some states, this outcomes-driven model appears to be work
ing. Minnesota’s Outcome-Based Education may prove to be an instructive example exactly because the state established criteria for student success while giving districts much more control over time allocation and course offerings. Pennsylvania is considering an even more extreme approach at this writing. It would link high school graduation to the demonstration of specific learner outcomes (giving districts leeway in determining how those outcomes would be demonstrated) and eliminate all course-based requirements.(60) Such outcome-based proposals can run into a number of obstacles. For instance, district efforts to reward more effective schools by reduced monitoring and oversight have foundered on the need to comply with state regulations. Moreover, the extent to which educational outcomes reflect out-of-school factors that educators cannot control will create serious difficulties for this approach.
Resolution to this challenge will require research to clarify the consequences of different distributions of control over the various aspects of education. However, it will also require a good deal of political work to clarify what the public wants of its schools and how it wants them to operate.
While coherent reform packages will have the greatest effect on school districts, they require a level of consensus about means and ends that is atypical of American policy making. This lack of agreement reflects strong value differences about what should be accomplished, limited knowledge about how to accomplish it, and constraints in the policy process that work against the exploration of issues and experimentation with alternative approaches. As with the governance challenge, significant improvement will require documentation and analysis of efforts to make more coherent policy. But it will also require political will to build agreement about what should be done and how that is extremely unusual in this country.
We want to acknowledge our co-workers on the study from which this paper results: Sum Fuhrman, Michael Kirst, and Beverly Hetrick. The study was conducted under a prant furnished by the Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improuement, Grant #OERI-GO0869001 l-89. The views expressed here ore not necessarily shared by the U.S. Department of Education, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or its institutional partners.
Clune, and R. F. Elmore, "Research on Education Reform: Lessons on the Implementation of Policy," Teachers College Record 90 (Winter 1988): 237-58.
McCutchan, 1990), pp. 143-66.
Educational Initiatives (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Policy Research in Education, 1989); and W. A. Firestone, B. D. Bader, and D. Massell, Educational Reform from 1983 to 1990: The Action and Dirt & Rcrponre (New Brunswick, N.J.: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1991).
8 A. L. Brown and J. D. Compione, "Communities of Learning and Thinking, or a Context by Any Other Name," in Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Thinking Skills, ed. D. Kuhn (Basel, Switzerland: Karger, 1990), pp. 108-28.
11 I. V. S. Mullis, E. H. Owen, and G. W. Phillips, America's Challenge: Accelerating Academic Achievement: A Summary of Findings from 20 Years of NAEP (Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1990).
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20 D. K. Cohen and J. P. Spillane, "Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction," in Review of Educational Research 18, ed. G. Grant (Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association, forthcoming).
23 and Fuhrman, Clune, and Elmore, "Research on Education Reform," pp. 237-58. 23 D. N. Plank and R. Ginsberg, "Catch the Wave: Reform Commissions and School Reform," in The Educational Reform Movement of the 1980's, ed. J. Murphy (Berkeley: McCutchan, 1990), pp. 215-42.
24 A. H. Passow, "Present and Future Directions in School Reform," in Schooling for Tomorrow: Directing Reforms to Issues That Count, ed. J. Sergiovanni and J. H. Moore (Needham Heights, Mass.: Ally" & Bacon, 1989), pp. 13-39.
25 C. W. Fisher et al., "Teaching Behaviors, Academic Learning Time and Student Achievement: An Overview," in Time to Learn, ed. C. Denham and A. Lieberman (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education), pp. 7-32.
28 State Education Assessment Center, Council of Chief State School Officers (SEAC), "The State Education Accountability Movement: Impact on the Schools?" (Paper prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, OERI Study Group of State Accountability, Washington, D.C., 1988).
30 J. S. Catterall, "Standards and School Dropouts: A National Study of Tests Required for High School Graduation," American Journal of Education 98 (1989): l-34; and A. L. Ginsburg, J. Noell, and V. W. Plisko, "Lessons from the Wall Chart," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 10 (1988): 237-58.
32 W. H. Clune with P. White and J. Patterson, The Implementation and Effects of School Graduation Requirements: First Steps Towards Curriculum Reform (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Policy Research in Education, 1989).
41 R. M. Brandt, Incentive Pay and Career Ladders for Today's Teachers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).
42 S. M. Johnson, "Merit Pay for Teachers: A Poor Prescription for Reform," Harvard Education Review 54 (1984): 175-85; and S. J. Rosenholtz, "Education Reform Strategies: Will They Increase Teacher Commitment?" American Journal of Education 95 (1987): 534-62.
49 M. J, Shujaa, "Policy Failure in Urban Schools: How Teachers Respond to Increased Accountability for Students," in Going to School: The African American Experience, ed. K. Lomotey (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 85-102.
51 P. W. Berman and M. W. McLaughlin, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, vol. II: Factors Affecting Implementation and Continuation (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corp., 1977); and Fuhrman, Clune, and Elmore, "Research on Education Reform."
55 For example, R. F. Elmore, "Teaching, Learning and School Organization: School Restructuring and the Recurring Dilemmas of Policy and Practice" (Invited address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1991).