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National Standards and Local Portraits

by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot - 1989

The author suggests that we need to construct national standards that encourage and inspire school people; that allow for a pluralistic response to the pursuit of goals; and that standards need to be systematically reviewed and renewed in order to avoid typical bureaucratic anachronisms.

I must confess that when I hear the words “national standards” the images that spring to mind are ominous. I picture a remote, blunt set of institutional goals that are not responsive to variety or improvisation. I picture a faceless, impenetrable bureaucracy with which practitioners feel no sense of identification and connection. I picture a rigid set of criteria for mastery and achievement that are defined by a narrow, powerful segment of our population. Of course, these images create a one-dimensional caricature of a much more complex reality, but I think they do help to warn us about the tendencies toward bureaucratic excess in educational policymaking; and they warn us that national agendas may bear little connection to local perspectives and needs.

I do not mean to imply, with this harsh caricature, that we should do away with the idea of national standards, or that we should not hold schools accountable. I do want to suggest that we need to construct national standards that encourage and inspire school people; that allow for a pluralistic response to the pursuit of goals; and that standards need to be systematically reviewed and renewed in order to avoid typical bureaucratic anachronisms. In addition, I want to suggest that the authors of standard-setting need to represent this country’s diverse population, and that the standards need to reflect a broad range of educational commitments and goals.

It seems to me that two sorts of messages need to come from Washington. The first has to do with keeping the educational dialogue high on the agenda of public discourse and developing a style and language that is both understandable to, and supportive of, school people. William Bennett has managed the first part of this effort magnificently. He has grabbed the spotlight and used his office as a bully pulpit for sermonizing about critical educational matters. I differ with Bennett on much of the substance of his discourse and I am frustrated by the tone, which often strikes me as unproductive. I do, however, admire how he elevated the visibility of the office of Secretary of Education and convinced the public that education demands their critical and energetic appraisal. Tone of voice and style of presentation are terribly important. The message needs to be spoken in a way that allows educators—teachers in school—to feel inspired and prodded, not chastised and punished, and the message must convey more than a personal value perspective.

This leads me to the second aspect of standard-setting. In addition to the visibility and voice of the Secretary of Education, we need a body of advisors—perhaps a President’s Commission on Education. This group of people would represent different constituencies—policymakers, researchers, and practitioners who come from a variety of ethnic and racial origins—and its job would be to systematically review educational priorities and standards, and make coherent statements regarding standards of achievement and methods for determining accountability.

Why do I speak about national standards in this relatively circumscribed way? Why do I want to broaden the range of voices and views engaged in standard-setting? Why do I suggest that the tone and style of public discourse might be just as important as the substance? It is because I believe that institutional change and educational improvement are dynamic, complex processes that must be negotiated and sustained at the local level. I am convinced that unless school people feel as if they are the primary shapers of school reform—vital, respected, and knowledgeable participants—they will resist external interventions through inertia, passivity, or sabotage. I am also convinced that remote directives from a national source may bear little connection to school people’s perceived struggles and needs, or to their requests for direction and support.

Certainly school people are not oblivious to the public discourse about education. They do listen with critical and discerning ears. As they hear the national expectations and proclamations, they must fashion their own local interpretations of them. Their receptivity and their interpretations will reflect the history, the ecology, the culture, and the personalities of the school’s inhabitants. School people will need to join their practical knowledge- situational, concrete, pragmatic, improvisational, and active-with the more abstract, universalistic definitions of national experts.

Consider the term educational excellence—a source of inspiration for some and a symbol of exclusion for others. Educational excellence—a clarion call of today’s public rhetoric about school improvement. As our country’s schools incorporate increasingly diverse student populations, the old definitions of excellence are challenged by the competing values, styles, and “frames of intelligence” (in Howard Gardner’s terminology1) of people from different origins. If only a token representation of culturally different students and faculty are admitted into the academy, then the definitions of excellence will remain unchallenged. The different ones will adapt and survive or fail and leave. If more than just a token number of strangers are allowed through the academy’s gates, then definitions of excellence must be re-created to embrace the skills and needs of the newcomers. This does not mean an inevitable capitulation of standards. It does not necessarily mean an assault on cherished views of excellence (though it may at times be experienced that way by the defenders of the academy). It does mean a discerning and critical reinterpretation of standards that incorporates a broader, more complicated view of intelligence and achievement. Once the definitions of excellence are removed from the grasp of a powerful few, there will be tensions as members of the community seek to balance the old and the new.

When I embarked on my recent study of secondary schools, I was troubled by the nostalgia and idealization that seemed to surround the term excellence and I chose not to use it. Instead I searched for a term that might promise to be less distorted by political rhetoric and might be more generous in its view of diversity in educational form, style, and substance—a term that would anticipate imperfection and conflict as key ingredients of organizational improvement in schools. I chose the term goodness and looked for its expression in public and private schools—in rich schools, poor schools, and those in between.

Throughout my inquiry, I was continually struck by how a shift in the researcher’s lens, a shift of language and purview, changes the questions one asks, and the scene one sees and describes. If one is looking for goodness, rather than excellence, in schools, one sees a different reality. Goodness refers to the complex culture of schools—to academic achievement, of course, but also to the craft and aesthetics of pedagogy; to the moral tone of the institution; to the quality of human encounter; and to the nature of organizational authority. Using this more complicated definition of school success allows for the cohabitation of excellence and equality; because equality as a critical dimension of human encounter becomes part of the pursuit of goodness; and because goodness permits excellence to shine in its myriad forms.

This does not mean that competing definitions of good do not struggle for prominence; nor does it mean that we can avoid the possibility that the educational endeavor threatens to be reduced to what John Dewey referred to as “easy beauty”—a comfortable but superficial prettiness; a compromised standard devoid of real substance. There is, of course, always the danger that in trying to be inclusive one becomes undisciplined. I believe, however, that the struggle for a disciplined and inclusive standard of goodness in schools is the only way for a pluralistic society to thrive, and the only way to rid our society of the troubling dissonance between our espoused values and our revealing practices.

The fear, of course, is that if we encourage and support local initiatives, there will be incoherence and chaos across our country. Left alone to do their own thing, schools might become idiosyncratic expressions of local whim. At the extremes, we might expect to see the spirited, successful schools becoming increasingly energized, relishing the autonomy, while mediocre schools would be more likely to decline into a lazy malaise. Even worse, we might expect that the stale mediocrity would be more likely to settle in communities where poverty, unemployment, drugs, and homelessness have already left little reason for energy or hope. I worry about these casualties, but I do not think our fear of decline in some schools should lead to tighter controls and more rigid bureaucracy. School improvement cannot be implemented through top-down directives. Perhaps this is most pointedly true in schools in poverty areas, or in schools where the population is largely minority, or in schools where the conditions of life are—for whatever reason—vastly different from the middle-American prototype. In these areas, most especially, there must be support and resources flowing from the federal government, but the initiative for change and development must be a local effort. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students must collectively build their own school culture, one that reflects local values and goals.

A final thought: Part of the process of definition for all schools might be shaped by requiring that schools—every three to five years—construct their own self-portrait: a descriptive, dimensional account of who they are; a sketch of their institutional character—including their ideology and goals, their curricular structure and content, their pedagogy, their relationships with parents and community, and so on. I picture a dialogue between the national and local levels. On the one hand, the body setting national standards would construct realistic, coherent, universal standards of achievement and accountability, systematically reviewing and reassessing them. On the other hand, the school’s job would be not only to assess how they are measuring up to the national goals but also to draw an institutional self-portrait. In seeking to portray themselves; schools would not only be forced to become self-conscious about who they are, but the process of reflection and self-criticism would itself be an exercise in institutional improvement. A central quality of good schools is active self-scrutiny. Good schools have a strong sense of self-claimed identity. In requiring schools to draw authentic, descriptive portraits of themselves, we would surely be asking more of them, not less of them. We would be probing their practical knowledge and local wisdom. And we would be joining, at the local level, two of the critical levers of self-improvement: responsibility and power.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 14-17
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 403, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:12:13 AM

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