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Contrary to Deborah Meier’s view, I believe that standards-based educational reforms have significant promise for improving the quality of American public education. Moreover, I believe that they are critical to reducing educational inequalities that have left many American families with insufficient earnings to support their children.
I want to make clear that I have enormous respect for Meier as an educator. Central Park East, which she started, is a remarkable school. I also agree with many of Meier’s criticisms of current versions of standards-based reforms. Yet I see America’s children better served by making standards-based reforms work than by scrapping the concept.
The real earnings of thirty-year-old American male high school graduates are 20 percent lower today than the earnings of the comparable group twenty years ago. This is in part because changes in the economy have made skills more important determinants of earnings today than they were in the past. While the skills of today’s high school graduates are not lower, on average, than those of high school graduates twenty years ago, they are not high enough to meet the needs of high-wage employers today. Since a high school diploma does not guarantee that a graduate has mastered any particular set of skills, employers offering good jobs typically bypass high school graduates in favor of college graduates. One consequence is that students not planning on college have little incentive to do the hard work required to master certain skills.
Black males have suffered particularly much as a result of changes in the economy. In 1990, thirty-year-old black males earned, on average, less than 80 percent of what white males of the same age earned. More than two-thirds of this gap can be explained by the difference in the measured cognitive skills of the two groups. This is a legacy of the low quality schools so many black American children attend, schools where the standards for what children are expected to learn are much lower than standards that typically prevail in suburban schools.
Weak skills leave many graduates of American schools, especially students from low-income families and minority groups, with an enormous handicap when competing for jobs in an economy that increasingly values skills. I view this as a significant threat to the stability of our democracy.
Standards-based educational reforms are quite new in America. They were preceded by twenty years of state legislatures trying to alter the financing of local public education without much interference with local control. In most states, the finance reforms led to a large increase in state government funding of public education, especially to communities with relatively small tax bases and relatively high property tax rates. If these communities had kept local funding for education constant, the net effect would have been significant equalization of per pupil spending. But this did not occur. Instead, local communities substituted state funding for local school funding, then cut property taxes. The net result was much greater equalization of property tax rates than of education funding.
At least part of the explanation for this pattern is demographic: the percentage of families in the United States with children under the age of eighteen has fallen in the last forty years. As a result, the constituency for high quality education has become smaller relative to the constituency for tax relief. School finance reform did result in spending increases in some communities. But additional expenditures did not lead consistently to student achievement increases. In some cases, the money was used for patronage. In other cases, it was spent on fragmented programs that had little effect on how teachers taught and what students learned. In the absence of good information about their children’s skills, parents were at a significant disadvantage when arguing with other local groups about how educational resources should be spent.
The disappointing results of traditional school finance reforms led states to design initiatives in standards-based educational reforms, the goal of which was to focus on students’ achievement rather than on simply providing money to local communities for education. I would add one point to Meier’s list of the components of standards-based reforms: a commitment to providing teachers with the skills required to help all students meet the standards. Historically, most professional development funds have paid for one-day workshops that do not affect how teachers teach and students learn. A key element of any reform should be focusing professional development on helping teachers to teach critical skills more effectively.
Evidence of several varieties supports the notion that standards-based reforms can result in improved teaching and greater student learning. In California and in agaramond regular City’s District 2 professional development linked closely with well defined learning goals for children has produced tangible changes in how teachers teach and increased student achievement. In Texas, low scores on state-mandated achievement tests have enabled community organizers to mobilize parents in low-income communities to demand improvements in their children’s schools. And more than one hundred schools serving low-income children have banded together into the Alliance Schools Network, which is focused on improving education. While faculties and parents in these schools attempt to learn from each other, their concern about scores on standardized tests has not led to standardization of schooling. Rather, they are coming to understand that each school must develop its own strategy for helping all children to master critical skills.
I do not mean to imply that all is well with standards-based reform efforts. In many states, including Massachusetts, the standards have become much too detailed and the tests too burdensome. The assessments in many states are not varied enough in format to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate different dimensions of critical skills. In some schools, too much time is spent on developing test-taking skills, instead of other forms of learning.
Another problem lies in determining the appropriate stakes. In some states, students with low scores are compelled to attend summer school, and students whose scores remain low are denied high school diplomas. In others, the jobs of teachers and administrators in schools with low scores are jeopardized. In some states, students in schools with low scores are given vouchers to attend schools of their choice. In still others, the scores are simply explained to local residents, and then residents decide what the appropriate response should be. It is not at all clear how teachers, students, and parents will respond to different combinations of incentives, and how the responses will affect student achievement. It is critical to learn how stakes will affect the achievement of students of color and students from low-income families–groups that historically have fared poorly in American schools.
Meier believes that the problems with current versions of standards-based reforms are so severe that the concept should be scrapped. I reach a different conclusion because I see that the enormous inequality in American education has been largely a legacy of local control. Significant increases in state education funding implemented through grants that left local control unhampered have reduced this inequality only modestly. I also see a number of states–including Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas–learning as they gain experience with standards-based reforms. For example, over the past decade Kentucky has reworked student learning goals and the methods used to assess students’ skills. It has also moderated the consequences associated with low test scores and improved its professional development strategies. The net effect has been significant increases in student achievement.
Individual states, including Massachusetts, still have much to learn about how to make standards-based educational reforms work. It is by no means certain that standards-based reforms will lead to better education in all of them. Yet, given the dire consequences of educational inequalities, the failure of traditional school financing reforms to reduce these inequalities, and the cautious progress of standards-based reforms in some states, I believe that persevering with standards-based reforms makes sense. I propose two complementary tests that standards-based reforms should pass. The first is that the accountability system make it impossible for schools to continue to provide low-quality instruction to children from low-income families and minority groups. The second is that the accountability system not prevent distinguished educators such as Meier from creating and sustaining schools that provide a remarkably good education.
The intellectual demands of the 21st century, as well as the demands of democratic life, are best met by preserving plural definitions of a good education.
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