The standards train has left the station. When President Clinton announced national standards and tests in his State of
the Union address in January, he was reinforcing a trend that has already swept through more than 40 states and thousands of districts across the country. Standards-based education reform is rapidly picking up steam as state Departments of Education, professional education associations, business round tables, and reform commissions turn out core curriculums and draft proficiency standards at an increasing pace. While no one is sure where this train is ultimately headed, it’s likely to steam roll through a school district near you any day.
The movement toward state and national education standards poses a variety of concerns for equity advocates, who at times seem uncertain whether they should lay down on the tracks or get on board. Some fear that standards-driven reforms will reinforce top-down bureaucracy, legitimize narrow curriculum agendas, or leave poor kids behind. Others argue that standards may be the only way to put in place the achievement and accountability measures that schools need and many parents want, particularly in communities where school failure has reached desperate proportions. For those concerned with both equity and excellence, sorting out the standards debate involves confronting real dilemmas.
Putting aside for the moment the problematic impact that top-down directives and test-driven curriculums have on classrooms, the glaring weakness in most standards proposals is the conspicuous absence of the resources needed to meet them. This “disconnect,” to use a current buzzword, between new, higher standards and current levels of funding reflects a central contradiction at the heart of the standards debate. A closer look at how these issues have interacted in specific cases may also suggest a few footholds for equity advocates in the battles to come.
In New Jersey, the issues of funding and standards have played out against the backdrop of over two decades of legal and legislative battles for school funding equity. The first statewide proficiency test, the Minimum Basic Skills Test, was actually an outgrowth of the first state Supreme Court decision in the mid-70s mandating greater equity in school spending across the state’s 600 districts. The MBS test was designed to identify students in need of remediation or “compensatory education,” and districts received funds based on the number of students who failed the tests (a formula that, critics argued, amounted to a financial incentive for failure). Statewide MBS testing led to a huge increase in the state education bureaucracy, and the expansion of basic skills empires in many districts. It also led to a generally sorry record of skills-based remediation efforts, particularly in poor, urban areas.
Eventually the MBS test, which was not very demanding academically, was phased in as a graduation requirement. But it was replaced almost immediately by another set of initials, the High School Proficiency Test (HSPT), first at the 9th-grade, and then the 11th-grade levels. These tests “raised the bar” for high school graduation, and were accompanied by state efforts to develop proficiency standards in reading, math, and writing.
But while the tests for high school students grew harder, the state still wasn’t coming up with the answers the court had asked for on funding equity. Although overall school funding increased, large differences in per-pupil spending and district resources remained. As part of the court’s continuing attempt to define what the state constitution meant when it guaranteed all citizens a “thorough and efficient” education, the court repeatedly asked the Department of Education and the governor to supply some standard that could be used as a gauge. When the state failed to do so to the court’s satisfaction, the court found it’s own. It took as the constitutional standard the educational programs — and the level of funding — that prevailed in the state’s most successful and richest districts.
This yardstick, which formed the basis for the court’s Abbot v. Burke ruling, was supplemented by a further court finding that, given their extra need and poverty, the “special needs” districts were constitutionally entitled to additional aid to address their special problems and to raise educational programs and student achievement to the required levels. “They need more, and the law entitles them to more,” said the court. According to New Jersey’s Education Law Center, Abbott v. Burke was “the first decision in the 20-year history of school finance reform to establish an equality standard for the allocation of education resources to poor urban children.”
The fiscal implications of the court’s ruling were not lost on Republican Gov. Christine Whitman, who rode to office on a promise to cut state income taxes by 30% (a promise she kept in the first two years of her administration with tax cuts that gave over 50% of the reductions to the richest 17% of the state’s population). Obeying the court ruling was going to be very expensive. While heavy reliance on local property taxes in 600 separate districts made New Jersey’s school funding system highly inequitable, overall the state ranked No. 1 nationally in per-pupil spending. Equalizing funding at these relatively high levels would cost hundreds of millions of additional dollars.
Faced with this prospect, Gov. Whitman sought to change the subject — to educational standards. She rejected the court’s criteria as inappropriately focused on “dollars instead of classrooms.” She and her Education Commissioner sought to develop a different benchmark for the state’s constitutional obligations to school children. Drawing momentum from the growing national push for standards, and tapping into the state’s own efforts to define state proficiencies dating back to the MBS tests, the Whitman administration began promoting statewide core curriculum standards in seven subject areas as the measure of a “thorough and efficient” education. Hearings were held, study commissions convened, and lists of achievement objectives and performance standards were drafted.
These new core curriculum standards, which amounted to abstract goals for student achievement, were immediately presented as the yardstick for educational equity. They were touted as a legitimate criterion even before they were translated into specific curriculum frameworks that itemized the instructional practices and classroom activities supposedly designed to realize them (and long before they could be piloted in real schools). The mere existence of state standards, and the Education Department’s decree that these standards would henceforth drive the curriculum and educational program of all schools in the state was offered as a guarantee that all children, including those in the special needs districts, would get their constitutionally mandated educational rights.
It was as if the governor walked into a homeless shelter and declared her intention to eradicate hunger by passing out menus from the finest French restaurant. In effect, she said, “Let them eat standards.”
Rhetoric bumped into reality when the state Department of Education belatedly and reluctantly “costed out” these standards and estimated what each district would have to spend to deliver them to children. It arrived at an average figure of $7,200 per student. This, not so coincidentally, corresponded almost precisely to the amount of money the governor had previously declared the state could spend on education without raising taxes. It was a political calculation with so little credibility
that the Department of Education declined to release its statistical model for public review.
Further blows to the fiscal credibility of Whitman’s proposal came as districts responded to the plan. Over half pointed out they were already spending more per pupil than this new state model called for, and many were barely meeting existing standards with these dollars. They were hardly in a position to achieve the ambitious new ones of the state’s core curriculum, which include lofty goals like mastery of advanced information technology and achieving fluency in a second language. The governor’s response was to accept revisions in the new formula that would allow districts to spend over and above the “constitutionally required”
$7,200 figure if they could get local approval. Poor districts, however, would receive state support only up to the amounts deemed necessary to achieve the core standards. The New Jersey standards, in short, served the purpose of narrowly defining the state’s obligations to poor children in terms less costly than the court’s mandate of dollar equity.
The state attorney general presented the governor’s strained arguments about how the new core standards assured equity to the New Jersey Supreme Court last March. A number of justices expressed disbelief that poor districts could meet new, higher standards while continuing to spend considerably less than the richer districts. (One justice said he had trouble simply understanding some of the fourth-grade science goals, and he couldn’t imagine how poor children in long-failing urban schools were going to miraculously rise to new levels of achievement by state decree.) The attorney general responded with warnings about respecting the separation of powers and pleaded with the court to give time for this “new approach” to work. A ruling is expected sometime this spring.
New Jersey’s “new approach” amounts to a textbook example of the misuse of educational standards. Driven, at bottom, not by a commitment to educational equity, but by a political desire to evade its fiscal implications, New Jersey shows how standards can be used to limit, rather than expand, the state’s educational commitment to school children. The effort placed equity advocates in the awkward position of trying to distinguish their specific opposition to the use of these particular standards from general opposition to all standards (which, given the history of school failure in New Jersey’s poorest districts, is a position that’s hard to defend). The process also muddled legitimate issues about the state’s role in guaranteeing and monitoring student progress and achievement at the district level. In brief, the integrity of the standards themselves was hopelessly compromised by the political agenda they were created to serve.
A very different approach to the relationship between funding and standards can be found in Baltimore, MD. There, the Council of the Great City Schools and its director, Michael Casserly, have prepared an analysis that attempts to answer the following questions: “Are the Baltimore City Schools adequately funded to attain the standards the state has set? If not, how much money would be needed from the city and the state?”
Unlike in New Jersey, the standards used as benchmarks for Maryland’s schools were not constructed (or cynically embraced) for the purpose of avoiding specific court rulings. The Maryland State Performance and Assessment Program (MSPAP) grew out of more conventional concerns about evaluating student achievement and school performance in reading and math. The Council’s report uses MSPAP data to compare student performance in all Maryland districts. Moreover, the report discusses the history of research linking student achievement to various factors, most notably poverty, but also limited English proficiency, learning disabilities, and the concentration of poor and minority students. It then analyzes this information in terms of Maryland’s funding system and the performance of Baltimore students on state tests in ways that produce a number of striking results.
The report uses a statistical approach called a “multiple regression analysis” to isolate the impact of various individual factors on the test scores of Baltimore’s school children. It found that differences in the factors mentioned above, and in per-pupil spending, accounted for a statistically significant portion of the variation of reading and math achievement scores throughout Maryland. The analysis also found that, given the higher rates of problematic factors and the lower rates of per-pupil spending compared to other Maryland districts, Baltimore students, while generally scoring poorly, actually did better than the statistical analysis predicted. (Only about 7.5% of the city’s eighth-graders got satisfactory scores on the reading test, but statistical analysis suggested than less than 2% would do so.)
The report attempts to calculate “how much money would be needed for school districts to attain the academic standards now being developed by the states.” It calculates the average per-pupil expenditure in the districts that came closest to meeting the state standards. It then develops weighted enrollment and budgetary figures that factor in the projected costs of the programs needed to address various special needs (much as school budgets traditionally account for the differentials between, say, elementary and high school costs by multiplying raw enrollment figures by weighted factors. For example, a student with no special needs may be counted as 1, while a student with limited language proficiency may be counted as 1.1, a poor student 1.5, a disabled student 2.5, etc). The aim was to calculate the amount “needed to get each district in the state as close to the standards” as the top performing districts.
The results were instructive, if not surprising. According to the statistical model, per-pupil spending in Baltimore would have to rise almost $4,000 or nearly 70% to approach the performance level of the state’s top districts. And since even in the top districts, the number of eighth-grade students meeting Maryland’s demanding standards was only about 40%, considerable additional spending would be required to create the conditions in which the standards now on the books might be turned into real achievement levels for all children.
The Council of Great City Schools report was prepared in support of plaintiffs who are suing the state of Maryland on behalf of Baltimore’s public school students (Bradford v. the Maryland State of Board of Education). The plaintiffs argue that the city’s schools cannot meet the state’s mandated academic standards without more resources. In effect, they are challenging the state to prove that its process of setting and assessing educational standards is a substantive effort to raise student achievement rather than a hollow exercise in sorting and labeling. By detailing the funding implications of meeting higher standards, the report lays bare assumptions that are all too often unexplored in the standards debate.
These examples suggest the range of possibilities that standards have for shaping the course of educational reform. They can be used, as they have in New Jersey, to mask glaring gaps in educational services among districts and divert public and legislative attention from substantive strides toward educational equality. Or, as the Baltimore case suggests, they can be used by equity advocates as a platform to demand that government put its resources where its educational promises are. Which trend prevails will have a lot to do with where the current drive for national and state standards ultimately winds up.
See “State Funding of the Baltimore City Public Schools, an analysis of adequacy” prepared by the Council of Great City Schools, Suite 702, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20004. For more on New Jersey, see Funding for Justice published by Rethinking Schools, Ltd., 1997.