Standards and the Control of Knowledge

How can parents and educator make sense of the increasing reliance of state-mandated standards and tests? How might such standards impact efforts to forge a truly multicultural curriculum?

By Harold Berlak

Movements for cultural, racial, and gender justice can be temporarily diverted, but not extinguished. The genie will not return to the bottle. Photo by Jean-Claude Lejeune

Raising educational standards in the nation’s schools shows up in just about every poll of the public’s chief concerns, and understandably so. All of us want our children and our grandchildren to be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and wisdom they need to survive and thrive in the 21st century. The call for raising standards has been taken up by the president, governors, state representatives, mayors, city council members — virtually all occupants and aspirants to elective office at every level of government.

Several years ago Louis Gerstner, chief executive officer of IBM, wrote in The New York Times:

We must establish clear goals and measure progress to them. We must articulate exactly what we expect from schools, teachers, principals, students, and parents, and we must provide rewards and incentives to reach them. … If the goals are not met we need to enact stiff penalties, changing leadership, and even dismissing staff members in schools that aren’t performing. … All of this will require … testing and assessment of both students and staff.

These words capture the essentials of the solution to our educational ills championed by President Clinton, advocated widely by politicians, and now actively pursued by both state and federal governments. The logic of the plan — establish educational standards and link them to “high-stakes” tests — appears unassailable, almost self-evident. Education is a labor-intensive and expensive enterprise, cost containment requires public accountability and close public oversight, and at present there is no feasible alternative. Tests are needed to inject discipline into the system by rewarding successful teachers, students, and institutions, and punishing those who are not. And the stakes are high. Based on test results, students may be denied high school diplomas; teachers, principals, superintendents dismissed; schools disestablished or reconstituted; entire districts dissolved or taken over by the state or other entity.

What is often lost sight of is that what appears to be a straightforward and sincere effort to raise standards requires the development of so-called “content standards.” These content standards become “curriculum frameworks” or “guidelines,” which are detailed outlines of the body of information, ideas, and sets of skills that are to be learned in every school subject. The “frameworks” or “guidelines” also tell us what is and is not considered a legitimate school subject. History and geography defined as “basics” are legitimate, but areas of study that cut across disciplinary barriers — such as urban studies, Black studies, labor studies, humanities, movement education, etc. — are not. Raising standards, a laudable goal, is thus reduced to a drive to standardize curriculum and pedagogy.

The experts and politicians who sold this plan to the public and the Congress assured us that the standards were not mandatory but “voluntary.” The word “voluntary” is everywhere to be found in U.S. Department of Education press releases, reports, and documents. The claim of voluntarism is false and totally misleading. Once a state adopts “voluntary” content standards, a statewide testing program to enforce conformity to the curriculum frameworks is imposed. In addition, if Clinton has his way, only those states that comply with his testing requirements would be eligible for federal support.

Singular View of Truth

The standards and tests by design visit on teachers and students a particular and singular view of the “basics” of history, geography, literature, art, and ways of looking at and thinking about truth. They are an effort to put an end to the most valuable asset of a multicultural society: its vibrant cacophony of views about what constitutes truth, knowledge, and learning, and about what young children ought and ought not to learn at school. Standardized curriculum and tests insist upon one set of answers, and only one.

While standardized testing and rankings by test score have long been a part of the educational landscape, the effort to install national tests and reliance on statewide standardized testing is now on an entirely unprecedented scale. This major shift in national and state educational policy was initiated during the presidency of George Bush.

Lamar Alexander, Bush’s Secretary of Education and former Republican governor of Tennessee, sought and received Congressional authorization to create a commission to study the feasibility of establishing national educational standards tied to testing. That report, Raising Standards for American Education, arrived on Jan. 24, 1992, and marked the beginning of this latest effort to shift curriculum decisions away from local authorities, schools, and teachers toward centralized, bureaucratic state control. Now, more than ever, the major issues of what and how to teach are being decided by politicians, government agencies such as the National Goals Panel, state legislatures, state boards of education, and a raft of appointed committees, panels, and commissions.

That tests are intended to mandate control of the culture is not a controversial claim. The architects of these policies proclaim it. The 1992 report, Raising Standards for American Education, asserts that national educational standards would “bind together a wide variety of groups into one nation,” providing “shared values and knowledge” which will serve “as a powerful force for national unity.” Lauren Resnick, a chief academic advocate for testing, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, and a director of the New Standards Project, argued, “Without performance standards, the meaning of content standards is subject to interpretation, which if allowed to vary would undermine efforts to set high standards for the majority of American students.” (italics added)

Linking standards and curriculum to high-stakes testing is a powerful and pervasive way to ensure the continued hegemony of the dominant culture. Or, to use the more apt language of Edward Said, the distinguished Palestinian-American scholar, it is a late 20th century form of cultural imperialism.

It is not coincidental that the concerted effort by government authorities to gain monopoly control over the curriculum arrives at the time that social movements have appeared and are challenging male, white Anglo-European political and cultural supremacy. The formerly enslaved, colonized, and oppressed do not accept their ascribed cultural, racial, and gender inferiority. Many are asserting their rights to reclaim cultural power, and to create and forge their own cultural and social identities.

For those who see these movements as cultural balkanization and a threat to social order, standardization and centralization of curriculum and testing serve both as an antidote to the demand for greater cultural diversity and as a way to manufacture consent and maintain the dominant culture. They serve to reduce what they perceive as a threat: multiculturalists, anti-racists, feminists, and others whom they fear are sowing seeds of disunity, threatening the fabric of the nation.

What they overlook, however, is that although movements for cultural, racial, and gender equality and justice can be temporarily contained and diverted, they cannot be extinguished. The genie will not return to the bottle. The root issues remain race, culture, gender, and, of course, power.

Thus centralized testing is enmeshed in the so-called “culture wars,” or, to give it a proper name, the multiculturalism question. Multiculturalism is not primarily about the content of the canon — whose literature, history, ideas of art, music, and ways of thinking are to be included and excluded in the mandated curriculum and in the tests (important as this may be). Rather, multiculturalism at its core is about who has the power to decide. Put another way, a state-mandated multicultural curriculum is an oxymoron, since the power to decide remains with the culturally and politically dominant groups that control state government.

Standards and Cultural Politics in California

How these political and educational issues will ultimately play out at the national level and in each of the 50 states is far from clear. But there are more than enough indications that attempts by governments to control curriculum and culture rarely work as intended. There is no better illustration of this than developments in California, my home state.

Despite chaotic, sometimes darkly comedic turns in California’s electoral politics, what transpires in California is highly significantÑfirst, because it is by far the largest customer of the nation’s multi-billion-dollar educational media and publishing industry. Thus, what California chooses for its textbooks and curriculum frameworks shapes the textbooks and educational products available throughout the entire country.

Second, California is a case study of the pitfalls of even the most well-intentioned efforts to centralize standards and curriculum. For 16 years, California has been a living laboratory trying to answer the question: is it possible to develop a single set of content standards that are not only challenging and of high quality, but sensitive to society’s diversity and respectful of differences of opinion among various interests? To date, the answer is a resounding “no.”

California’s effort to mandate tests tied to curriculum began in 1983. California voters had just elected Bill Honig, an articulate and assertive Superintendent of Instruction. Honig had campaigned on the platform that he would meet the challenge outlined in the national report, A Nation at Risk, that our schools are marked by a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatening the country’s very future.

California’s Superintendent of Instruction is nominally a non-partisan office, and Honig, a one-time elementary teacher and school administrator and a liberal Democrat, attempted to bridge party lines and forge a bipartisan policy to promote educational excellence. His approach was to commission university experts and leading educators to write academically rigorous state curriculum “frameworks” in all major school subjects. The plan was to then align the frameworks and textbooks to a system of statewide testing.

Honig’s response to the widely expressed fear that the tests would dumb-down the curriculum was to promise new forms of tests that would overcome the inherent limitations of commercially available, standardized achievement tests. These new tests, he promised, would enhance academic learning, foster creativity, and require “higher order” thinking. Under Honig’s plan, California would be the first in the nation to align tough, new curriculum guidelines, or “frameworks,” to a new generation of tests.

The new English and Language Arts Framework arrived in 1987 and was widely hailed as a breakthrough by the major newspapers and by mainstream and many progressive educators alike. The only serious opposition came from the far right, which did not as yet have sufficient clout to block it.

The new framework broadened the state’s approach to early reading and language instruction, incorporating an assortment of practices for teaching reading and writing, which had come to be known as “whole language” or “language experience.” The framework also broadened the literary canon, which became more inclusive and multicultural with the addition of more women, and men and women of color. In spite of charges by critics that were taken as true by the media, the framework, while it de-emphasized basal readers, did not forsake phonics practice nor drill. It did, however, incorporate approaches to teaching writing that encouraged students to write from personal experience and feelings.

The first of California’s new breed of test, linked to the new framework, arrived in 1994 and was a language and reading test dubbed CLAS (California Learning Assessment System). The CLAS language test was given to California’s students for the first and last time in the spring of that year — the same year Newt Gingrich proclaimed victory for the right-wing Republican “revolution,” and the first time in 42 years that the Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In California, it was a particularly bountiful year for nativism and xenophobia in electoral politics. Governor Pete Wilson, a pro-corporate, pro-choice Republican and former mayor of San Diego, rode to re-election in the fall of 1994 on a wave of voter approval for two notorious ballot measures: Proposition 185, the “three strikes and you’re out” anti-crime measure that mandated 25 years to life in prison for three felony convictions, regardless of the seriousness of the crimes; and Proposition 187, which denied public services to non-citizens. Wilson embraced these propositions. And soon after the first results of the recently administered CLAS language test were announced, he seized upon CLAS and the curriculum framework as fresh targets for his attacks on liberals — who, he claimed, were not only soft on crime and immigrants, but staunch defenders of radical multiculturalism in the schools.

A number of objectionable test items were reprinted in local newspapers and cited by Wilson as evidence of political correctness and multiculturalism run amuck. One was a passage from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, followed by the directions, “Write an essay in which you interpret the moments of silence or inability to speak.”

With Wilson’s re-election, the new language curriculum frameworks and the CLAS test were dead.

Thus after an estimated $56 million dollars in public funds and more than five years of development — and despite the efforts of the Educational Testing Service, the country’s premier developer of tests and the prime contractor for the CLAS test — California could not deliver the promised new breed of achievement test that was to be academically rigorous, culturally sensitive, and respectful of diverse opinions. The attempt was stillborn, consumed by California’s ongoing cultural wars, destroyed by an electoral process heavily driven by right-wing corporate money and by political campaigns that played upon fear of the other, often provoking class, race, and cultural animosities.

For four years the state’s language curriculum and testing program lay in limbo, until 1998, when the state’s newest reading and language curriculum framework was approved. This time, basal readers and phonics are in. Out are whole language and language experience approaches — and just about anything else that might disturb the sensibilities of the religious and far right, who remain in firm control of the state’s Republican Party.

It is not just the Republicans, however, who jumped on the right-wing bandwagon. Leading Democrats and the state’s Superintendent of Instruction, Delaine Easton, generally seen as pro-teacher and a liberal, joined in the condemnation of the previous framework. She pronounced the new one “more balanced, and more focused on the basics.”

Off-the-Shelf Tests Win Out

Along with the new framework, the state introduced a new assessment scheme called STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) as the replacement for CLAS. The STAR plan required all California districts to administer the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, an off-the-shelf standardized test published by Harcourt Brace. The test was not aligned to the new framework. And, it is important to note, it was certainly not one of the promised new breed of tests, but one of the old-fashioned, dumbed-down, fill-in-the-bubble variety that has been in use for most of the 20th century.

The controversy has not ended. In the Spring of 1998, superintendents from a number of the state’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, objected long, strenuously, and publicly to the mandated use of the Stanford 9 Achievement Test. They did not object to using standardized achievement tests, but to the requirement that all school districts use the same standardized test. They argued, correctly, that every school district in the state already administers a comparable off-the-shelf achievement test and that converting it to a single measure would be costly and add no new educationally relevant information.

What the Stanford 9 and all similar tests produce is what many of its proponents want: a single yardstick for generating statistically comparable sets of scores, rank orders, and/or “norms” across all California school districts.

Several superintendents also protested that there was not an alignment between the test and the new framework. A spokesman for the Department of Education acknowledged this, but promised it would be remedied. Not surprisingly, the remedy being chosen by many districts and teachers is to adjust the curriculum and teaching to fit the Stanford 9.

A few weeks later, several city school superintendents protested again.This time, they were outraged that non- and limited-English speaking students were being required by the State Board to take the Stanford 9. (Statewide, about 25% of students fall into this category; 47% in Los Angeles; and just over 30% in San Francisco.)

San Francisco Superintendent Waldemar Rojas openly defied the state directive and initially refused to administer the test to such students. He called the lack of exemptions “flat out cruel, unnecessary, and meaningless.” The Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts subsequently, in separate actions, filed suit in federal court charging civil rights violations. Most school districts complied with the state’s mandate, but a number refused to comply and/or release results and asked the court for relief. It is now a virtual certainty that over the next decade, many millions of public and private dollars will be consumed as a stream of litigation slowly makes its way through state and federal courts.

It is also important to add that the superintendents’ protests took place amid two other developments: first, public protests over the reported effects of the state’s anti-affirmative action measure on “minority” enrollment in the University of California; and second, another xenophobic political campaign, this time for the ultimately successful Proposition 227, designed to eliminate bilingual education and install English-only policies in California’s schools.

The language and reading framework and bilingual education are not the only issues caught in the crossfire of California cultural politics. Soon after, a front-page story in the San Francisco Examiner appeared with the headline, “Math War Erupts as State Board Decides How It Should Be Taught.” Discounting concerns of school districts, mathematicians, mathematics educators, teachers, labor leaders, and parent groups, the State Board of Education — once more aided and abetted by cultural conservatives — approved a new mathematics framework which, the report noted, “emphasizes workbook drills, memorization, and computation.”

Several defenders of the new “back to basics” framework argued that it was more important to boost test scores than to increase conceptual understanding of mathematics. Several weeks later, the scenario was repeated in response to the state’s new science framework.

Not only is there no end in sight to the curriculum wars, there is every reason to believe that they will become more fierce and poisonous as the state attempts to accomplish what it has not as yet succeeded in doing — aligning curriculum frameworks to high-stakes tests.

Nationwide Implications

I have argued that the importance of California’s experience goes beyond its borders. For 17 years, since 1983, California has been attempting to implement the policies advocated in 1992 in Raising Standards for American Education. To this day, this document is the blueprint that drives national and, with some exceptions, state educational policies.

The Raising Standards report concluded that national and statewide standards and testing were both desirable and feasible, noting:

The fact that challenging and high quality content standards, even in sensitive and particularly complex areas such as science and history/social studies, have been developed in a state like California, which has great diversity, indicates that the challenge of diverse opinion can be overcome by hard work and careful respect for differences of opinion among the various interests. California has been able to adopt sophisticated and complex curriculum frameworks in mathematics, social studies, and science.(p. E17)

The facts, as they unfolded, support an opposite conclusion.

The commission that wrote the Raising Standards report was charged by law to study the feasibility of national standards and tests. Yet every single instance cited in the above quote and in the entire report as exemplary proved unfeasible and ended not with “respect for difference,” but the reverse — enmeshed in toxic, racialized electoral politics and acknowledged as failures. The “challenge of diverse opinion” was not overcome by “hard work and careful respect for difference.” Moreover, California is not unique in this regard. There have been numerous high-profile failed efforts to write national standards, most notably in the areas of history and English language and literature.

If the past decade is any indication, many more failed efforts are on the way.

Even if one were to accept as true the false proposition that test results are an adequate, if imperfect, indicator of educational quality or productivity, there is no evidence, after 17 years, that the effort by the state of California to centralize curriculum has yielded the promised results. California’s place in the national test rankings hasn’t changed appreciably. The frequently repeated promise that centralizing curriculum will enhance educational quality and equality of opportunity has not come to pass. African-American and Latino students’ achievement test scores still lag behind. Drop-out rates are about the same, and the inequalities between rich and poor schools have widened.

Who’s Behind These Policies?

Why is it that such national and state educational policies continue, despite the absence of supporting evidence and the repeated failures to achieve any of the promised results? This is a large question I do not address here. One reason, however, is clear.

From their beginnings in the 1980s, these policies have had the active political and financial support of the governing political elites. By governing elites, I refer to the nation’s major political and corporate and financial leaders, major business lobbies, the large, corporate-endowed foundations, and mainline think tanks.

Though initiated by the right-of-center Bush administration, such policies have been embraced and actively promoted by Clinton, a Democrat. Clinton has a long history as an advocate of national curriculum and testing. While governor of Arkansas, he was an ally of fellow Southern governor and later Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. They also co-authored the 1986 report of the National Governors’ Association, Time for Results, that was the immediate precursor to the Raising Standards report.

Possibilities of Resistance

Given the enormous economic and political power of those advocating centralization and standardization, what are the prospects for challenge?

Some efforts have been successfully resisted and defeated by organized political action, particularly when these policies impinge directly on the cultural sensibilities and interests of a politically active constituency. Last year, Clinton’s long-standing effort to install national tests in reading and mathematics was untracked by a coalition of civil rights groups, fair-test advocates, progressive Democrats, and right-wing Christian cultural conservatives. (Many right-wing Christian cultural conservatives are fiercely anti-government and equally distrustful of mainstream, pro-corporate Republicans and Democrats. The cultural right can be counted on to oppose, at all levels, efforts to centralize the control of what bodies of knowledge, ways of thinking, and civic values should be taught to their children — unless they are in control.)

Across the political spectrum in California (and elsewhere), there are living examples of anti-racist coalitions that have successfully demonstrated their power to obstruct, evade, and circumvent state control. Bilingual education continues in the face of the anti-bilingual Proposition 227. In Oakland, a wide coalition of African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Natives and Euro-Americans managed to thwart the school district’s effort to adopt the state-approved, presumably multicultural history and socials studies textbook series, which the coalition viewed as racist, demeaning, and historically distorted.

Resistance to particularly noxious aspects of centralized control are vitally important. However, they do not represent a challenge to the current distribution of power — that is, moving power from the center and toward school-based professionals, teachers, communities, and parents. Indeed, if current policies were reversed tomorrow, it would not necessarily bring more democracy. The power of entrenched, hierarchical, bureaucratic school districts and the regimes of autocratic superintendents would remain intact. The use of standardized tests as instruments of top-down bureaucratic management of curriculum and pedagogy would continue much as before.

Also, victories on single issues are often temporary. The Oakland coalition that managed to block the adoption of the state-approved social studies textbook series won an important victory, but could not produce the funds, nor develop an infrastructure, for creating a promised replacement that involved teachers and the community. Some teachers were left with old and (arguably) worse texts or with nothing at all.

What Alternatives are Possible?

Given the current situation, is a genuinely progressive devolution of power in education possible? This is not the place to explore this complex question, but the broad outlines of an answer are clear.

A progressive devolution of power does not appear to have an obvious constituency. Nor does there appear to be a plan for what a system of democratically governed schools would look like in practice — nor what short- and longer-term political steps might be taken to reverse and replace current anti-democratic policies.

Those working for democratic change must begin with the recognition that many, perhaps the majority, view grassroots school-site democracy and public accountability as contradictions. Many millions of ordinary men and women, rich, poor, and middle class, of all races and ethnicities, do not share the interests and concerns of the Carnegie Forum or the Business Roundtable, and yet have come to see top-down centralized management and standardized tests as the only feasible alternative if schools are to improve.

However, history is not at a standstill, and circumstances change. As it becomes increasingly clear that more top-down management will not succeed, and that efforts to impose a unitary view of culture will almost certainly backfire with unanticipated, potentially dangerous consequences, current national and state policies could lose the support of mainstream politicians and some within the corporate elite whose interests may not be well-served by provoking more cultural warfare. Further, a major shift away from public acceptance of economic globalization and the unrestricted flow of capital (a possibility that is not unthinkable) would have very far-reaching consequences for all national domestic policies, including education.

Whether such changes will provide an opening for a renewed and vigorous movement for truly devolving power from the center to local school communities, teachers, and parents depends on having a comprehensive, articulated agenda for decentralizing schooling and curriculum decisions that appeals to a broad constituency.

I believe that key to such an effort is the development of a convincing and workable assessment plan that is helpful to teachers, supports students’ learning, and provides policy makers, educational officials, and politicians at all levels with information they require for making informed decisions. The questions of cultural, racial, gender, and social-class equity are central. But the plan must also satisfy the legitimate practical economic concerns of the business sector, and of parents who want children to learn in school what they need in order to get decent-paying jobs and/or entrance to favored colleges or universities. These concerns are too often brushed aside by progressive school reformers.

Because the assessment system drives educational priorities — in classrooms, schools, school districts, and government — I believe a revitalized activist, progressive, multicultural movement of citizens and educational professionals must take as its first priority the design and advancement of a comprehensive agenda for democratic assessment.

It is, admittedly, a difficult and complex task. But understanding the centrality of the assessment question is the first step in finding the right road.

Harold Berlak is a university teacher, independent scholar, and educational activist living in Oakland, CA. He is the author of several books and articles dealing with curriculum, pedagogy, educational policy, and assessment. He is also among the founding members of the National Coalition of Educational Activists.