PALISADES, NY – President Clinton, 24 governors, 33 business leaders, 19 state superintendents and education commissioners, and 35 invited guests gathered at the National Education Summit at IBM headquarters in early October to discuss standards and plot the next stage in the reform of U.S. schools.
In an improvement over previous summits, representatives of education organizations were invited, ranging from the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to the National Association of State School Boards. But no principals or teachers were allowed in, no students participated, and the only representative of a non-white advocacy organization was Hugh Price of the National Urban League.
After a day-and-a-half of discussion, conference participants dispersed, by and large convinced that they held the answer to ensuring that all children will reach high academic levels. Their answer, at its core, is twofold. First, to have every state adopt standards backed-up by standardized tests (a process well underway). Second, to set up a system of “rewards and consequences” for teachers, students, and schools based on those tests (a process that has only just begun and was the main conference topic).
Conference leaders were well aware that there is growing discontent among many teachers, students, and parents about their agenda – in particular the use of high-stakes tests as the guiding principle of education reform. (The term high-stakes tests refers to the use of a single test or battery of tests as the main and sometimes only determinant of whether a student is retained or is denied a high school diploma.) One of the clear purposes of the conference was to send a message that the discontent will not deter the governors and business leaders.
In a keynote speech riddled with terminology more appropriate for a wartime general rallying his troops, Louis Gerstner Jr., summit co-chair and IBM chairman and CEO, told participants that “it’s going to be tough. Institutional change always is. But we have to bear the pain of the transition. … We’ve got to have the guts and the political will to press forward.”
President Clinton delivered a similar message. Adopting a framework of “tough love,” he said that accountability policies that flunk children or deny them a diploma are for the child’s own good. The President told the business and political leaders that they must not be afraid to tell students, “We’ll be hurting you worse if we tell you you’re learning something when you aren’t.” (Clinton was too smart to use the term “flunk” but instead used the wildly popular euphemism “no social promotion.”)
It might be tempting to dismiss Gerstner’s and Clinton’s statements as political posturing with few consequences in the real world. But the summit leaders have shown they have the clout to pass legislation and influence the media in a way that guarantees, at least for now, that their vision of standards and accountability is the norm. Further, at a time of highly partisan bickering at the congressional level, the governors and corporate leaders have forged a bipartisan agreement that, while sometimes fuzzy in its details, is clear in its overall thrust. Meanwhile, progressive educators opposed to the reliance on standardized tests have not yet been able to adequately articulate an alternative system of accountability that can capture widespread public support.
“Right now, this [the governors’ and business leaders’] view of standards and testing is the centerpiece of what passes for education reform,” acknowledges Monty Neill, executive director of the national group FairTest. “People have to address this view very centrally.”
The meeting at the IBM headquarters was billed as the third National Education Summit. The first was in 1989, when President George Bush convened 49 of the nation’s governors and established Goals 2000. (None of the goals – which ranged from wiping out adult illiteracy to making U.S. students the world’s top achievers in math and science – are yet within reach.) In 1996, at the second summit, corporate leaders were brought on board and a more focused agenda was set, based on standards and accountability.
While calls for standards and accountability pre-date the 1996 summit, the governors and business leaders took the standards movement and reshaped it in their image. With calls for national standards stymied by opposition from both the right and the left, and with district and school-based efforts deemed too prone to influence from teachers and educators who conservatives had decided were part of the problem, the governors and corporate leaders forged ahead on the state level. They set up state standards, often heavily influenced by conservative ideologues and think tanks. Perhaps most important, they decided that high-stakes standardized tests were the best way to determine if schools were reaching the standards. (One of the most interesting yet untold stories of the history of standards is how the governors and corporate leaders, aided by conservative think tanks, took over the standards movement and transformed it into a top-down process that establishes an official version of knowledge and sets back efforts to forge a multicultural vision, in the process valuing discrete facts, memorization, and “basics” over critical thinking and in-depth understanding. But that is another story.)
Since 1996, the governors and corporate leaders have had an impressive track record – not so much in guaranteeing true reform and academic achievement, but in setting up their system of standards and high-stakes tests. At the time of the 1996 summit, only 14 states had established state standards in the four core academic subjects. By the next school year, 49 states will have such standards. (Iowa, which consistently scores at the top of various national academic measurements, is the only hold-out, prompting the comment from author and anti-testing advocate Alfie Kohn, “Thank God for Iowa.”) Furthermore, the number of states that will be requiring students to pass high-stakes tests in order to be promoted or to graduate has jumped in the last three years from 17 to 27, and summit leaders are pushing to increase that number.
The governors and corporate leaders are quick to cite such statistics as proof of reform. On one level, that’s not surprising. Both groups exist in a world where bottom-line numbers are all that matter: you either win an election or lose; your profits are either up or down. It seemed to escape conference leaders that the complexity of school reform cannot be so easily captured in hard-and-fast numbers. (A distinction must be made between the conference leaders and sponsors – the governors and business leaders – and the co-sponsors and invited guests, which included representatives of educational organizations. The true power rested with the corporate leaders and governors. A number of those invited seemed to realize that to not take part would leave them on the sidelines of what is the main game in education reform, unable to influence the proceedings and unable to use the summit’s promise of “high standards for all” as a way to possibly leverage more resources for education and underscore the importance of teacher training and quality.)
There was a disorienting disconnect between the conference setting and the reality of most U.S. classrooms. As in 1996, the summit was held at IBM headquarters, a feudal-like conglomeration of office buildings and well-manicured grounds just north of New York City. It is a self-contained world, complete with restricted entrance (not even taxicabs were allowed onto the grounds), helicopter landing pad, swans and goldfish lazily swimming in a moat-like stream, guest hotel (reportedly with computers in every room), health spa, game room (also with computers), and gourmet dining facilities.
For those un-attuned to IBM corporate culture, the media packet stated: “Dress for the Summit is business attire.”
Little at the conference was left to chance. The draft of the final action statement was distributed weeks in advance and changed little over the course of two days. Media observers were given few opportunities to ask questions and were shuttled at night to a hotel 30 minutes away. The media were able to attend the main sessions, which consisted mostly of speeches and pre-planned questions and answers, but were barred from attending the discussion groups. Except for a few rare moments, when a Hugh Price or a Bob Chase talked to reporters in the halls, the media heard by and large what the governors and corporate leaders wanted them to hear.
As a result, the U.S. public heard mostly what the conference leaders wanted them to hear. One notable exception was a report by the Christian Science Monitor, which focused on funding inequities and a glaring contradiction facing summit leaders: If they believe all students should reach high standards, shouldn’t all students be given adequate and equitable resources to do so?
The “1999 Action Statement” issued at the summit’s end lays out three key challenges: Improving Educator Quality; Helping All Students Achieve High Standards; and Strengthening Accountability. Each section ends with recommendations on how the three groups represented at the conference – the governors, the business leaders, and the education leaders – will meet the challenge. (The action statement, along with other key documents from the summit, can be found at the website of Achieve, the non-profit organization that oversees implementation of the summit’s recommendations. Its URL is: www.achieve.org.)
The action statement makes for dry reading. But sandwiched in between the rhetoric and oftentimes vague phrases is an indication of how the governors and business leaders hope to implement the next stage of their standards reform.
- Improving Educator Quality.
One of the notable differences between the recent gathering and previous summits was the emphasis on teacher quality. Linked to this was the acknowledgment that teacher salaries make a difference, especially in trying to attract people with math and science backgrounds. As Bob Chase told a group of reporters, “People are realizing that if you’re not going to pay for quality, then you’re not going to get it.”
The action statement calls for “competitive salary structures to attract and retain the best-qualified teachers and school leaders.” But the statement, unfortunately, also links resources for professional development and teacher training to “standards.” (The problem is that even though the action statement does not explicitly equate standards with standardized tests, just about everything else at the conference led to that conclusion.)
The document also encourages several emerging trends such as alternative certification programs and standardized “content” tests that teachers must pass before they are certified.
In one of the most specific recommendations in the entire action plan, this section calls for merit pay plans, under which teacher salaries will be tied to student achievement. In particular, the plan outlines that business leaders “will help interested school systems and teacher organizations in at least 10 states incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans into their salary structures, based on lessons learned from the private sector.”
Education leaders, meanwhile, are asked to “develop salary agreements that provide salary credit for professional development only when it is standards-based, linked to state and district priorities, and part of a school-wide plan to raise student achievement.”
It remains to be seen how these directives on teacher quality will work out in practice, especially since these are not solidified trends. Chase, for instance, talked of the need to move forward “at a reasonable pace,” and not to jump onto initiatives such as merit pay as the “fad de jour.” He also underscored that teacher performance “cannot be solely based on the results that students have on a standardized test.”
Clearly, one of the battles ahead will be over how much teacher quality will be judged by “standards,” a broad concept that can justify a variety of approaches and initiatives, and how much merely by student results on standardized tests.
- Helping All Students Achieve High Standards.
The only unequivocally positive thing that can be said about this section is that it mentions that all students must have access to high-quality instruction.
The section stresses the need for “curriculum and assessments aligned with standards.” (“Alignment” was one of the summit’s main buzzwords. Alas, there was no call for state budget priorities to be “aligned” with educational needs.) On the surface, aligning curriculum, assessments, and standards seems logical. The problem, however, is that because high-stakes tests are driving standards-based reform at this point, there is a growing danger that curriculum will be geared toward standardized tests, regardless of what the standards say. This raises the clear specter of classrooms across the country focusing on “teaching to the test,” and, in the process, narrowing the curriculum and emphasizing memorization over critical thinking. There is also the equally important question of who decides the standards and how, and whether they reflect a multicultural, democratic consensus on what children should know. Finally, who gets to decide the nature and content of the assessments?
Similarly, the section calls for professional development programs “aligned with state standards and tests.” How these various “alignments” play out will be a key area of struggle. Paula DiPerna, president of the Joyce Foundation and a former classroom teacher, said that while there were several positive developments at the conference, she was disturbed by, among other things, the tendency to equate tests with standards. “Tests are a tool and only a tool,” she said. “They must not be the beginning and end of the answer.”
Somewhat curiously, this section refers to the parallel and not-so-hidden agenda of some at the conference: vouchers. “Many of us believe that choice and competition within public education is both healthy and desirable,” the document said. “Some of us believe that publicly funded parental choice programs should be extended to private schools as well.” Throughout the summit, there was the sense that if standards-based reform doesn’t work, then vouchers will jump to the top of the agenda in education reform.
Nowhere does this section mention funding equity or adequate resources. Instead, in an approach echoed throughout the conference, schools are told that in place of more money they will be given “substantial flexibility, freedom, and control over personnel and resources.”
Most disappointing, the document lets the governors off the hook on redressing the “savage inequalities” in school funding. In fact, in looking at the various tasks assigned to conference participants in this section, there is disturbing imbalance.
For their part, the governors are merely asked to “work with their legislatures and state and local education leaders to strengthen the quality of standards and assessments, eliminate or waive regulations that inhibit state and local efforts to help all students meet them, and initiate or expand charter school programs.”
The business community also gets off easy. It’s asked to undertake such arduous tasks as encouraging their employees to volunteer in the schools and targeting their K-12 grant-making to standards-based reform.
The only difficult assignment was given to the educators: “to ensure that virtually all children can read well by third grade and master the fundamentals of algebra and geometry by the time they enter high school.” There was no mention of how the educators are to fulfill this responsibility without additional resources and reforms such as smaller classes.
- Strengthening Accountability.
The heart of the summit’s approach to accountability is a system of “incentives for success and consequences for failure.” Despite the nod toward the carrot of “incentives,” much of the document focused on the stick of “consequences.” The threatening tone of the summit’s approach is best captured in the section’s first paragraph:
“Accountability is the cornerstone of standards-based reform. To date, our education system has operated with few incentives for success and even fewer consequences for failure. The job security and compensation of teachers and administrators have, in large measure, been disconnected from teachers’ success in improving student achievement. Students, except for the relative handful seeking admission to highly selective colleges and universities, have had little reason to work hard in high school because access to further education or employment has not depended on their performance in school. This must change.”
Even though vouchers were not to be on the summit’s agenda, this section also makes reference to vouchers, obliquely but unmistakably offering them as a consequence should standards-based reform fail. If low-performing schools do not measure up after intervention of extra help and resources, the document notes, “we will be prepared to restructure or reconstitute schools or provide parents and students other options.”
Throughout the conference, the consequences for low-performing students was clear: being held back or denied a diploma. Even at the conference’s end, however, consequences for schools and teachers were still somewhat vague.
But one powerful political figure, presidential hopeful George W. Bush, has made clear his view of “rewards and consequences.” (George W. did not attend the conference but brother Jeb, governor of Florida, did). In a statement a few days after the summit’s end, George W. said that, if elected Pres-ident, he would require states to annually test all students from third through eighth grade in reading and math as a condition for federal aid. States that showed progress on test scores would receive bonuses from a $100 million “Achievement in Education” fund. States that did not show progress would lose 5% of their federal grants. Earlier, Bush had linked student testing to vouchers, saying that schools that do not make progress on state tests would have their Title I money transferred into vouchers for parents.
How might the summit’s standards agenda unfold in coming months? One indication will emerge when governors present their “state-of-the-state” speeches at the beginning of next year. Will money – especially during this era of economic prosperity and budget surpluses – be forthcoming to improve teacher training, reduce class sizes, and provide additional resources for low-achieving schools?
The other key factor, which is beyond the governors’ control and which clearly has summit leaders worried, is how the voting public will respond.
Of course, in some cases the sheer unworkability of the reforms will cause them to implode. In San Diego, for instance, a year after the board banned the promotion of low-achieving eighth-graders to high school, the “no social promotion” policy was deemed a disaster and rescinded. The district found that it was unprepared to sufficiently help, or flunk, the 15% of eighth-graders affected by the policy.
In response to the governors’ standards movement, several approaches (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) are emerging. For progressives, the challenge mirrors that facing activists in any number of social movements. And that is, at a time of conservative dominance, how does one strike a balance between becoming involved in and trying to influence conservative reforms and mitigate their worst tendencies, and yet maintain a strategic, independent perspective that continues to educate the public to an alternative vision?
Some argue that progressives should concentrate on using the rhetoric of “high standards for all” to reopen the discussion on “opportunity to learn standards” (that is, providing sufficient resources and “opportunities to learn” before instituting across-the-board expectations for results.) The idea is to use the summit’s rhetoric to push demands for more resources for schools, especially in poor communities.
Others emphasize the importance of legal action and filing suit against high-stakes tests on civil rights grounds. In Texas, for example, a decision is looming in a case by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund which argues that the state’s high-stakes exams disproportionately deny diplomas to African-American and Latino students. A similar discrimination complaint was recently filed against the Chicago district, whose “no social promotion” policy has been repeatedly praised by Clinton and other political leaders.
Many progressive educators emphasize a stance of active resistance and, where appropriate, of boycotting the tests and adopting a “just say no” approach. A number of parents, teachers, and students, particularly in Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, have been organizing along these lines (see Rethinking Schools, Spring 1999, Summer 1999, and Fall 1999 issues.) They have been especially upset by the grueling nature of the statewide tests and how they distort and narrow the curriculum. In Massachusetts, for example, the fourth-grade test takes about 14 hours – one hour more than the Massachusetts bar exam.
As Monty Neill of FairTest argues, “Should you go along with the dominant definition of reform, or do you fight it if you think it is an educational disaster? And I think it is an educational disaster.”
In addition to active resistance, Neil highlights two other important tasks: to demand better and more authentic methods of public accountability, and to develop high-quality classroom-based assessments that can help teachers better teach. (FairTest, as part of the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, recently released a report advocating a new system of accountability in Massachusetts. For more information, go to the FairTest website: www.fairtest.org.)
Theresa Perry, vice president for community relations at Wheelock College in Boston, argues that many African-American educators and parents are leery of a “just say no” approach and worry that the African-American community can’t wait forever for better assessments to come along. She underscores the need to help African-American students pass the tests, and to use the tests to redress the chronic problem of low expectations and sub-standard curriculum for many African-American students.
“Fundamentally, the only way you can gain access to opportunity is by passing through these gatekeeping tests,” she said. “Unless the tests are going to go away tomorrow, the real issue is, how do you … help poor kids to pass the test?”
“The tests are flawed, but what is the alternative?” she continues. “And are the white progressives willing to take a stand in their local community to equalize outcomes?”
Michael Apple, an education policy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stresses the importance of a dual stance. While it’s important to recognize that the tests are not going to go away anytime soon, he said, one must still point out “how these things have worked historically. That is, they exacerbate social problems, they blame the same students, teachers, and parents who have been blamed before, and they serve as an excuse not to equalize material resources.”
Apple cautioned that progressives who are opposed to high-stakes tests must be careful not to allow themselves to be painted as anti-reform and as defenders of the status quo. “The idea is to think strategically,” he said, “and not to form a rejectionist front that allows your enemies to position you in a way that makes you even less powerful.”
Asa Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University, argues that, “For the segment of the community that doesn’t have power, the worst thing they can do is to drop out of the game and not take the test,” he said. But, he adds, after helping kids pass the test, “you have to then turn right around and challenge the tests.”
Asked for what’s the best way forward, Hilliard summed up the problem this way: “I don’t think there’s a magic solution. The problem is, the people who are advocating the high-stakes tests believe that they have the solution. And they are going to make consequences based on that.”
How long the governors and corporate leaders will be able to maintain their system of consequences remains to be seen, however, especially since their dominant strategy appears to be high-stakes tests and “no social promotion.”
That idea is appealing in the abstract and parents seem to support it – for now. But what will happen when hundreds of thousands of kids are flunked or denied a high school diploma? As C. Thomas Holmes, a University of Georgia education professor who is a leading researcher on the topic, notes: “Parents are all for retention, until it’s their kid.”