Standards and School Reform: Asking the Essential Questions
Much talk about school reform today is talk about standards. References to standards lurk especially within the questions that policy makers pose: Are American kids learning as much math as their German or Singaporean peers? Do they know as much American history as their parents did? Do they write as well as kids used to? Are teachers professional enough? Is there enough choice in the system? Is the economy well served by our schools? Such questions multiply today with a force that people who work in schools sometimes find offensive. They are accustomed, after all, to an accountability based on norms rather than criteria, and they are understandably confused as to which of the many criteria proposed have the most merit. Not surprisingly, their reaction is often defensive.
In what follows, we aim to cut below the surface of rhetorical offense and defense, and in a less contentious space reflect on what standards really are, on what legitimates them, and on how policy makers and practitioners may employ them in a partnership aimed at deepening the education of all children. Our method is to pose and pursue two basic questions about standards. The first offers a hunt for the word's deeper meanings. In asking it, we use the writer Raymond Carver's cadence: What do we talk about when we talk about standards? Carver posed the same question about love, a word whose usage in American conversation similarly conceals as much as it reveals.1
We're particularly interested in how use of the word standards may relate willy-nilly to two old habits of American thinking about public policy. On the one hand, we are moved as a people by the dream of a better system--one that works more efficiently, more comprehensively. On the other hand, we are tempted to wish for no system at all--to surrender the system's function to "natural" forces. The particularly American version of this debate is familiar, going back two-hundred-plus years to the one waged by Hamilton and Jefferson. By uncovering these opposing tendencies in our talk and thinking, we hope to free ourselves from slavishness to either one.
Our second question grows directly out of the first, emphasizing its political aspects: Who shall set the standards, and by what right? In pursuing this question, we mean to challenge complacency about how power is distributed now in American education, and to challenge as well ideas about how it might be distributed in the future. In the process, we will lay out several options for accountability policy that we believe honor the interests of the many and varied stakeholders of American schooling.
Our advocacy of these options grows not only from our analysis, but also from our experience and our colleagues' experience in the Coalition of Essential Schools. We know the options to be rooted in the possible.
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Standards?
A standard answers the question, What is good enough here? Whether here is the performance of a laundry detergent or of a school. The standard serves to hold us accountable, by offering a vision "implicit or explicit" against which the performance in question can be measured.
Standards always involve criteria, though some criteria are less thoughtful than one might wish. What's considered "good enough" in a laundry detergent, for example, may depend on whiteness above all other factors, including cleanliness and environmental impact. Similarly, what's now considered good enough in a school may depend on the school's average performance on achievement tests, tests which are often constructed with little thought of what is most important for kids to achieve and which reveal little about those qualities we value most in our kids. Or it may depend on the school's provision of "opportunities" that are really no such thing: the chance to select one of several levels of math courses, for example, from the packed course catalogue of a "shopping-mall high school."2
One way to characterize the increasing clamor about educational standards today is to ascribe it in part to a shared discontent with the usual criteria. Our concern, we say, is with ratcheting up standards in order to improve the educational outcomes of all kids. How shall this be done? For several reasons, including especially the growth of a political rhetoric that links national economic prospects to mass intellectual development, we are collectively moving toward a process in the United States which grounds school standards in values rather than national norms.3 The thinking is that standards rooted in values "as opposed to those based on norms," will forecast more accurately for all kids what constitutes "good enough." They will be "fixed" in a way that transcends the vacillation of shifting averages. Yet the policies proposed to facilitate these higher, values-based standards often entail unexamined contradictions. We are worried that they may have deeply undemocratic consequences.4
From our view, these policies reflect one or both of two basic strategies. The first aims to improve the system massively by unifying it around a "high-powered" set of--you guessed it--standards. The other seeks to scrap the "system" altogether in favor of a market approach to standard setting. In a gross simplification of terms, we dub the first a neoliberal strategy and the other a neoconservative one.
The Neoliberal Strategy
The neoliberal strategy typically begins with a systematic inquiry into what all American kids should know and be able to do as a result of their schooling, then proceeds to the design of a comprehensive assessment system geared to those outcomes. In both respects, the strategy focuses on standards as relatively fixed and tangible things-finding them, setting them, enforcing them, using them to drive teaching and learning. A good example of the complete strategy is the work of the SCANS Commission, which has defined a rich set of workplace skills for the twenty-first century and has also proposed means to assess them.5 Other examples include the many efforts under way in the states and at the national levels to define curriculum frameworks, so-called "content standards"--one thinks of the standards in mathematics from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and in science from Project 20616--and the efforts under way also in the states and at the national level to define "performance standards" relative to this content.
The partisans of this strategy tend to have a sophisticated grasp of the nature of knowledge, the current state of the disciplines, the qualities of context that good teaching and learning demand, and the failures of policy and practice that their strategy would supplant. For these reasons, their arguments are appealing within policy circles--and for one other reason, too: what they seek is an improved system rather than a new one, and that is always an easier message to swallow. As they like to point out, we already have a national curriculum and a national assessment system in the United States--bad ones, in our view, controlled almost completely by the textbook- and test-publishing industries.
In approach and appeal, the partisans of this strategy seem the twenty-first-century counterparts of the administrative progressives who transformed American schooling at the start of this century.7 Like their forebears, they too seem obsessed by the irrationality of the current system: its unreliable processes, its domination by parochial interests, its unresponsiveness to current economic demands, and the uneven quality of its products. For the neoliberals, standards inhere especially in a vision of expanding economic productivity. What knowledge, they ask, does such productivity require? Their method proceeds then to revise the goals of school accordingly, and to hold the schools accountable to those new goals with assessments skillfully devised to measure what matters. What remains problematic for the neoliberals is not the finding and setting of standards but the design of an efficient system capable of being driven by them.
The Neoconservative Strategy
Similarly, partisans of the strategy we call neoconservative anticipate no serious problems finding and setting standards, though for quite a different reason. Whereas the neoliberals proceed under the Platonic assumption that good analysis alone is sufficient to discover the "truth" about what all American children should know and be able to do, the neoconservatives put their trust in a later philosopher, Adam Smith. So their strategy seeks standards from another source. John Chubb and Terry Moe explain:
"Within a choice system, the main form of accountability is bottom-up, a concept foreign to bureaucrats and politicians. School quality is in the hands of teachers, school heads, and governing boards, who make their own decisions about everything that matters. Parents and students, free to choose, then pass judgment on how well the schools are doing in providing the types and quality of services they want. They support schools that please them. They abandon schools that don't. This is how schools are held accountable--by the power and decisions of the people they serve.8"
What is problematic for the neoconservatives is not system design, of course, since they want as little system--meaning as few overarching control mechanisms--as possible. But they worry greatly about how to achieve the near laissez-faire they believe a humming market needs.9 They particularly fear the dangers of partial success: that choice plans will offer only limited choice, that the system will still be in charge, that there will be no real opportunity on the supply side, that special interests will manage to intervene after all. Moreover, Chubb and Moe in particular rail against the "disabling constraint" of democratic school governance, which, they say, breeds bureaucracy and instability.10 The problem, in their analysis, is that democratic governance seeks to impose "higher-order values" the "demands of remote constituents" on schools, but can manage to enforce these values only through regulation.11 At issue is their dispute with the imposition of secondary influences "the checks and balances embodied in elected school boards and legislators" on "pure" market operation. One reads in their complaint an entrenched attitude toward the dilemma that Amy Gutmann suggests lies at the heart of democracy: whether to give priority to civic virtue or to individual freedom.12 In absolute terms, the neoconservatives choose individual freedom, whereas the neoliberals opt for civic virtue.
Struggling for Common Ground
It is the complacency in their respective polarity that most disturbs us about the partisans of both strategies. Finding and setting standards for American schools and American schoolchildren's performance is a highly problematic undertaking, inescapably so. Plato can't deliver the kind of standards needed, nor can Adam Smith. This is because the values that must ground these standards are as diverse as the country, but they are also its unifying characteristics. These values are frequently ambiguous (as, for example, in the very case of whether we prefer individual freedom or civic virtue), changeable, and profoundly dependent on context. At the same time, they are also widely distributed, deeply held, and shared. They may indeed inhere in certain visions of the ideal twenty-first-century workplace or in the best practices of the disciplines; indeed, a pursuit of them there is a worthy undertaking. This does not mean, however, that they can be readily abstracted from these settings-the result of a two-year project, say, undertaken by scholars, teachers, and a federal agency or a foundation. Even the disciplines, though they are indeed disciplined, are nonetheless in continual evolution and subvert intentions to codify them: when treated as other than the organic forms which they are, these areas of knowledge are cheated of their substance and aesthetic.
Meanwhile, although the market provides a valuable mechanism for encouraging higher standards, we cannot trust that they will arise spontaneously from the mere availability of choices. Who in adchoked America could believe such a thing? That is, who would say that one can make a good decision even about such a relatively trivial thing as what vacuum cleaner to buy absent some source of independent guidance -a consumer rating, a friend's experience, something other than a mere array of choices? And who would say--in the face of the fact that shopping malls are maldistributed--that everybody enjoys an equal opportunity to choose well among vacuum cleaners? Of course, some neoconservatives would argue that any choice, freely made, is a good one--whether what is involved is a vacuum cleaner or a child's education. We think too much is at stake in the latter case to warrant such a bald assertion.
While we remain cautious about both the neoliberal and the neoconservative strategies, we also appreciate certain features of both. We believe, moreover, that it is possible to construct policies which preserve the best of both while protecting against the worst of both. Indeed, this may be the best practical course. Michael Fullan argues that when it comes to educational change, top-down doesn't work and bottom-up doesn't work; the only hope is to get them together.13 We are persuaded that a good rule of thumb in this regard is to maintain the tension that was posed by Gutmann's democratic dilemma, which is to say, avoid settling it definitively one way or the other.
What Are "Good" Standards?
To know where and how to seek standards, we think one must acknowledge that good standards are not things which are clear, discrete, and fit for checklists. Much in the fashion of Aristotle, who claimed that essence is necessarily intertwined with existence, we believe that standards cannot exist apart from experience. To answer the question, "What is good enough here?" one must refer to images of good enough--the way people look, talk, act, or feel while being good enough in whatever performance they attempt. And in the process, one should not stray too far from where here is. It may be useful to abstract qualities: one can surely draw upon images of actual performance in diverse settings to create what are called rubrics used for rating the likes of "coherence" or "inventiveness" on a scale of one to five--but disembodied criteria lack vitality, and such rubrics are short-lived. Anyone who has ever used them to judge actual human performance knows that they only come to life in the face of this performance, then fade in clarity and power as images from the performance fade.
In our view, the standards we use in assessing schools and kids in school require a method of collecting and preserving images of excellence. This system, of gathering and disseminating, should allow for a basis of connection among all a school's stakeholders and should generate benchmarks of comparison among all schools. In this respect, we honor the neoliberal view, which recognizes that American democracy cannot tolerate the radical liberties of an utterly open marketplace in schooling, one which promotes individual freedom at the expense of civic virtue.
Yet good standards must also possess room for dispute. By this, we mean the kinds of differences which are not easily or immediately resolvable. Our view here is derivative of an ethic, as Gutmann says, that makes a virtue of disagreement. This means we need to find standards, hold them, and apply them in such a way that they remain tentative, lively, and open to all manner of possibility. In this respect, we honor the neoconservative view of standards, which cringes at the extreme authority of a set of detached and impervious standards which are delivered from "on high" by small, representative committees of whatever good will.
How Can We Respect our Differences?
What we seek is a common ground between these views in what Maxine Greene calls an "authentic public space": The aim is to find (or create) an authentic public space . . . one in which diverse human beings can appear before one another as, to quote Hannah Arendt, "the best they know how to be." Such a space requires the provision of opportunities for the articulation of multiple perspectives in multiple idioms, out of which something common can be brought into being. It requires, as well, a consciousness of the normative as well as the possible: of what ought to be, from a moral and ethical point of view, and what is in the making, what might be in an always open world.14
The standards of the sort we seek may at once depend upon and sustain such a space. Such "optimum standards," linked together by a variety of mechanisms loosely coupled, will appeal to and provide for imaginative and intuitive capacities as well as rational ones. They will not deal merely with the knowledge that inheres in the world as it is, but will also push past such boundaries. As such, optimum standards allow room for uncertainty, for what may not now be known. They offer us means for inventing the future rather than confining it by measurements from the past, and help us to "look at things," as Greene puts it, "as if they could be otherwise."15
These are the standards that we think we all ought to be talking about in American education today, since we can use them to teach as well as to hold ourselves accountable. Meanwhile, we also must carefully attend to the distribution of power (Who decides?), and we must devise various accountability mechanisms, intended to fulfill different purposes and measure from different angles.
Who Shall Set the Standards, and by What Right?
Take a seventh grade classroom: two teams of kids serve as the sides in a debate--effectively a "trial" before the United States Supreme Court, the 1944 Korematsu case. They have filed "briefs," and the sequential drafts of these "briefs," including each student's individual contributions over the month prior to the debate, have been made available to the "jury." One side challenges the Roosevelt Executive Order requiring internship of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War; the other defends it. The "jury" includes the teacher, the principal of the middle school, a teacher from a neighboring school, and two parents. Six fifth-graders watch, seeing (inevitably goggle-eyed) what lies ahead of them in their studies. The debate see-saws, with each side ratcheting up the argument, marshaling new facts, probing the other's inconsistencies. At the end, jury members ask some questions, which push the students' grasp of the issues. All of the members here are participants, and the learning is powerfully served by the process of probing feedback. Meanwhile, though the setting of the trial itself is an individual teacher's classroom, its context is much wider: the whole school knows about it; the standards that inhere in these fifth-graders' performances infect the discourse of the school in a most beneficial way.16
Take a senior presentation on AIDS, again before a panel of adults, including an assistant superintendent, community members (including a physician), and younger students. All the students of this high school must make such a presentationm --the culmination of a year-long interdisciplinary inquiry. This particular eighteen year old moves from a presentation on the human immune system and on how the HIV virus appears to affect it to the physiological effects of that condition on patients. Spanning the disciplines of philosophy, ethics, statistics, sociology, and biology, she addresses the global incidence of the disease, with explanations both geographic and cultural, and posits rates of its spread. She speaks of the nature of care, of remedies and palliatives, of costs, both financial and psychological. Earlier, she turned in an essay on these matters to her panel, and its members now ask questions. What assumptions did you make about the global spread of the disease? Why and how did you compute its scale? On what basis might a community allocate the scarce resources for treatment and care? And more.
Exhibitions and Standards
These are both "public" exhibitions of mastery. They require broad and deep knowledge, and they require the demonstrable use of the knowledge. They allow for dialogue, for the follow-up question, for the clarification of language (especially for the student for whom English is not the home language). They also allow possibilities for an examinee to regroup and try again and to draw on various media to convey understanding. The topics are "real," of demonstrable importance even to the middle school student; even the historical example above clearly represents a consequential current issue. Students know what is expected of them, which is itself as much of an incentive as the bracing excitement of "public" presentation.17 Through the practice of exhibitions, we are able to glimpse the motion of an evolving standard, to witness learning and achievement--right before our eyes. The performance also affords us a glimpse at a rich cross section of a student's acquired skills and abilities as in one of the cases above, from the student's use of various modes of expression to her ability to bring philosophy and statistics to bear on biology. Accordingly, as an assessment of that child's work, the exhibition has greater validity than a conventional test, and it is at once fairer and more useful. It is also more educational in its own right. The exhibition efficiently and happily blurs the line between assessment and instruction: the understanding we see is visible in the interchange of performance and feedback.
For the neoliberal, such exhibitions represent worthwhile goals. To apply the SCANS criteria, these exercises demonstrate that "information is acquired, evaluated, organized, interpreted, and communicated by students to appropriate audiences, . . . disciplines needed for problem solving are integrated; thinking involves problem solving, reasoning, and decision making."18 Exhibitions at their best are authentic in that they are fully lifelike representations of real and complex intellectual problems; they take their sense from the rational systems of thought we exercise in the real world. But, exhibitions grow out of the systematic, careful operation of "planning backwards." Much as in the eminently logical system of the neoliberal, an exhibition begins with the determination of what kids should know and be able to do and proceeds methodically "backwards" to define what and how kids must be taught to reach those outcomes.19 The aims, made clear in advance, drive and shape the teaching.
However, in our conception of exhibition, the scale differs. Exhibitions are local "displays," open to and reflective of their constituencies rather than of professionals in remote and protected bureaucracies. The criteria attend less to the unified thinking of "best" analysis, and more to the freedom of civic and cultural diversity, as in the neoconservative strategy. Thus, one can imagine their service within a radical "choice" scheme: those parents who do not like the substance or standards of the exhibitions they see can withdraw their children to search out a truer articulation of their values. By the same token, one can also imagine their service within a system where the state still plays an active role in fostering and maintaining high standards: they become a rich means by which the state may inspect or audit the schools' efforts and results.
Such exhibitions, for an individual or for individuals in groups; written, displayed, oral, or in some combination; within courses or apart from them, provide the "public spaces" that Maxine Greene would have us create for the display and for the neverending evolution of standards.20 As such, they provide a basis for standard setting--one legitimated by their rootedness in learning and in actual school communities.
Building an Accountability System
If all schools must exhibit their own work in the public performances of their students, then some schools will exhibit work of exceptional quality. The next step in building a workable and legitimate accountability system, therefore, will involve creating public awareness of such quality and providing incentives to take heed of it. The objective is to pressure weaker schools to expect-and to teach toward similar standards. This presumes broad access to the best of exhibitions, and it also presumes some system of commentary whereby teachers and scholars independent of any particular school may help shape awareness. Finally, it presumes a system of state governance and support of education that preserves equity while encouraging diversity of approaches to accountability, supports pioneer schools, honors the dialogue of the local "public space," and is committed to enhancing (but not overwhelming) this dialogue with perspectives from elsewhere.
Modern computer and televideo technology and the expanding "information highways" represented, for example, by Internet/NREN can help the state fulfill the last of these functions. In the foreseeable future, they will provide the means to display and distribute complex images of excellence in student performance and to engage in a large- scale and far-flung conversation about them.21 States might not only provide the network and other supports for such a conversation, but might also insist that schools take part.
Today, almost all states insist that schools report on their students' performance in test scores that drain the life from that performance. What we propose is that they insist instead on reports enlivened with student performance, and then insist also that schools help each other grow in their capacity to hold students to high standards. They can do so by simply engaging in a facilitated conversation that alternates "warm" and "cool" perspectives,22 in which the schools balance appreciative and supportive commentary on their peers' work, with discerning and constructively critical commentary. This conversation can have a very powerful impact on schools, particularly within states that preserve each school's authority and responsibility to take action in response to what they learn about themselves in these encounters. These will be states that have learned to go beyond checklist standards and bureaucratic accountability. Standards that grow out of shared local exhibitions might promote an unending national conversation about what really matters in education, one grounded in actual images of actual performance in real and local settings. This would represent an enormous improvement over the current conversation where liveliness withers in the abstract discourse of goals and outcomes.
Who Sets the Standards Here?
Who sets the standards here, and by what right? First of all, the individual school takes the initiative, by the right of being closest to the students who are to be held to the standards. Of course, much of the current palaver over standards and accountability arises from the belief of many among the public and within the educational policy community that schools are currently incapable of positing and maintaining academic standards of a quality required by the emerging global economy and culture. So, the argument goes, others must take over this work.
But the argument overlooks the fact that the entire enterprise is ultimately dependent on developing this capability among teachers-- since one cannot teach to a standard one is incapable of imagining.23 The argument also begs the question, Who is capable of setting and maintaining standards, if school people are not? The states acting alone? The federal government? Some national and quasi-public agency? The Educational Testing Service? Who will argue that any large bureaucracy--with any manner of support--is likely to be more responsive to economic signals and shifts in cultural values than are small groups of professional educators who enjoy the simple support of having some time to read and discuss what outsiders write?
State bureaucracies are freer from the parochial concerns of particular communities, but this insulation is as much a political peril for school reform as it is a boon. In this regard, consider the interests and rights of a second constituency, namely, parents. In what we propose, schools initiate standard-setting in the presence of parents, who may wish to dispute their choices. States or other faraway entities might well persuade parents that they ought to set standards for computational mathematics or reading or the production of expository prose, but can they persuade parents that their views should out-weigh the parents' views in more ambiguous matters: which books to read, what historical interpretation should hold sway, what constitutes appropriate behavior in sexual and moral matters, etc.? The educational press often carries stories about one state or another's failure to do so. In some questions of standards, most American parents seem to want to retain the power to question the standard-setters directly. Reforms that diminish their power in this respect are likely to run into much political trouble in the long run-- but trouble of a kind consistent with democracy.
But others, too, besides teachers and parents, have rights in this matter of standard-setting, and they exercise them in the model we propose. So the larger professional community--researchers, the unions, the curriculum associations, etc.--has the chance, for once, to function as a professional community and in a conversation anchored by rich images of teaching and learning. Because that conversation is electronic as well as face-to-face, other stakeholders can exercise their right to take part, too. Meanwhile the state--with richer access to the actual performance of schools than ever before--can better exercise its right and constitutional responsibility to ensure equity and quality. Moreover, the rights of each group -including the students themselves, their particular teachers, the scholarly community, the immediate community of employers and cultural partisans, and the state -may be exercised directly, not (as is often now the case) through token representation on committees.
The "public space" in which this dialogue occurs will, of course, be full of tension, as these constituencies play out their rights; such tension is both the fuel and the protection of democracy.24 Implied here is the extension to education of habits common in the political and cultural spheres. There, the question of a good or bad policy, as of good or bad art, is never clearcut and is expected to provoke contention. Moreover, Americans have historically considered contention in these realms to be beneficial rather than deleterious, even necessary, to approximating the inherent "truth" of such questions.
Policy Options for Accountability
Inevitably, the schools affect us all, so we need an accountability system that reflects that fact, one that allows many voices. Achieving this in practice will take generous invention and experimentation and is likely to spawn much local and regional variation. We leave room for this invention, experimentation, and variation in the framework which follows.
The framework is made up of practices that honor the individual school as the proper locus of accountability; it acknowledges, however, that the school cannot manage this responsibility if it continues to be isolated in its setting of standards. It is a framework of policy options insofar as the practices it suggests require in some instances the support of policy and in all instances the forbearance of policy. It grows directly out of our belief that the current ferment around standards -complete with economic, political, and cultural incentives-provides a unique opportunity for profound open-mindedness about educational policy and for the invention of radically new constellations of shared authority.
An Accountability Framework
We propose the following six features for a framework that respects the interdependence of policy and practice. We believe this mix of "accountability measures" addresses the claims of a student's and her school's various constituencies, and it does so at a financial cost that the public is likely to be willing to pay.
- Exhibitions as a central feature of the school's assessment system. By exhibitions we mean performance assessments that introduce authentic contexts into teaching and learning, that dare to show the school's stakeholders what the school's students have achieved, that help the school take stock of whether its systems are working to ensure high achievement for all students, and that push learning deeper even while they assess it.
- Continued provision of basic general testing as a supplement to the Exhibitions.25 This should involve the best standardized tests available in computational mathematics, reading, and expository prose--whether developed by commercial publishers or the states. Our caution here is that such tests must be kept supplementary to Exhibitions. The point is to maintain a trendline of achievement in basic empowering skills, and so preserve political confidence while experimenting with richer accountability mechanisms.
- Maintenance of portfolios of each student's work, including that student's Exhibitions. These files, kept by the school, perhaps in an electronic format, will be open to the student, his teachers, his parents or guardian, and to designated representatives of the district and state. The student's progress is thereby visible to those who care most about him, and who may ascertain his achievements in relation to others' by using "benchmark" measures (see #5 below) or by examining the student's work against the collection of images of excellence provided within a tele-communications network.
- Development of an accountability capacity within the school. By this we mean the dedication of time, space and institutional priority to building and designing standards, collaborating on assessment across classrooms, communicating with stakeholders, and ensuring that individual students do not fall through the cracks in the system. As Linda Darling-Hammond suggests, this last objective especially will involve the invention of mechanisms of "continual collegial inquiry in which hard questions are posed."26
- State "audit" of individual student files or portfolios. This audit might take the form of, say, an examination of the work of every fifty-ninth student against a general standard agreed upon by the state and by the school. This standard might be annually "set" by the school community and the state "auditor" on the basis of discussions (facilitated by the national telecommunications network) of highstandard work exhibited by students of roughly similar age across the country and informed by the periodic reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The auditor would report on the school (but not on the individual students whose files were pulled) to that school itself and to the state, establishing benchmarks of achievement -based on the aggregate of student files--without imposing highstakes consequences for individuals. Consequences to schools, on the other hand, will come from pressure the community brings to bear, a result of increased public and professional awareness regarding the schools' operations.
- Publication of an annual school report. This report would include a statement from the state auditor, and it would be necessitate a public meeting to discuss the findings. The public library would maintain a set of these reports and also provide access to examples of high standard student work drawn nationally, and to the reports of NAEP.
Schools are ultimately about helping young people to use their minds well and to develop a thoughtfulness about all aspects of their lives. Schools don't primarily yield a "product," save at the margins (a person who can calculate percentages, for example). They are about preparing individuals to cope with an inevitably uncharted future. Coping with this unknown future in an informed and principled way is in fact a crucial standard. Therefore, schools need to prepare graduates who can engage in this art of informed mental activity. And schools' assessments must focus on these complex ends, no matter how difficult they are to test.
Unlike virtually any other American activity, elementary and secondary schooling is compulsory. Citizens are forced to attend. Accordingly, the definition of the routines of school and, particularly, the shape of its substance and standards have to be approached with patience and addressed with careful restraint. Complacent, politically rigid, or ideologically codified positions are anathema to any mindful consideration of standards. Setting standards is not a science. It mimics the process of creating art.
- Raymond Carver, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (New York: Knopf, 1981).
- See Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).
- There is nothing new about this impetus to associate economic success with the performance of schools. What is new is the increasing perception that in order to compete worldwide for highwage jobs--the demanding "knowledge jobs"--the United States must provide better education for and demand higher standards from all students. The argument is made in the Report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages (Rochester, NY: National Center on Education and the Economy, June 1990); and in two reports of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), What Work Requires of Schools (Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, June 1991), and Learning a Living: A Blueprint for High Performance (Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, April 1992). The same argument underlies the creation of the National Education Goals.
- Our reference here is to a wide array of state and federal policy initiatives bearing on school reform and school accountability.
- See the citation of the SCANS reports in note 3.
- Commission on Standards for School Mathematics, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, March 1989); Project 2061, Science for All Americans: A Project 2061 Report on Literacy Goals in Science, Mathematics, and Technology (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989).
- See, for example, David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).
- John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, A Lesson in School Reform from Great Britain (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1992), p. 13.
- We say near laissez-faire since most partisans would acknowledge the need for minimalist intervention in the school-choice market, for example, to protect health and safety or to prevent racial discrimination.
- Chubb and Moe, A Lesson in School Reform, p. 217.
- Chubb and Moe, p. 188.
- Amy Gutmann, "Democratic Education in Difficult Times," Teachers College Record 92, no. 1 (Fall 1990), pp. 7??20.
- Michael Fullan, with Suzanne Stiegelbauer, The New Meaning of Educational Change (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991).
- Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988), p. xi.
- Greene, Dialectic of Freedom, p. 102. The idea of standards that leave room for uncertainty is John Dewey's; see his Quest for Certainty (New York: Milton, Balch, 1929). For an argument about the productive role of uncertainty in teaching, see Joseph P. McDonald, Teaching: Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).
- This example is adapted from an exercise designed by Jim Brown for his seventh-grade class at the Wheeler School in Providence, RI.
- Theodore R. Sizer, Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), Chapter 5.
- SCANS, Learning a Living, p. 42.
- Joseph P. McDonald, "Dilemmas of Planning Backwards: Rescuing a Good Idea" [Coalition of Essential Schools Studies on Exhibitions no. 3], Teachers College Record 94, no. 1 (Fall 1992).
- For a view of three high schools' exhibition systems, see Joseph P. McDonald, Sidney Smith, Dorothy Turner, Marian Finney, and Eileen Barton, Graduation by Exhibition: Assessing Genuine Achievement (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993).
- For an analysis of the role that networks in general (of even the nonelectronic variety) do and might play in school reform, see Ann Lieberman and Milbrey W. McLaughlin, "Networks for Educational Change," Phi Delta Kappan 73, no. 9 (1992): pp. 673??677.
- See Joseph P. McDonald, "Three Pictures of an Exhibition: Warm, Cool, and Hard" [Coalition of Essential Schools Studies on Exhibitions no. 1], Phi Delta Kappan 74, no. 6 (1993): pp. 480?? 485.
- See, for example, the case of Mrs. Oublier and the California curriculum frameworks in David Cohen, "Revolution in One Classroom (Or Then Again, Was It?)," American Educator (Fall 1991).
- See Theodore R. Sizer, Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), Chapter 8.
- We are indebted to our colleague Lois Easton of the Education Commission of the States for her wise response to an early draft, wherein she advocates sampling not only content but students.
- Linda Darling-Hammond, "Reframing the School Reform Agenda: Developing Capacity for School Transformation," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1992.
The Coalition of Essential Schools gratefully acknowledges the IBM Corporation and the UPS Foundation for their support of its research on Exhibitions.
About the Authors:
Joseph P. Mcdonald is a Senior Researcher, Bethany Rogers is Research Assistant to the Chairman and Theodore R. Sizer is Chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools
A version of this article appeared in the Stanford Law & Policy Review 4 (Winter 1992??93)