Grading School Reform: Complex Problem Defies Standards-Based Reform

[Originally published in the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), April 27, 1997, pp. E1, E4.]

E. Wayne Ross

Associate Professor
School of Education and Human Development
State University of New York at Binghamton

        Contrary to popular wisdom, public schools are not under-performing wastelands, but that is not to say that our schools are good enough. Since the mid-1980s discussions of how we might reform schools have been dominated by a discourse of decline, which has produced a search for the "magic bullet" to save public schools. A combination of crisis rhetoric, unduly simplified conceptions of the problems schools face, and policy elites working to protect their own political and ideological interests has yielded a series of one-dimensional proposals intended to save the public schools including: school choice, vouchers, technology, and now, standards.
        Standards-based reforms have been codified under the federal government's Goals 2000 initiative, which encourages states to ratchet up high school graduation requirements, supports top-down approaches to defining what should be taught in classrooms, and aims to create high-stakes tests that drive instruction toward a single set of national standards.
        It is easy to understand why establishing standards and linking them to high-stakes testing is the vogue in educational reform. The large number of students in public schools and the demands of the public, politicians, and policy-makers for speedy and tangible evidence of progress (or lack of it) make the adoption of standards and accountability via mandated student testing an appealing approach to educational reform. The assumption of advocates of standards-based reforms is that by raising expectations and holding children, teachers, and schools "more accountable" public schools will be improved.  If only it was that simple.
        The history of school reform illustrates that it is much easier to change educational policies than it is to change the conditions of teaching and learning in schools. Despite many reform efforts in this century, the major features of school remain largely unchanged. The primary reason for the stability of schools in the face of repeated reform efforts is the failure of reformers to consider the ecology of schools-that is, the multiple and inter-connected systems of curriculum, pedagogy, evaluation, as well as the organizational structures, perceived purposes, and contexts in which schools exist.  Standards-based reforms offer simplistic solutions to a complex problem.  These efforts may be "feel-good" exercises that raise the self-esteem of politicians and policy elites, but standards talk does little to lead us beyond the gimmicks and fads of previous educational reform efforts.
        Standards-based reforms actually divert attention away from the conditions of learning and teaching that must be changed if schools are to be improved. The seductive lure of standards is that the problems public schools face can be solved by merely being tough-minded, rather than investing in the improvement of schools and redressing the contexts of local schools that include joblessness and diminished tax bases. Standards talk obscures the fact that no reform effort will succeed in an educational system in which a number of select schools suffer from an embarrassment of riches in comparison to those that function without qualified teachers, adequate numbers of books, and in decrepit and dangerous buildings that lack classroom space. Standards do nothing to address the funding inequities that produce gross educational inequalities among schools.
        Today, the people that know children best-families and teachers-have too little power to affect change in their schools. Standards-based reforms exacerbate this by taking authority away from local school communities. Advocates claim standards are intended to guide, not limit instruction. However, after specifying content to be taught and student outcomes as well as developing textbooks and tests based upon the standards, little remains. Standards-based reforms encourage centralized curriculum decision making that makes teachers and schools conduits for the delivery of pre-packaged knowledge. Teachers and communities without the authority and resources to bring their collective intellect and judgment to bear on matters as important as the education of children cannot be expected to model what it means to be responsible citizens in a democratic society.
        Standards-based educational reforms exemplify and engender what has been call "spectator democracy."  This kind of democracy deters or prohibits the public from managing its own affairs and resolutely controls the means of information. At first this may seem an odd conception of democracy, but it is the prevailing conception of liberal-democratic thought.  In spectator democracy a specialized class of experts identify what our common interests are and think and plan accordingly.  The function of the rest of us is to be "spectators" rather than participants in action (for example, casting votes in elections or implementing educational reforms that are conceived by people who know little or nothing about our community, our desires, or our interests).
        If, however, we conceive of a democratic society as one in which the public has the means to participate in a meaningful way in the management of its own affairs and the means of information is open and free, then the foundation of standards-based education reform collapses. Engaging in educational reform forces us to ask what kind of world and what kind of society we want to live in, and in particular what kinds of schools we want. Of course, everyone will not subscribe to the same visions of what ought to be. Standards-based educational reforms, however, endeavor to create standardized, "one-size-fits-all" schools that represent the views and interests of elite policy-makers rather than cultivating multiple visions of schooling that will emerge from public deliberations about what schools should be.
        What direction should we take to improve public schools?  First, there must be fair distribution of funds for public education; we must challenge the funding inequities that have created a chasm between schools that have and those that have-not. Achieving educational equity, however, will not be accomplished through fiscal equality.  Local school communities that have suffered years of joblessness, poverty, diminished tax bases, and unequal funding need more funding than wealthy school communities.  School finance inequities are currently being challenged in New York courts by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.  Similar challenges are underway in New Jersey, Texas, Alabama, and Connecticut.
         Second, if schools are to be accountable, they must have sufficient power over the factors that influence success, such as budgets, staffing, scheduling, and particularly curriculum and assessment. In New York, the State Education Department must provide local schools with the authority to construct their own curriculum and assessment plans. This will allow those who know students best to shape the educational experiences they receive.
        Third, there must be increased parental and community involvement in public schools. The Chicago school reform plan that mandated significant parental decision-making through local school councils has demonstrated that deep structural reform of schools is possible and that such reforms contribute to increased academic achievement of students. In addition, collaboration among schools and organizations with strong neighborhood roots (such as community development corporations and neighborhood associations) can contribute to the creation of self-determining communities with power to plan their own development and the resources to fulfill those plans.
        Lastly, it must be remembered that education and democracy are human endeavors that are fundamentally about relationships. Standards and examinations do not teach, people do; we must focus our attention on creating conditions for teaching and learning that respect all children and call out their potential.
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