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03/09/94

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Educators: Will national standards, curriculum and assessment make a difference?

STANFORD -- Will "national goals," "national curriculum" and "national standards" - the buzzwords of today's educational reform movement - help or hinder schools? Or will they do anything at all?

Four School of Education scholars debated this question during a Friends of the Stanford University School of Education dinner discussion on Thursday, March 3.

Education Professor Milbrey McLaughlin, in her opening remarks, described these moves toward "systemic reform" as a "coherent policy delivery system" that aims at "addressing content and standards simultaneously."

Will it work?

"These are questions about which reasonable people disagree," McLaughlin said. "The politics of systemic reform are breathtaking. It may be the touchstone of Goals 2000, but it's not the only game in town."

McLaughlin said current reformers fall into three camps: those who feel they have to overhaul the entire educational system (for example, voucher proponents or advocates for "privatizing" schools); those in favor of systemic reforms, which strive for "policy coherence and integration"; and proponents of school-by-school reforms, which include a plethora of programs that operate within schools.

McLaughlin noted that the four faculty members were united in their attitude that "one step at a time doesn't work" and that "fragmented approaches [for example, focusing on course content, or teaching standards] don't work."

She also noted that reforms wouldn't work "if teachers didn't want to do them, or couldn't do them."

'Drill-and-kill, No. 2-pencil tests'

Regardless of the opinions of educators and the public, Professor Michael Kirst said, "the politics of national standards is already over. By 1995, we will have four national standards boards, authorized and funded by Congress."

The four standards will be the National Curricular Content Standards, certified by an Education Goals Panel; the National Examination Standards; the National Board for the Professionalization of Teaching Standards; and the National Skills Standards Board.

A commitment to national goals is necessary, Kirst claimed, because "state and local curriculum content and test standards are not high enough." Kirst noted that most schools still rely on standardized "drill-and-kill, multiple-choice, No.-2 pencil tests" to gauge educational progress.

These local and state tests work on a bell-shaped curve, he said.

"The public does understand where the students stand relative to each other, but not what they know and can do," Kirst said.

A test like the SAT, which is not curriculum based and does not test what students have learned in school, "enshrines lack of incentives" to cover specific subject matter, such as science and history.

Regarding the National Skills Standards Board, which will establish academic standards for graduating high school students about to enter various jobs, Kirst said that, currently, employers receive no information on kids leaving high school, except whether they have a diploma.

"We have arguably one of the worst systems in the world for the transition from high school to work."

The cry for 'facts, not concepts'

Professor Myron Atkin warned of similar experiments in other countries. He recalled that in the late 1980s, British Parliament passed a law to create a national curriculum. The government pulled together the top experts in the nation to design a curriculum that emphasized conceptual understanding and not rote memorization.

"If you read [the curriculum], you would be impressed with the depth of their analysis," Atkin said. However, the prime minister reacted strongly a few days after she was presented with the draft: "We want facts, not concepts," Margaret Thatcher said.

According to Atkin, "it seemed to violate her recollection of what she learned in school. That was the level of discussion: facts versus concepts.

"Superficial, you might say," Atkin said. "But the newspapers are full of this: 'These don't look like proper tests; you don't have to fill in the bubble.' 'This doesn't look like the chemistry we are accustomed to.'

"If the standards that are developed are complex, if they are weighty and voluminous, then they do not serve political ends. If they are simple and straightforward, I would question how they serve educational aims.

"These issues have not been resolved in England, and they have been going at this five or six years longer than we have."

'Standards' means 'tests'

Regardless of the discussion in educational circles, said Professor Robert Calfee, "national curriculum is already in place. If you don't believe it, go to any classroom and look at the textbook."

" 'Standard' is an interesting word," Calfee said. He noted that one definition of the word was "of average or usable quality, as in 'standard beef.' "

"What it really means is tests," he said.

In the past, he said, the development of national tests has emphasized efficiency and economy.

"If this equation holds, we have been this way before, and it didn't work," he said.

Calfee described the development of the Minimal Competency Test in the 1970s, which is now used in 45 states.

"It's a massive failure, still using up our resources and giving students downers," he said. "As soon as you turn, the test begins to drive the curriculum."

Developing national assessment, he said, "is a big task," requiring us to ask "What vision should we be hewing to?"

He noted that many criticize the expense of making sound tests.

"But that's cheap compared to moving the educational system from where it is today," Calfee said. "That's going to be expensive."

'Great dilemma' of national assessment

Professor Lee Shulman pointed to the "great dilemma" of national curriculum and developing an assessment for it.

"When you take the vision and tie it to a high-stake assessment, you are probably corrupting the vision," Shulman said. "But if you don't tie it to assessment, nobody gives it any attention at all.

"These are not the grounds for throwing out standards, but for reforming our vision."

For example, said Shulman, "What counts as understanding history - and how does that understanding manifest itself?"

Said Shulman of the drive toward national goals and assessment: "I don't think we can afford to lose this. We need some form of national standards. I don't see a simple retreat to local standards as a way of achieving goals."

Something that troubled all four panelists was equity: Would all children have access to the same educational opportunities, as well as being held to the same standards?

Kirst noted that Congress had dropped a move to standardize "opportunity to learn," arguing that it was not the prerogative of the federal government. He expressed fears that "states will set up wishy- washy standards."

Acting Education Dean Nel Noddings, a leading educational philosopher and ethicist, also spoke to the issue during her closing remarks: "When kids are killing each other, when children are raising children with no idea of how to do it, when they are injecting drugs, and when grown-ups are doing disgusting things on the national level, we have a great deal more to think about than math and science.

"If I were convinced national goals would keep things in some sort of perspective, I'd be more enthusiastic about it."

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