National Education Standards (transcript)

On March 10, 2006, Education Sector hosted a live debate on National Standards.

Commentary | April 4, 2006

Tom Toch: Welcome to today's Education Sector debate. I am Tom Toch, Education Sector's co-founder and co-director. The U.S. constitution left education to the states, and for most of public education's history, the states left to local school systems questions of what to expect of students. In the face of increasing frustration with the slow progress of school reforms launched in the 1980s, this tradition of local control gave way in the early 1990s to a proposal by President George H.W. Bush to establish voluntary national standards, and a proposal later in the decade by President Bill Clinton to create voluntary national tests.

Both initiatives were met with strong opposition from the left and the right. And the prospect of national standards and tests languished.

Until now.

The No Child Left Behind Act's requirement that every state introduce statewide standards and testing–and the states' often-problematic implementation of the law–has sparked new calls for national standards from liberals and conservatives alike–and has renewed opposition to the idea from both liberals and conservatives.

We are very fortunate to have leading voices in this debate with us today.

Lauren Resnick is Director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and a former president of the American Education Research Association. She has called for national standards as a strategy to improve educational equity. And as co-director of the New Standards Project, she has led the development of highly-regarded, internationally-benchmarked standards and tests.

Deborah Meier has spent 40 years as a public school teacher and administrator in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. She is the highly regarded founder of innovative public schools in both New York and Boston and is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. She advocates standards but not standardization in education and is a critic of the overuse of testing to promote school reform.

Michael Greve serves as a John G. Searle Scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he has published numerous works on federalism questioning the expansion of federal government authority into areas traditionally governed at the state and local level.

Mike Petrilli, a former associate assistant deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush, is vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a center-right education think tank that advocates national standards. 

Michael Dannenberg is director of education policy at The New America Foundation here in Washington, a former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, and an expert on the politics of national standards and testing. 

Moderating today's debate is Kevin Carey, Education Sector's Research and Policy Manager.

KC: Mike Petrilli, the Fordham Foundation has played a role in getting the ball rolling, or perhaps re-rolling, on national standards. Last November, Dianne Ravitch, who is a member of your Board of Trustees, published a widely-read op-ed in the New York Times in which she said, "Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests and a national curriculum." Checker Finn, your president, quickly followed up in agreement. But he also said there were two questions about national standards that needed to be answered. First, he asked, "who sets the standards? I don't have much use for the professional groups that bungled the job in the early 1990s." Second, he asked, "Is it possible to have national standards and tests without, in effect, federalizing the delivery system? Three years at the Department of Education left me disbelieving that this can be run competently by Uncle Sam."

So, two-part question:  First, why national standards?  Second, do you have the answers to those two questions posed by Checker Finn?

MP: Thanks, Kevin. First, I want to thank Education Sector for hosting this event, and for inviting me. It's not a state secret that Fordham supports national standards and tests and thinks we should be having a conversation about it again, so obviously we're thrilled. And we see the debate making a lot of progress. When we first started talking about the idea this past summer, most people would say, "National standards: are you crazy?" But then, after the new NAEP scores came out in October and showed a huge disparity between what states were reporting on their own tests and how they were doing on the national test, people started to say, "National standards–a good idea but it will never happen politically." But now, in just the past few weeks, the conversation has shifted again. Just yesterday I was listening to a panel of hill staffers, and a prominent staffer who will go unnamed identified the top three issues for No Child Left Behind's reauthorization. She said AYP and some sort of growth model; something around teacher quality; and national standards and tests. She made it clear that it was still a long shot but thought that it would be part of the debate. Of course, we think this is great.

OK, so to your question, Kevin. Why national standards and tests? We believe that the standards and accountability movement is in great peril and the only way to save it is through national standards and tests. Unfortunately, we're seeing all kinds of evidence that states are racing to the bottom and making their tests easier. And those of us who support No Child Left Behind have to admit that the law has played a role. Back in October, when the new NAEP scores came out, we did a quick-and-dirty analysis of state test scores versus NAEP scores. Twenty of the thirty states for which we could find data reported progress on their own 8th grade reading tests, in many cases a lot of progress. Yet on the NAEP, only three reported any progress, and even that was only at the "basic" level. In math, we reviewed math standards last year and found that only six states had clear and coherent enough math standards to earn an "A" or "B" from us. We then compared the cut scores for these states with those for NAEP. Only three states came close–three. A report came out a few weeks ago that showed that Oklahoma reduced its number of schools "in need of improvement" by 85 percent, not by improving the schools, but by introducing a confidence interval. There have been a few states that have lowered their standards publicly–Missouri did so a few weeks ago–but we're most worried about what's happening behind the scenes. We can imagine a political appointee walking into a state testing director's office and saying, “make the test easier, and make sure no one will ever know.” There are probably a dozen ways to do it.

As to your question of how to make this work in practice, that's something we're still working on. We're coming out with a paper on this next month. We asked about 15 different people who are involved in this debate to say "how can we get at this?" There are ways to get Washington to do it directly, and there are bottom-up ways, too. But if we want to have a race to the top, where states are setting high standards and we're pushing all kids to learn serious content and compete globally, then we have to do something different than we are doing today.

KC: So you see a distinction perhaps between national and federal standards? You want everyone to have the same standard, but you don't necessarily think the federal government is the body to do it?

MP: That's true. There are different models. For example, you have the American Diploma Project working in many states, trying to set a common exit standard for high schools that hopefully would be the same standard as an entrance standard for college. Governors are signing on to that standard and the federal government's had nothing to do with it. That's one way that you could develop a national standard from the ground up. The governors this summer said they're going to have one approach to measuring graduation and drop out rates. Again, Uncle Sam had no role in that. There are also ways that, at the very least, the federal government could create some incentives for states to sign onto to some kind of rigorous national test.

KC: Michael Greve, you work for American Enterprise Institute, also a right of center organization and you've written extensively about issues of federalism in education and other areas. What's your reaction to this debate?

MG: Thanks for the invitation, I'm delighted to be here. I should mention that AEI has education experts, Rick Hess among them. I'm not among those people so my perspective is from a much more elevated, 30,000 foot flight level. I should disclose, I was against NCLB at the front end, I continue to be against it. The reason is that I do not believe in intergovernmental accountability at all. I don't see how it can be made to work. It seems to me that the one good thing that NCLB has done is it has brought a little more transparency to schools. We know a little more about what they do and don't do. Even that proposition is somewhat difficult to defend but I think it aims in the right direction.

So looking at this: What I think I would advocate–just my gut–is that you should have a national, very demanding test, one and the same test for any and every child in the country, and you should not connect any kind of consequences for schools, for school districts, for states with that test. The reason is that the national government is very good at providing information that can't or won't be provided at lower levels of government. And that's all it should do. And that's not just education-specific. Even when it comes to something that's completely different–workplace injuries–the real role for the national government is to make the information available that would not be produced by the private sector or by lower levels of government. But for God's sake, don't connect consequences with it, because the minute you do it you politicize the program and the predictable effect is that what once was a demanding, uniform test will be dumbed down and variegated until you lose all the benefits you could gain.

KC: So if we had a national test but without consequences, what would we do with the schools were the students fail the tests?

MG: You could do a lot to pump the information out there. I believe in accountability, but it has to be accountability to parents, not to other bureaucrats up and down the educational chain. Then you have to say to yourself and the country, “We will do what we can to make the info available. If the schools are lousy, let's talk about what we can do to increase your options to attend better schools. If he schools are bad, sorry, but it's not a federal function to fix them.”

MP: So it sounds like you'd supported President Clinton's voluntary national test, then.

MG: Yes, but I would have made it obligatory.

KC: Deborah Meier, you've been involved in education reform for a long time and have had a lot to say on standards and testing. Do you agree with one or the other of our two panelists?

DM: I think not, (laughter).

I mean, here and there I'm sure I do. Mostly I feel a chill. This discussion is a chilling one to me. Let me just mention some of the reasons why. At a time when we are not very seriously interested in closing the gaps in any other area of American life, it's very hard for me to take very seriously that we want to close the gaps in schooling. So I think, to a certain degree, these discussions are a distraction, and they annoy me because I think a different kind of social effort is needed in this country if we're serious about what happens to the poor and what happens to the disenfranchised and the oppressed and all the other things that we claim to be worried about through NCLB.

I see children left behind in so many areas that I sometimes imagine what it would be like if we said that we demand that we are going to close the gap in life expectancy. I think that's less utopian than what we are doing now, and it would have a greater effect on education gaps. I think it's only harder to talk about that because we have more respect for the medical field than we do for the educational field, so once they told us that it's a lot more complicated, not something you can simply do through the medical profession, we would take them seriously–but we think differently when we are talking about classrooms.

Let me just mention some different issues:

One, I don't think we have agreement on the purpose of a public education system. I don't want to put down people who have a different opinion than I, but I think there are fundamental differences in the larger purpose. It's a discussion that we've avoided by implying that doing well on some test is our definition of being well-educated, rather than first discussing what we mean by well-educated and then thinking about how might you try to measure that. And if there are differences in our idea about what the central purpose and definition of being well educated, does one of those have to prevail or could we live in a society where, as long as they are explicit and transparent and people can have good information about it, we can have different definitions?

My definition is not that education is a race where the primary purpose is to avoid racing to the bottom and all the rest of that language. I think the exercise of good judgment is the central function of education in a democratic society because it's what democracy rests on–the belief that ordinary people can exercise judgment on complicated matters. Schools have to think about: what kind of complicated matters do we rely on ordinary citizens to exercise judgment about? That was the basis of the schools that we started–and by the way, I was originally a kindergarten teacher–the K-6 schools and the secondary schools that I've been involved in, and we decided that we needed to be explicit about that. We defined what we thought it might look like for 18-year-olds to be able to demonstrate that they have the kinds of habits and intellectual skills to exercise such judgment, and we tried to design ways in which people could see in action what those kinds of standards look like and could contest our form of measurement of them. And we tracked our kids for many years to see whether there was a relationship between the standards we claimed for our 18-year-olds and what happened to them in subsequent years.

I think that's an approach to standards which would need a lot of federal, state, and local support. It wouldn't be a single system or best idea. (And I urge many of you reread David Tyack's work on the issue. He has quotes from the 1890s and early 1900s that if I read them to you today you wouldn't believe are a hundred years old, they sound so identical to what we are talking about now.) So I am for accountability, transparency. But Ihighly agree that, once you put high stakes to tests, not only will they be dumbed down, they'll be phony.

I want to then get just to the education part of my concern. There is no way I believe to produce the kind of kids I'm describing in the absence of adults surrounding them who we trust enough to exercise those judgments. I think we have placed kids in the company of helpless adults–both their families and their schools–by removing important authority from them except to punish them–disciplinary authority–and even that we increasingly place farther from the school. I think it is enormously dangerous to the fabric of human life, not to mention democracy, for kids to be raised by adults who are not trustworthy. I wouldn't leave my kids with a babysitter whom I don't trust more than we seem to act as if we trust the teachers of America today. There is no way you can educate for high intellectual skills until we take seriously the central relationship that has to exist between a family and their teachers, between the adults who surround kids and local and public life.

I think the balancing act of what's central versus what's local has gotten dangerously out of control. That's bad for democracy and even just plain bad for the heart and soul of children's relationships to the world they live in. And it's put them more and more at the mercy of television and their peer culture rather than a strong and powerful adult community. I would rather risk trusting schools with teachers who disagree with me than risking putting kids in schools where no adults are trusted to make important decisions.

KC: You talk about trust. I think some would respond to you by saying standards are about a common definition about what students need to know.

DM: I haven't got a common definition. I mean you and I might disagree, and I'm a parent, and I want my kids in a place in which I can trust those adults. That's why I want some choices in American life, and that's why I have some shared views with some people on the right in this country. Education is close to childrearing, and while there are some parameters that the larger society can place and say that federal funds can't go to schools that do the following, after that I think we have to allow the adults who know the kids best a large authority in defining what it means to be a well-educated person.

KC: In some senses what you're describing is closer to the system that we had 30 or 40 years ago.

DM: No, not at all. We never defined education then either.

KC: Then we left it to the adults to define locally.

DM: No! We never discussed it. We had tests then, the same sort of tests. My kids were raised 30 years ago in New York City. I don't remember anyone insisting school have standards. I'm talking about standards. Our Central park East schools and Mission Hill School in Boston and a few hundred other schools in the country within the public sector have explicitly, sometimes through a network of schools and sometimes individually, set standards, made available to families in the community what they meant by a well-educated person, and then described what a kid would have to do to meet their criteria. And that is what Ted Sizer, who reintroduced the word standards into the discussion when he wrote Horace's Compromise, meant by standards, not some idea of standardizing what we offer kids. Kids don't come to us as standardized products, and a response to them as though they were misses the boat. It misses it the most for the kids who don't immediately fit in with the school system. The kids who meet the one-size-fits-all criteria will do well in whatever they do, but precisely the kids we are most concerned with need the strongest school community, and as you know that's why I think schools ought to be smaller.  It's why I think we should provide a lot more time for parents, teachers, and the community to talk about what they mean by education. And this hurried climate we have now in which the only time teachers get together is to talk about how to implement a curriculum and a pedagogy that they're not responsible for designing.

KC: I'm going to turn to Lauren Resnick. Lauren, I'm curious as to your thoughts on this on two levels. One, the value of standards and potentially national standards generally, but also, you have a lot of experience in actually creating standards, so I'm also curious as to your opinions if we were to go in this direction, practically speaking, how would that happen and how should that happen.

LR: Let me do the thing I'm sure you expected and turn that question around. If you look at what the standards effort or the standards movement or the standards initiative starting in the early 90s and late 80s, it had four main components. It said we should set standards and expectations in a consultative way very publicly. It almost sounds like Debbie Meier's view except that this was a view that it needed to be done in public agency type of settings. The governor might commission it or a governmental agency–it didn't need to be governmental, but it wasn't going to be very local community. So the standards would be set and owned publicly. Then there would be assessments systematically aligned to those standards, a way of finding out whether students were meeting those standards that was really loyal to the standards. That thing, which came to be called alignment, was crucial. Third component was that what you taught and how you taught–curriculum, teacher behavior, professional learning opportunities for teachers–would all be also geared to the standards, not to the test but to the standards. And the fourth was to try to give some push to this system using accountability. Could have been positive and negative accountability, but it's turned out mostly to be negative.

Now you could have several different ways of configuring these four elements. We could have something like what Michael Greve just said, a national test and leave the accountability criteria totally up to states, local communities, maybe even individual schools that would then be in conversation with their parental communities. You could have the tests being built by people in the schools and then judged as to how well-aligned they are to the standards, and that would be something like the portfolio and large project forms of assessment that many of us called for. Debbie actually did it, and I was part of a group that called for that as a major part of the system. That has been dropped mostly. You could have had a national curriculum and left the tests up to the locals. There are countries that do that. They say, “Here's what our curriculum is, the teachers in the school can build an assessment and they can send their scores to the government in Stockholm–I'm talking about Sweden–and there will be some oversight on that. We do agree on what Swedish kids should learn, but it's going to be up to you to decide whether they've learned it and how.” We could have it that way.

Here's what we did, though: We left everything up to more or less local agencies except the consequences. So we created national, federal requirements for what to do to bad schools. Those are very explicit. There are some choices for states, and those choices do make a difference, but they mainly accelerate or delay the bad news. They don't really change the requirement of closing schools, shaming educators, shaming families and so on. They do get a lot of attention, and some of it is really good. That's the part that we have federalized. That's the part we have made national. Now the standards have been left to states and they vary dramatically, as Mike Petrilli has said, in the quality of the standards. There can be differences of opinions about what good standards are, but no one will disagree that there's variability in quality. That means we have very, very different state standards with the same consequences attached to them.

The worst story is how bad the tests are. The tests are not aligned to their own state standards in all but a very few cases. There have been four or five different groups who have done studies of alignment of state tests to their own standards, and they are mostly not aligned. Now that may seem strange when every state claims they are aligned and the companies that make the tests will tell you they're aligned and will even show you the check-off boxes that led to this. But it's because they use a technique that if there's even one item in a test that seems maybe to align with a particular piece of the standard, you get a check in the box, and so you get a matrix almost 100% filled in by that method. It's what the states want because they've got a lot of political pressure to produce tests on a very low budget very fast–all the things that are in the report by Education Sector.

But the news is even worse than that, because the non-alignment is not random, it's systematic. The high intellectual demand parts of these standards are left out or radically underrepresented. And the tests are made up mostly of the kind of drill-and-kill, check-off-the-box very basic literacy and numeracy. We have systematic ways of determining that–your eyes would probably glaze over if you looked at the detail you have to look at to make that judgment–but we can make it in a very reliable way. Most of the state tests do not test the high-level, intellectual demands that we were after when we set up the standards. So we've got standards that get maybe a B+. You might give them a lower rating than I do, but I think they're OK. The main reason is that I don't think they matter as much as some people think. I think the only thing that after a few years matters is what's showing up on the tests, given the high stakes. So what we really have to look at to see what kind of standards we have is what's being tested. And it's not what we want. I doubt that it's what anybody in the room wants, although maybe there are some who want our kids to be just filling in the blanks and being programmed to that kind of a level of literacy and scientific and mathematical knowledge. I doubt it. I don't think there are any parents who want that once they understand what's there, and I don't think there are teachers who want it.  It's there in part because we have to test every child every year and do it separately in 50 states. And there is no room for the kind of rich examination systems that some countries have and that we could have if we had–now I'm going to jump over–if we had some kind of a national assessment, perhaps not given every year, something that benchmarked where we were trying to go.

And possibly–here I want to hear the debate to know where I land–possibly if we left it up to local communities to decide what the consequences would be. I say possibly because the bright spot of NCLB and the run up to it is the utterly amazing transfer of attention and resources to our poor kids to our kids of color, to their families, to people who were just off-screen, not even really seriously recognized until these accountability systems came along. There has been more change in attention to actually teaching poor children and children of color in the 15 or so years of our accountability systems than all the years up to that of Brown vs. Board of Education produced. Brown was a great, wonderful opening for equity in the country. It did put children together to some extent, although that is now being undone. But this standards and accountability effort has really produced attention to the children that we were not attending to. That's spectacular. And we may need accountability applied from outside the local school to get that, because I didn't see us having it before, so we've got to weave these back together. I'll leave it at that for now, but we've got the worst because we've got the accountability on a very, very weak foundation. It can't stand up. It will collapse.

KC: Michael Dannenberg, I'm interested in two things. One, I've heard at least three panelists offer some degree of endorsement of a national test. What's your reaction to the policy issues that have been discussed today?  Also, you have extensive experience working on education issues on Capitol Hill. Is there any point in having this discussion? Is this something that could happen on a congressional level?

MD: Yes, it's possible that something could happen on the national level. After eight years or so on Capitol Hill, I left about six months ago, frustrated like a lot of Americans that there is too much emphasis there on ideology and tactics. Ideology I think is the big impediment to national standards and national tests, but it's not something that can't be tackled, nor is partisanship, I suppose. Tactics means looking at politics from a snapshot perspective instead of the long view. Today, if there were a vote on national standards on Capitol Hill, yes, it would fail. But NCLB reauthorization, which will be the big vehicle for federal K-12 reform, I expect will be at least a four-year process: 2006, 2007, 2008, and it probably won't be signed into law until 2009, if not later. So there's a long window of opportunity to build the case for national standards and national testing from both the policy standpoint as well as politically.

What's held these efforts back in the past? I think the obstacles are still present today, and there are a number of them, but I think the two largest from the political right and left are ideology and social consequences. On the right, the ideological concerns, most people in this room know, are self evident with respect to the federalism issues–local control and federal intrusion into local schools. Even though we think of states' rights as something characterized with the south and conservative Democrats during the civil rights era and before, it remains a central tenet of the Republican Party's ideology.

But there is also ideology on the left. National standards are built on a couple of ideological or philosophical premises that I think many people on the left do not agree with: one, that all kids can learn–a lot of people disagree with that and don't think that all kids can learn to a high standard, and two, that accountability in education works–a lot of people don't agree with that at all, that testing or test results should be an end goal with respect to a value or a function of our schools.

But I think the big issue on the left is the social consequences issue, and this may extend even beyond the political left. America likes to think of itself as the land of second chances. For national standards to have any real meaning, there have to be national tests, and for national tests to have any meaning there have to be national consequences beyond just stigma associated with not passing. And those consequences mean sorting of kids into those deemed successful and those not and that could potentially impact social opportunities for those kids. Folks on the left are worried that with national standards and national testing, opportunities for poor kids and minority kids are going to be even more limited, because society has already done them wrong when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, that society has set them up to fail.   

It seem to me that these are the political obstacles and they break down in terms of ideology as well as opportunity or social consequences and they have elements of opposition on both the hard, base right, and on the left. I think there are ways around those things, or to counter those inclinations, but maybe we can get into that later.

KC: What are some of the ways in your mind?

MD: The New American Foundation is a non-partisan think tank. (laughter) I've spent several years working for senators Pell and Kennedy on Capitol Hill. That said, I think the base of the Republican Party is gone on this issue. That's not necessarily true of all Republicans, but most will always reject the idea of National Standards. What needs to happen is in politics, right, you need 50 percent plus one to win a vote. The political sweet spot to aim for is between 50 percent plus one and seventy percent support. There are 30 percent of the people–Debbie, you may be one–that are never going to be with you on national standards. It's wise to write them off, because it's a waste of time and energy to try to appease those folks. So how do you aim for that 51 percent and 70 percent sweet spot? I think it's a coalition: most Democrats, most independents, and some Republicans.

The Republicans who are apt to be attracted to national standards will be so because of national competitiveness and efficiency. The argument for national standards is that we have this crazy, inefficient system with 50 tests, an SAT and an ACT, and there are inequities in the system in terms of how schools and districts are held accountable vis-a-vis their own state standards. A really good school in Massachusetts is deemed in need of improvement while a lousy school in Mississippi is not, even though the school in Massachusetts is a better school. So there are efficiency concerns and equity concerns. We have a mobile society and achievement is just too low in too many places. Those are sort of the base arguments for national standards, and there is business appeal to national standards in response to those arguments. That's one of the reasons why the Business Round Table was historically supportive of national standards and national tests. Today they aren't because they've given up on the likelihood of success, and I think that's because they are looking at it from a short time frame perspective, the snapshot of tactics. Business can move the small number of Republicans you need to get national standards. Independents, I think, can also be moved on the competitiveness argument, which I used to call “globalization” until the President taught me competitiveness was a better term.

For the base left I think the sort of trump card to these underlying ideological and social consequence concerns is civil rights. Unless we have national standards, we are not going to have basically poor and minority kids, pretty much in the South, but not exclusively, taught to high expectations and getting the resources they need. On the left, civil rights  trumps everything, just like–I think–the concerns of business and the economy can trump the base ideological concerns on the right. To my mind, if you're going to put together a political coalition of between 50 and 70 percent support, you have to respond to these ideology and social consequence issues, and the way to do that is through competitiveness and civil rights appeals.

Now, I don't know what the message is to sum that up. One of the best political messages I've ever heard in education politics, where I used to work with Kennedy and Pell, came from George Bush or his speechwriter who wrote the famous line about “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” You can choke at that the way you might want to choke at the “No Child Left Behind” name and people may want to choke, because they think there is a lie underneath the message, but it's a very powerful message. When you get a message that backs the policy that the media will be attracted to that will move politics, change happens…

DM: I'm a little confused by this conversation; I didn't know we were discussing how to get National Standards.

KC: Well we're discussing National Standards, so that's part of the discussion.

DM: Did you have someone here to discuss how we would stop it?

KC: Well you seem to be that person.

DM: But you're asking me to do all of it: the only educator to discuss why it doesn't work on an educational level, to discuss why it's a civil rights fraud, and to discuss how we could stop it.

MD: Debbie, don't feel bad, it's been stopped for a long time.

DM: I don't think so. Not at all.

KC: Debbie, Lauren's contentions is that the result of this has been to put more attention on the educational lives of traditionally disadvantaged students…

DM: Attention from where?! If we want to talk about an incoherent, inefficient system, that enormously impacts poorly on the least advantaged children, we would look at our medical system. But I'm told single payer systems are politically unrealistic. Maybe not. I'm one of those that still believes it's a possibility.

I'm intrigued by the assertion that the left thinks that civil rights in this country today really trumps anything. It's embarrassing to me to think that we think that the federalization–under the current climate of who has power in America today–is likely to be used in the interests of precisely the people who in every other part of American life are being cut out of good chances. Is that another debate or the same one? Sure there's a lot of attention, but it's attention that does not actually serve the needs of children–the class clown gets a lot of attention, but it's bad attention.

I know you'd like to have better standards, but we have spent 10 years focused on the worst standards conceivable. We have put poor kids and kids of color, because that's who are most vulnerable to these standards, in schools that increasingly and narrowly teach to the test. At least in my experience in New York and Massachusetts, which are two systems that  have good standards, comparatively speaking, unlike Mississippi, I think what's going on for our kids, and particularly the kids who have parents who are least powerful, is the worst education I've seen in 40 years. I don't have the same picture of what this increased attention has done. I've never seen so many frightened teachers. I've never seen so many frightened principals. I cannot imagine how you think that is going to help our race to the top, that the children in our most low-income schools are surrounded by adults whose overriding concern is these terrible tests that you've all been attacking.

Now, I don't know whether the Mississippi tests–it says here that 85 percent of the kids in Mississippi were deemed to be proficient but only 15 percent on the NAEP test. But why are you telling me for sure which is right? The notion that somehow if it's federal it will not be flawed but if it's local it will be, the notion that parents and teachers, the people closest to the kids, don't have to exercise judgment are really dangerous. The National Academy of Education as well as the GAO have claimed that the NAEP tests are fundamentally flawed and subject to large biases. How many of you have seen the NAEP test? Raise your hand? How many of you have seen the Mississippi test? And even if you saw it, how many of you have sat down with a kid and figured out what they thought they were answering?

KC: Let's put that back to the Fordham Foundation because they've done a lot of work on standards. Mike do you want to…

DM: No, because what I partly…

KC: I think he does…

DM: I know he does, but what I'm saying is that the hard part for me in this discussion is that I spent time also talking to the kids and teachers who get the wrong answer on a test, and why they get the wrong answer on a test has never interested policy people.

KC: Mike?

MP: Let me back up a couple of steps. First of all, we know we still have a situation in this country where the average African American 12th grader graduates with the same reading and math skills on those horrible tests that are about equivalent to the average white 8th grader's–so there's about a four-year gap on those tests. Now, those tests aren't perfect, but we have a lot of research that shows that they are predictive in terms of opportunities for those children as they get older, in higher education and life. Even though those skills aren't everything, and we all agree that they shouldn't be the only thing, they still matter. I think that all or most of us in this room believe that until we narrow that gap, we're not going to be the kind of country that we all want to be.

When I was at the Department of Education I spent a lot of time on the road talking to educators. Deborah, everything you've said today is exactly what you hear from educators; you are speaking on behalf of the consensus of the education community. What you are hearing on this panel is the consensus of the Washington community, and they are very different consensuses. But what I would hear from educators is that testing is driving us crazy, we're teaching to the test, it's all punitive.

But if you step back and say what are we trying to achieve here? We are trying to achieve greater equity. We are worried about kids who are not getting the resources they deserve. Let's talk about teacher quality. Education Trust has done a great job showing that whatever indicator you use, poor and minority kids are not getting the high-quality teachers that more affluent kids are getting. You go into a suburban or urban district that has some diversity, a poor side of town and an affluent side of town, and guess where you're going to find the best teachers, however you measure them? They're going to be on the more affluent side of town. And you say to the superintendent, why don't you change that? Why don't you find some way to pay those teachers a bonus to go work on the poor side of town, or do whatever it takes to improve the working conditions of those schools, or put more resources in those poor schools? And what do they say? The say, “If I did that I'd get killed and sent on my way because I have to pay attention to the powerful interests.” The powerful interests are the affluent parents in those communities and the teacher unions. Those are the ones who have power in our education system today.

So you have a NCLB accountability system that tries to change the political dynamics on the ground, that tries, as I think Kevin and Michael have been arguing, say that says these kids now are going to have power that they didn't have before because bad things are going to happen to schools unless the test scores happen. The crazy people in Washington are going to do bad things, so finally the superintendent–this is a whole theory, right?–is going to be able to say to the unions and affluent parents, “Look, we have to figure out a way to get our better teachers into these poor schools or else they're going to come down on us like a ton of bricks.” And maybe those conversations then can happen that couldn't happen before. That's, from my point of view, the political rationale for the standards movement, that we are trying to change the political dynamics on the ground. It's not a mistake that we have these inequities in every community in this country. It didn't happen by accident, and it's not going to go away by wishing it away. So we're getting at the systematic pieces here.

KC: Michael, how do you respond to the concern that this whole standards movement and national standards would just represent another step toward relentlessly standardizing everything about education, creating a common definition for an almost impossibly diverse country, that we're snuffing a lot of the creativity and the diversity and the life out of our public schools.

MP: I want to go back and disagree a little bit with Lauren about the idea of the standards movement at the beginning. I think she expressed one view of the standards movement. There were some of us–Checker and others–who were arguing that it was an opportunity to have a tight/loose system, a kind of charter school model where you focus on results through the standards. But then that allows you to devolve power and deregulate everything else down to the school level. We haven't had any success, hardly, at that deregulation part. What you might call the flexibility movement hasn't gone anywhere. We haven't been very successful at actually giving most principals authority to hire the teachers they think would be best for the job or to really decide what goes on during the school day. In the charter movement we have a little bit of that, and even there there's lots of regulation. From our point of view, the goal is to get to a standards system where you get very clear on the outcomes or results. We think that should include content, and that's where we disagree with Deborah; her standards we wouldn't think would be enough, we want to make sure kids get a certain amount of content as well. But you set the standards and then say to the schools, now you have the freedom to go out and achieve those. And you might go out and do that in a way that looks like a Coalition of Essential Schools way or a way that looks like a KIPP way, but just get the results and we don't care how you do it. And I think that's how you solve that problem where you can have standards in terms of results and not have standardization in terms of what happens in the classroom.

KC: Michael Greve?

MG: I understand that that is the baseline, the tight/loose thing: Have tight standards then give school systems loose ways to get there as they want. But it can never work in public education, ever. Once you look at the political incentives of actors up and down the chain, once you look at the incentives in Congress, once you consider the uncertainty, Deborah is exactly right: We have no agreement on what the point or purpose of a public education system is. Once you toss these beautiful charts and beautiful accountability designs into that kind of politicized environment you are going to get precisely the inversion that we're all complaining about. You're going to be loose at the standards and very tight at the performance end. It's an inevitable result.

I just want to add one thing to Michael Dannenberg's assessment of the political environment, which I largely share which two slight caveats. The first caveat is I don't think that on the Republican side, which is the side I know, there's a lot of sentimentality for states' rights per se. I think there is a lot of worry about excessive centralization, and that brings me to my serious point. I think this all, the debate over the reauthorization of NCLB, will take place in the much larger context. On the first go-round of NCLB people closed their eyes and said, “OK we trust you, Karl Rove, and we trust you, Mr. Bush, that this is really necessary to create a permanent Republican majority and to be respectable among suburban moms, to just put them at ease and to entrench this majority.” Six, seven years later, no way, no how anyone will believe that. This is an administration that has given us a very, very bloated big intergovernmental bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security, which screws up the first big task it confronts. It has given us a Medicare [drug] benefit, the cost of which is not 400 million, not 700 million, it's 10 trillion dollars. This is the same gang of neo-cons that says, “Hey, building democracy in Iraq, no problem. Three months down the road we'll be down to 20,000 soldiers.”

KC: Although some of your colleagues at AEI might have thought the same thing…

MG: There are a lot of people at AEI who think that way, yes. It's like a university without students; we're free to disagree about these things. And I disagree and I think there's a lot of pent up–not anger, well there is a lot of anger on the Republican side. But whatever the next Republican administration, if there is one, it isn't going to look like that. There's going to be much more distrust of centralized solutions. It would be one thing if everyone said, “You know, NCLB that really worked. That really improved the schools. Now we're all happy. See, compassionate conservatism works.” It isn't like that. There isn't enough success out there. It's been a nightmare by all accounts–not an unmitigated nightmare, I don't want to exaggerate, but there isn't enough unambiguous success to put that over on the Republican base yet again.

KC: We're running a little short on time, but I want to give Lauren and then Mike Dannenberg a chance to respond.

LR: I want to try out a proposal on my colleagues. I think we want as little centralization and bureaucratic control as possible. But we also want a core that is well-defined and that everybody is aspiring to, because I actually think, in terms of what people want for their kids in this country, 80 percent of people agree on about 80 percent. Multiply that and you've got two-thirds, and that's plenty of space to work on commonality. Those two statements lead me to a national test, but on a very small portion of the total curriculum that we negotiate; we set the standards for and the assessments to it, on a really common core that we can believe in. There will be things left out that some people think are crucial, and others left out that other people think are crucial, but what will be in there will be agreed-on. It probably should only be in literacy, reading and writing, and mathematics. I don't think you can get the scientists to agree; when you really test this kind of thing in the national academy of sciences or at NSF you do not get agreement among scientists about what the core would be. So: Get a core core and make it a high level core, and don't try to control the rest.

KC: Michael Dannenberg, final thoughts?

MD: I mentioned obstacles being ideology and social consequences. I think there's another one, which I didn't mention, which is pedagogy. There is a question of how detailed standards get, and the more detailed they get the more into the muck you get with pedagogical questions like phonics versus whole language and calculators and all this sort of stuff. I think that's a problem.

With respect to addressing all these problems, what's most likely to happen? I think the march towards national standards and tests is inevitable. You look at these things over the course of many, many years. My old boss Senator Claiborne Pell told me once after a bitter defeat in a House-Senate Conference Committee–13-14 was the final vote–that you get a loaf of bread one slice at a time. I'd say about the march towards national standards that probably about half a loaf is already there. But I think the place where the next step is most apt to come is in mathematics. The Nation Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards came online in1989. The standards-based reform movement has been most successful with math, because that's where scores have increased and gaps have closed the most. And I think it's there area where you are most apt to peel away some Republicans and a good chunk of independents as part of this whole global competitiveness agenda. So my sum thoughts are pedagogy is not to be discounted, standards are on the march, and watch for math to happen first.

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