A Message for the 'War Room'

Last Updated: March 01, 1999

By Anne C. Lewis

Somewhere deep in the innards of the White House, there must be a windowless place known as the education war room. I envision its walls covered with charts of public opinion, interspersed with portraits of stern Prussian generals to provide inspiration. The strategists in this room no doubt wield their pointers as menacingly as any old-time schoolmarm in a little red schoolhouse.

It must have been in this room that, more than two years ago, the plotters and planners decided to propose a national testing system, an idea strongly supported by opinion polls but simplistic in its conception. This idea ran head-on into both political and technical problems, resulting in one National Research Council study, requested by Congress, that didn't provide the desired message. Based on research and testing ethics, the study said unequivocally that such national tests should not be used for high-stakes decisions, such as promotion or graduation.

Back to the war room the plotters went. This time they picked another popular issue that carried no risks; ending social promotion. It was already a hot item with some governors. It is a low-cost but high-visibility item for the White House. However, once again, it is a very simplistic answer to some very complex problems. And again, to force students and schools to do better, testing — the primary means of making decisions about promotion and graduation in some states — is used as a lever.

The White House also wants to require districts/states to reconstitute consistently failing schools, another low-cost item that the public considers quite logical. However, no state takeover for academic reasons in the past eight years has produced significant increases in student achievement. Some districts, such as San Francisco, are dropping the policy despite proponents' early claims that it would be just the thing to turn failing schools around.

If we view these policy proposals with a generosity they may not deserve, perhaps we could say that the White House is trying to speed up efforts to ensure quality in schools that serve low-income or minority children. The themes of these proposals are solidly middle class and thus politically viable, but the impact will primarily be on poor students and their schools. Poor and minority children are disproportionately held back and denied graduation.

Both the proposal for national testing and the new proposal for ending social promotion have presented advocates of poor children with a dilemma. They want schools to be more accountable for student success, but they fear that the proposals will instead push more children to the margins of school life. Ending social promotion, for example, is an easy way to deal with the outcomes of such deep-seated problems as poor teacher preparation, low expectations, inadequate resources, overcrowded conditions, and inappropriate assessment policies. As much as legislation might promise to address these problems, the quick and inexpensive response by states and districts could very well be to get tough on social promotion and do little else. If the White House really wanted to turn around the schools in which students do not do well academically, it could get tough on the enforcement of the Title I requirements to provide high-quality instruction.

What is more disturbing is that such heavy-handed emanations from the education war room could also set back a standards-based reform movement that is only now beginning to have any real impact in classrooms. Supporters of the testing and social promotion proposals argue that they would make students and schools more accountable for reaching higher standards. However, they ignore the dynamics of change in teaching and learning. For the first time ever, in every state, standards are in place that represent a consensus of people in the state. The process of arriving at these standards may not always have been perfect, but there is general agreement on what students should know and be able to do at certain times in their schooling. By next year, all states are to have adopted assessments based on these standards.

Critics complain that the effort has still produced too much unevenness in what students should know, but undoubtedly the guideposts are a lot more visible than at any time in the past. The stage of standards-based reforms now taking hold is important; it is the stage when teachers and students learn how to set higher standards for themselves. Before they can change their expectations for students, teachers must integrate into their thinking and instruction new ideas of what is it possible for all students to accomplish. Students, too, need to come to view themselves as standard-setters, rather than as passive learners. As a San Diego middle-grades teacher who was learning to create rubrics for learning with her students told me last year, "We are making what they need to know open and accessible to students. There are no more secrets about what students need to do."

When the energy and attention of teachers and students are directed toward doing well on a single, external test — no matter how good that test is — simply because national policy says so, the heart could go out of teaching. When external tests serve limited purposes and teachers and students are free to develop their own standards within general guidelines, a very different dynamic can take over.

Several weeks ago, these issues were passionately debated in a satellite conference sponsored by the Annenberg Rural Challenge Policy Program. Seven sites around the country addressed the concern of small communities and schools that standards-based reforms were snuffing out community control. As a policy paper eloquently pointed out, small rural communities are not opposed to standards. In fact, the Rural Challenge's definition of standards is one of the finest philosophical documents to come out of the standards movement; it is as applicable to inner-city schools as to rural ones.

States with a predominance of small, community-centered schools do quite well on the current proxy for national standards, the National Goals. Eight of the top 10 states on math and science performance, six of the top seven on student achievement in the core subjects, and all of the top five on parent involvement are rural states. Certainly, these states do not have to deal with as much diversity as urban districts, but they face as many problems with poverty, dwindling economic stability, and teacher quality as most urban schools.

Yet the students in these rural states (outside of the South) meet high expectations, and the communities surrounding these schools are deeply involved in what students and teachers accomplish. Higher-quality teaching in these places does not come from national or even state mandates. Instead, as Vito Perrone of Harvard University noted during the satellite conference, it comes "from their strengths — their ability to make education more personal, the need to draw more heavily on local resources, and [the need to] use more of the place as a basis for curriculum." The external standards that such schools must wrestle with in the belief that they represent a basis for greater equity are not likely to lead to high-quality education. They bring standardization, he said, that "seems to guarantee lower interest in school for more students and less connection to what students experience in the world. How can this lead to higher-quality work?"

The plotters in the White House war room ought to reconsider their strategies. Instead of undermining local strengths, they ought to find ways to encourage them and to continue support for the undramatic but steady consensus-building about accountability that takes place between students and teachers and between schools and communities. We need creative tension, not a mobilization for war.

Anne C. Lewis is a national education policy writer living in the Washington, DC area (e-mail: aclewis@crosslink.net) Reprinted with permission from KAPPAN, March 1999, p. 483. www.pdkintl.org.