Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Janet Nicholas
biography of speaker


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Mr. Carroll: I would like to now introduce the first speaker of the conference, regarding topics of science and math and language arts standards. Janet Nicholas will be our first speaker. She is a member of the California State Board of Education and is involved in private business for her livelihood. She also will be covering two sets of topics. She will be talking about the history of educational reform in California and about the California Academic Content Standards. Janet (Applause).

Ms. Nicholas: Thank you very much, and good morning. For those of you who know Maureen DiMarco, you know she is a very hard speaker to take the place of (Laughter). By those giggles, some of you know her quite well. When Maureen phoned me and told me of the situation, and I asked her what it was she wanted to really focus on. She said quite simply, well, it's Cal State Northridge -- obviously earthquake preparedness (Laughter). She said Janet, just read them the earthquake preparedness procedure from that hotel room in Orange County, and then apply it to reform, and everyone will get it (Laughter). So with that in mind, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Shortly after the Northridge earthquake, and I know your President and Maureen worked very, very hard at that, Maureen stayed at a hotel after that, and given the disasters in California in the early 90's, she read the card in the room that some of us never read -- it says "what to do in an earthquake -- remain calm. Most earthquakes last only a few seconds, doing very little damage, if any" -- not too good on English language arts. As a matter of fact it is very common and a natural phenomenon in Southern California, numbering in the thousands each year" -- the Chamber of Commerce did not write this card. "Immediately proceed to the nearest door way or archway and hold on. If there is no doorway or archway, go under a strong table or desk" -- now this is a hotel with no doors... "Do not rush for an exit, leave the building during the quake or use elevators or stairs. Both are unsafe. After the earthquake, you should remain calm, take time to assess the situation. If there is any needed medical help, call the hotel operator (Laughter). And unless instructions are announced over the public address system, you should continue your normal activities." Then Maureen, said, you know, just fill it in for reform.

That took quite a bit of pondering on my behalf, but let me read you how that might read if we were discussing educational reform. "What to do during an educational reform movement. Remain calm (Laughter). Most educational reform movements last only a few seconds (Laughter). Doing very little damage (Laughter). As a matter of fact, it is a very common natural phenomenon in California (Laughter). Numbering in the thousands each year.

"Immediately proceed to the nearest doorway or archway and hold on. If there is no door way or archway, then get under a strong desk or table. After the educational reform movement, you should remain calm. Take time to assess the situation, and unless instructions are announced over the public address system, you should continue your normal activities."

With that in mind, I would like to briefly highlight a couple of, maybe, observations on educational reform in California, and what different reforms may or may not have in common.

We constantly hear the call for change or reform in this state, and really it's growing louder throughout the United States. The clarion call is always to improve our schools, and that's the one single constant we have heard in California over the past decade. Yet change or reform is almost never defined. What constitutes "improvement" quote unquote, of California's public schools? Typically, reformers advocate talk about structural change. That is, what some refer to as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This is the easiest type of reform to achieve. The premise behind such reform is always, if only we could change the structure, the system organization of public education in this state, we would automatically improve our schools. Structural reformers have alternatively advocated centralization and decentralization -- many layers of control and absolute local control, unification and breaking up. Elected trustees at large in local schools and district elections; class size reduction, school governments, councils, local decision making and state leadership.

The process reform, the second most popular type of reform in recent years, confidently said, all we need to do is change the way we deliver education in public schools, and they will automatically improve. They have advocated more recently individual instructions, learning centers, learning contracts, parent contracts, business partnerships, team teaching, cooperative learning, group learning, open classrooms, block scheduling, discovery learning, teacher as facilitators just to name a few and the list goes on.

Perhaps the most difficult type of reform though is one I would like to speak on detail today, and that is content reform. It rests on the premise which is to me quite logical, that what we teach in the classroom actually matters, and matters most. Here too, though, California has had a hazardous record at best. Content reformers have confidently established whole language, new math, new new math -- the CLAS test, many of you recall, with a level of pain perhaps. Science was a focus on, quote unquote, big ideas, and state and federal laws which told local school districts to develop and adopt standards locally, but standards of what, was never defined.

More subtle is the vocabulary of content reformers, at least in some quarters. They frequently pose, in my view, false dichotomies. Do we want the children to learn developmentally appropriate content or just factual knowledge? Do we want them to be critical thinkers, profound in their understanding? Or just know, quote unquote, mere factoids such as division, subtraction, multiplication and division?

Academic standards of students, and underline the word "academic" are the most recent, and I believe the most significant content reform. They are based on a couple simple premises. First, once again, what is taught in the classroom matters. And second, academic achievement is not opposed to, but leads to self-esteem. Just as factual knowledge forms the basis of critical thought.

Several years ago, those were highly controversial statements. In some quarters of this state, they still are. But in my view, let's face it, it's exceedingly difficult to think critically or creatively in the absence of any foundational knowledge.

California Academic Standards adopted by the State have been praised and rated highly by a number of national groups. They are clear, unambiguous and detailed. They provide teachers, parents and students with a clear articulation of what every child should know and master each of their school years. Perhaps most importantly, our standards are by law, rigorous and at a level of high performing countries -- nations such as Singapore and Japan. In short, they bear little resemblance to what is currently being taught in California classrooms.

Why standards? California standards and California law provide the answer, at least in my view to, the critical question typically ambiguous and left unanswered by reformers -- what constitutes improvement to our schools?

And that answer is a resounding and clear -- student academic achievement. It is not the structure of our schools. It's not the delivery system. It's our customers -- students, the citizens of the future of this state.

If we fail to dramatically increase the academic rigor and knowledge of our schools, we will continue to fail our children and limit their future, as was profoundly stated from our president. These clear standards of academic rigor at world class level allow parents, teachers and local communities to objectively measure and compare their schools' effectiveness. the provide the cornerstone of accountability in public education.

The good news is, two governors, and numerous legislative sessions, have provided resources in this state, literally billions of dollars to ensure that teachers receive training, state frameworks were adopted --the road map to implement standards-- and schools have money to buy appropriate new standards-based textbooks and critically, children are individually tested on an annual basis for their skills and knowledge.

The bad news is, which I'm sure comes as no surprise to any of you who obviously care passionately about education or you would not be here at this hour of the morning -- the bad news is, we have a long and exceedingly difficult road ahead. Your President just spoke on the NAEP test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in both language arts and reading, painting a bleak, bleak picture of the educational attainment in this state. I won't repeat the numbers and depress you further with that. Without question, the children who attain world class academic achievement need to be taught fundamental skills first. Last year's STAR or Stanford SAT-9 test confirm again those NAEP numbers. State-wide, only 36% of our third graders could read at a national average, and we all need to remember this is a nation with a reading crisis. So that is hardly praise, when we look to our 4th graders, 39% of our fourth graders could perform basic mathematics. And again, a nation we all know is far behind its industrial competitors in math. California's academic profile on the SAT-9, a nationally normed test, was similar to one other, quote unquote, state when the test was administered, and that was the District of Columbia. Achieving rigorous standards will be a steep and I expect painful climb for many children who are trapped in low performance schools with low expectations and uncertain exposure to academic content and skills. These are the skills they will need for the 21st Century. Unless we shine a spotlight on these schools here and throughout the State, hundreds of thousands of our children are at risk of being deprived of a future.

The good news is, throughout the State as most of us recognize, Californians are focused on improving education. We have a unique window of opportunity to make this happen for all of California's children. What matters most is what goes on in a classroom. I would encourage each and every one of you to stay focused on proven strategies that consistently produce objectively measured and reliable results in student academic achievement. We frankly need your help, and we need it most in terms of your thinking, your probing questions, your demands for bottom line results. And those results again are academic achievement of our students. We need you, as individuals interested keenly in improving education, to act like entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Please ask and demand answers, and I know that's easier said than done in many circumstances, but we need those probes. Ask where is the independently confirmed, replicated research? where's the compelling evidence for this latest idea in California? We know that ideas will continue to flow, but if we really want to focus on student academic achievement at a high level, we need you to be probing us all the time, from the State Board to local school board to a principal to a classroom teacher about where those answers are. Our public schools, in my view, are about value added. Good intentions of sincere and extremely well-meaning people are not enough. Our system exists to provide all of California's children with the opportunity to stretch and reach the highest academic levels they can. So I encourage each and every one of you, as you go through today and tomorrow, to think about being our partners in this challenge and holding all of us accountable. And steadfastly focus on outcomes -- student outcomes, not input to the system. For if we fail to teach our children during five to six hours a day we have them in school, if we squander those precious hours in a young child's life, no amount of volunteer effort, new moneys, or support from parents and communities can make up for that, and no amount of goodwill will allow today's children to succeed in the 21st century. Demand more, not less, of all of us in the system. Our kids certainly deserve no less than to have you as their advocates. I thank you very much. (Applause)

I just received a hand signal that we will do questions. We have a minor technical difficulty I'm sure will be corrected now.

Moderator: We have time to take a few questions from the audience.

Audience member: I'm in the School of Education. Let me see if I heard you correctly. Not to worry about the delivery system or the input in terms of curriculum. Then I heard you say how important good strategies are. Do we need to be concerned with the delivery by adopting good strategies.

Ms. Nicholas: That wasn't precisely the question, but that was the summation of it. The answer is it probably relates to the other factors, but the corollary to that question is you can have a brilliant structure chart and no academic gains. Many of you in the private sector have done new organizational charts at least once a year for several years. I know I have. We reorganize everything. You can look at delivery systems and do a thematic approach to that. In fact if you don't have content no matter how brilliant your charts or delivery system are, in my opinion we fail California's children. There is some importance to organization and some importance to delivery, but without the content, without the key focus on the bottom line which to me always has to be student achievement, I think that we lose it all. I hope that answers your question. (Applause)

Moderator: Can you step to the microphone because we are doing closed captioning on everything. Will that be possible. Maybe we can have 1 or 2 people to line up on each side. We want to facilitate the process.

Audience member: . I'm a teacher at Chatsworth High School. Who determines the content?

Ms. Nicholas: We adopted after literally 2 years of hearings throughout the State what students should be able to do at the end of a particular grade level in their K-12 career. When that subject or skill is first introduced is entirely up to a local school district and their system of governance. How it is taught is entirely up to that local school district and their system of governance and their teachers. What we have adopted as our system is that we will assess, at the grade level the standard is in, if that school has done a reasonable job providing their students with that skill or knowledge. So there really is terrific flexibility in California standards, but not flexibility in end results. I think that assessment is also important and when they occur because Californians as we all know move a lot. They move frequently, they and their children across district lines. There has to be a level of continuity where a child in School A in the third grade can proceed logically because his or her family moves to School B in the 4th grade and have a continuity of content.

Audience member: Mrs. Nicholas I wanted to ask you if you can sketch for the audience how this unfolds in the future. How are we envisioning, beginning to see results of student performance from setting these standards. Is it going to be next year or 5 years from now? In terms of how we get feedback about accountability of whether the students have been learning this and whether the teachers have been successfully teaching this. How are we doing about putting in place the testing system and so forth?

Ms. Nicholas I will try to briefly answer that. I think you have a panel on testing. California has a number of components to its assessment system. First there is the basic skills test, the nationally normed, we refer to it as the STAR or SAT-9 test which assess basic skills grades 2-11. This year for the first year there was a criterion reference section based on standards. It was done to provide a base line data of where we are starting. There is no label attached to that. There is not an individual student definition at this point in time of whether a student met the basic skills or not. Next year there will be an English language arts performance level, a base line attached to that and the following year in mathematics, history, and social science. I'm just told my time is out. I thank you very much.

Moderator: Let's thank Janet one more time. (Applause)

Moderator: We will now adjourn for a coffee break and reconvene at 10:15.




Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)