Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Checker Finn
(edited by the speaker)
biography of speaker


. _

 Return to conference page

Mr. Finn: Thank you very much. I wish I had been here for the whole conference. I was at a boring, if slightly more posh, conference in San Francisco yesterday and would rather have been here instead. Fond as I am of my own voice, I could also happily keep listening to Don Hirsch and am happy to have had that opportunity. Mike Podgursky mentioned our Thomas B. Fordham Foundation web site . It's Please have a look at it.

My assignment is to warm up the crowd for the panel to follow, which will discuss the pitfalls and promise of standards implementation, which clearly an issue here in California. You now have standards. Pretty good ones, in my view. But now what's going to happen? I will wind up these remarks by suggesting eight pitfalls to watch out for.

Before getting to them, however, let's recall why we have standards in the first place. It's so hard to get and keep decent standards. Why do we put ourselves through all this bother? The standards movement results from the failure of the previous strategy, which we can term inputs based reform. The assumption there was that if we did more -- spent more, did more in-servicing, had smaller classes, got newer textbooks, imposed more graduation requirements, etc., The more we put in the more would come out the other end by way of student learning. This was wrong. We've known since James Coleman's great 1966 study that there's no direct relationship between what goes into a school by way of resources and what comes out in terms of pupil achievement. Yet we did that anyway, did it with gusto, did it at great cost. We could list hundreds of things we did more of in the 1980's in response to the Nation At Risk report. But for the most part they didn't work. And by the late 80's we began to understand that, if what we really care about was results, we needed to focus directly on those results. The way to do that is to begin by specifying the results we want. Spell out clearly the destination for your journey, and you have a chance of getting there. Drive aimlessly off in pursuit of no specific destination, and as they say, any road will take you there, but you won't actually get anywhere.

Thus began the "standards-based reform" movement. It started with a series of energized governors in the late 80's, leading to the 1989 Charlottesville Summit, leading then to an abortive attempt at setting national standards, and finally leading back to the states and to private developers of standards, such as Core Knowledge and the New Standards project, both of which have been referred to in the last few minutes. We had finally figured out that, if we want to produce better academic results, we need to say what those results are supposed to be: What do we want kids to know and be able to do? If we can be clear about that, maybe we have a chance of actually getting there.

But it turned out to be difficult and complicated. Who would set the standards? How will we agree on them? Who must participate? Who must assent? What will they be based on? Should they be national, local, school specific or state standards? Today, we're trying all those approaches but, for the most part, state standards are where the action is. And almost every state is trying to implement standards-based education reform, also known as systemic reform.

But there's a lot more to that than just setting the standards. Many people are under the illusion that, once we set them, we're done. Fight over those standards, get them right and they will be self-actualizing. Improved learning will just sort of happen. That's naïve, of course. There has to be something that causes change to occur, that induces students actually to learn more. Different people have different theories about what causes academic standards to gain traction and change the system. My own theory rests on a tripod. Call it the accountability tripod. Standards are the first leg. The second leg is assessment or testing, which generates data on whether and how well (and by whom) the standards are being met. The third leg, the painful leg, the leg that hurts, is called "consequences". The whole point of this exercise, remember, is to cause human beings to do something different, to learn more. If nobody ends up doing anything differently, they're not going to learn any more. But what will lead them to change their ways? Standards merely say what we would like to accomplish. Assessments tell us how well we have accomplished them. And consequences either reward success or intervene in situations of non-success, which is a polite way of saying that consequences produce sanctions or punishments in instances of failure to meet standards. Standards, assessments, consequences. That's the accountability tripod. That's my theory of standards-based reform.

Standards are the easy leg in that tripod, even though you might not think so after all the agony of setting them. Assessment is more difficult: Getting agreement on specific test instruments, on passing levels and cut off scores , on what level of student or school performance represents "good enough". That's hard, and, if the tests don't have much to do with the standards, then you are not getting very far anyway by having them. Today a lot of states are having real problems getting their tests and standards in alignment.

But the real difficulty comes with the third leg of the tripod. Consequences are really hard to install. Consequences are what people try to avoid. Praise and rewards may be okay. But what happens when kids don't get promoted, when adults lose their jobs, when other unpleasant things happen? Politically this is very difficult to implement. It's difficult at any level but perhaps especially at the state level. Yet if we are unable to do it, I predict that standards based reform is going to get us just about nowhere.

Nearly every state in the country is struggling with its version of this tripod. Lots of states have standards, although lots of them are lousy. Almost every state has some kind of test but often it has nothing to do with standards and there is a huge fuss about how and when to make test results actually count. "Maybe we should put off making them count until 8 years in the future." "Perhaps we should wait for the class of 2011 before the tests will count in some way.î "Well, maybe they should count for kids but not for teachers". This is a major problem that most states are struggling with

As if to complicate matters further, in the midst of all this another whole education reform paradigm has come forward. This one rejects planned centralized top-down change. It believes instead in grass roots, marketplace, competition-style change. For simplicity's sake, we can call this new reform paradigm the "choice movement", although it takes many forms. It includes charter schools, contract schools, all sorts of voucher and scholarship and open enrollment plans, and other ways to foster diversity and competition. The theory hold that then the system will reform itself, in response to pressure arising from competition. In many states, including California, we can see the standards-based reform paradigm trying to co-exist with the marketplace version. But they frequently collide. And advocates of one tend not to believe in the other.

I think they can co-exist and do each other some good. I believe that standards-based reform won't work well if people have no ability to go from a badly functioning school to a well functioning school, if they have no alternatives. Conversely, I don't think the choice movement will work well unless there is clear information about how one school is doing compared to another. The choice movement will benefit from the standards movement, and the standards movement needs the choice movement. But politically that's far easier to say than to do.

I promised you pitfalls associated with standards-based reform. Here are eight of them.

The first is what the people at my dull conference yesterday called the "train wreck" scenario. That is the expectation that the political system won't tolerate a high failure rate resulting from standards-based reform. A backlash will set in, a backlash led by both educators and parents whose kids are failing suddenly when high standards are clamped down on them and their schools. Then there will be watering down or abandonment of the entire standards based reform movement. The train wreck will occur when that reform movement collides with reality, when consequences kick in and nobody can stand the resulting heat. A little of this is evident already in Virginia where they gave the pilot version of their new state tests a few months other and discovered that 97% of the state's public schools failed to meet the standard.

This time it didn't count. No school was actually going to lose its accreditation on the basis of not having met the standard. But suppose it did count and suppose 97% of the public schools of Virginia lost their accreditation because they failed to meet the state's generally laudable standards as tested by the state's exacting new tests. What happens then? A train wreck?

Pitfall two. Call it political instability. The fact that what the legislature giveth it can also taketh away. The fact that the next election can transform one reform strategy into another one. That what looks like high standards to one administration looks like trouble to the next. The fact that one governor favors choice-based and the other favors standards- based reform, or vice-versa. Instability causes nobody to take reform seriously, especially those working in the schools. Rather, it causes them to say, "this too shall pass, let's wait for the next election and all will be well." Incidentally, as one who supports charter schools, I see a some of this happening now in California, where the legislature is weighing a major roll back of the charter program, a requirement that charter school teachers be subjected to local collective bargaining contracts. If enacted, this will be the first serious roll back of the charter movement anywhere n the land. But it is the result of a change in election results. This can happen to standards as well.

Third, litigation. Particularly if high stakes tests that actually count for kids begin to bite, we are going to have -- you already have some of it in this stateólitigation. You will have lawyers who specialize in bringing anti-standards lawsuits on behalf of various aggrieved individuals and groups. It may be the disabled, ethnic minorities, women, tall people, short people. It could be anyone. But it will certainly be people who feelóor are persuaded by the attorneysóthat they are disadvantaged by the tests or cut-off scores built into the standards. The litigation will seek to invalidate them or make sure they are not used for anything real. This sort of thing does not happen so much in most other countries, but it happens frequently here.

Fourth pitfall: Gaming the system. The short word is cheating on the tests. Another version is excluding certain kids from taking the tests so as to raise the scores in your schools. There are a variety of ways that this can be done. There are plenty of ways to finagle the system to produce the results you will be held accountable for without actually producing those results.

Fifth, there never any real consequences. That leg never gets attached to the tripod. Hence there is never any real change in the system. We settle for having standards but we never really get the accountability system into operation . We lack the will, the smarts or the political fortitude to let real consequences follow from them. Therefore behavior will not change. Academic results do not change. And the standards movement gets declared a failure.

Sixth, the delivery system isn't up to the task of producing the learning that the standards require. Whether this is teachers who don't know enough about a subject to teach their students what they're supposed to learn, inept school leadership, inadequate materials, shoddy textbooks, not enough time in the school day, anything can happen. And most of it will. There are school principals who don't know an academic standard from a hole in the ground. There are any number of ways the delivery system can fail to have the capacity to produce the desired results.

Seventh, bad standards will end up being inflicted on good schools. They pull down good schools to some kind of low cut off score that was a political compromise. A standard that was intended to function as a floor ends up as a ceiling. It makes schools that were doing better -- perhaps including private and charter schools -- say, oh, we can coast. We're working harder than necessary to meet the standard. Resources get slid over to bring the low performing schools up to this minimum and suddenly there are no more gifted, talented or advanced placement programs. They're above the standard and we don't need to waste resources on them.

Eighth and finally, there will turn out to be a mismatch between our school standards and the standards of the rest of society. Which is to say, the k-12 education system will head in one direction with its standards. But colleges, employers, everybody else will have a completely different concept in mind, and they'll move ever farther apart. I'm especially worried about the mismatch between high school exit standards and college entrance standards. Particularly when it comes to teenagers, so long as the college down the road is whispering into their ear, "don't worry, we'll admit you anyway -- in fact, we need you on our campus because of the money that comes with you" -- then the high school can yammer until it is blue in the face about the need to meet higher standards. But if it's not true in the real world that the kids inhabit, no change in learning will actually occur. It's relatively easy to fool a 7-year old, if the teacher and parents say that these standards are important and you'd better study hard. But it's hard to fool a 16 year old, at least if he is not getting signals from his real world that it really counts. Visualize that 16 year old on a Tuesday night, trying to decide how to spend his evening. Should he stay home and revise that history paper? Or should he go out with his friends? 16 Year olds, in their own peculiar way, are rational beings. They ask whether it counts or not. If, in their real world, it doesn't countóthe rest of society is signaling clearly that it doesn't countó then it doesn't matter what we do in the k-12 system. It won't alter the behavior of that young person. Which means it won't change his academic results and it won't change the state's results. Then we will have gone through this arduous, costly, exercise and have very little to show for it.

On that cheerful and encouraging note, I would like to suggest that you have your work cut out for you. California has made considerable strides in the last couple of years towards getting solid standards in place. Now I await eagerly the evidence that you will make similar strides toward getting the rest of the tripod build and avoiding the pitfalls that will do their best to tip it over and undermine the goal of higher standards for all youngsters. Thank you.


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)