The Spectacle of Standards & Summits


In 1989, President Bush called the nation’s governors together for the first national education summit. They set goals and tried to develop ways to measure progress, but were stymied by resistance to federal interference in local school decisions. Seven years later, governors and 44 top corporate leaders met at IBM’s conference center in Palisades, NY and set up an approach for states to accomplish what had eluded participants in the first summit, namely defining what should be taught in local schools and enforcing curriculum standardization through state mandated tests—what is called the “standards movement.”

The standards-based educational reform exemplifies how elites manufacture crises (e.g., the widespread failure of public education) and consent (e.g., the way to save public education is through standardized schools driven by high-stakes tests). The summit and Public Agenda’s report to participants are quintessential examples of how neoliberal democracy works to thwart meaningful participation of the many by allowing the few to speak for all.

The objective appearance of standards-based reforms, which aim to reform schools by focusing on test scores, conceals (partially) the fact that these reforms are the result of the deepening economic inequality and racial segregation that are typically coupled with authoritarianism. For example, in Chicago, public schools have been militarized—six schools have been turned into military academies and over 7,000 students in 41 schools are in Junior ROTC—and teachers have been given scripted lessons keyed to tests, to guide their instruction. The Detroit school board was disbanded last year by the Democratic mayor and Republican governor, who then appointed a new board—whose members represent corporate interests and of whom only one is a city resident. The primary justification for the seizure of schools and/or the imposition of standardized curriculum has been poor test scores and high dropout rates. But, standardized test scores are less a reflection of ability or achievement than measures of parental income. For example, recent data show that someone taking the SAT can expect to score an extra 30 test points for every $10,000 in parents’ yearly income. Dropout rates are directly related to poverty, and none of the powers demanding standardization are prepared to address the question of poverty.

When IBM CEO Louis Gerstner convened the third National Education Summit in September 1999, media attention focused on the laudatory monologue provided by an alliance of conservative and liberal politicians, corporate elites, chief school officers, and teacher union leaders about the “gains” made since the last summit, three years earlier. Specifically, 45 states have adopted standards in social studies, English, math, and science, up from 14 in 1996. Forty-eight states have instituted mandated standardized tests, up from thirty-nine in 1996. Over 10,000 employers now use student school records to identify behavior and work habits as part of their hiring process, up from the 3,000 businesses that previously used transcripts. The media and the participants heaped praise on the spectacular achievements of the past three years.

Public Agenda—a public opinion research organization—reported to summit participants that the movement to raise standards in public schools strikes a responsive chord with the public, but also warned that the issue of standards is not immune to the “normal controversies and complications that accompany any large-scale policy change.”

What is noteworthy about this report, Standards and Accountability: Where the Public Stands, is its straightforward description of the agenda that must be pursued if the economic and political elite are to maintain legitimacy—and respond to opposition—as they define the curriculum and pedagogy of public schools. The number one task according to Public Agenda is effective propaganda or as they put it: “Experts and decision-makers often must concentrate on the labyrinth of details needed to make a policy work in real life. But to sustain change…that touches people’s families and daily lives, leaders need to take time periodically to restate the basic rationale, to remind people of the beliefs and values that underlie reform. When the going gets a bit rough, people need to be reminded of why we’re here.”

It is important to note that the “we” in this case refers to the summiteers and other opinion-makers like Public Agenda and Education Week, the trade weekly that has been an ardent proponent of the standards movement, and which collaborated with Public Agenda on its survey of public opinion regarding the standards movement.

While the authors of Standards and Accountability make much of the “established and remarkably stable” support for standards-based educational reform in the U.S., they are mindful of “pitfalls that could derail or unsettle support.” First, the report warns that standards advocates should expect unhappiness when the rubber hits the road and students are retained in grade or denied diplomas.

Pointing to the dramatic shift in public support for managed health care as people experienced drive-by surgery and denial of treatment options, Public Agenda warns standards advocates that delivering test score increases must be accompanied by the “appearance of fairness” in managing the reform effort. Now that thousands of students are being forced to repeat a grade or denied diplomas, it is likely that the mere appearance of fairness will not be enough to stave off opposition to standards and the high-stakes tests that accompany them. Parents and teachers are the two groups most likely to derail the standards train.

The Public Agenda report declares that parents are insignificant players in the standards movement. While parents generally support standards-based reform, Public Agenda says, “most are not especially well-informed or vigilant consumers, even concerning their own child’s progress.” This claim conflicts with reports that the once-sporadic resistance to standards-based educational reforms is blossoming into a broader rebellion. For example, as a result of parent protests Los Angeles school officials recently backed off of a plan to end “social promotions” and in Massachusetts officials were forced to redefine cut scores on state tests that otherwise would have prevented as many as 83 percent of Latino and 80 percent of African American students from receiving high school diplomas.

Perhaps the best example of parental “pushback” is in Virginia where Parents Across Virginia United to Reform Standards of Learning is a rapidly growing group working to dump the state’s curriculum standards and testing program. Virginia’s unrealistically broad “Standards of Learning” (SOL) includes this standard for third-graders: “Students will explain the term civilization and describe the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome in terms of geographic features, government, agriculture, music, art, religion, sports and the roles of men, women and children.”

Starting in 2004, Virginia high school students must take a series of 11 exams, based on the SOL to graduate. In 2007, 70 percent of a school’s students must pass SOL tests for it to remain accredited—last year only 2.2 percent of Virginia schools met this standard.

Beyond the unrealistic nature of the SOL and deleterious effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning, a primary concern of the Virginia parents group is that the state’s reform efforts have not included local input on what students should be learning. They argue that many test items are more like Trivial Pursuit factoids than essentials and claim that Virginia’s standards reflect the views of only a few members of the state board of education rather than a consensus of broad-based groups of educators and parents.

The absurdity of many standards and test questions is not limited to Virginia. In Chicago, George Schmidt—a 30-year veteran of Chicago Public School classrooms and publisher of a monthly newspaper written by and for people who work in Chicago’s public schools—is being sued for $1 million by the Chicago Board of Education for publishing questions from the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (after students took the tests). This item is from a social studies CASE 23. “    All of the following activities are part of a typical African woman’s life in rural areas EXCEPT”:

  •     A.     preparing food
  •     B.     taking care of children
  •     C.     helping her husband grow cash crops
  •     D.     selling crops at the market

    While Public Agenda—and perhaps the corporate leadership of the movement—considers parents to be little or no threat to standards-based educational reform, politicians appear more sensitive to the growing anti-standards, anti-testing pressures. Test boycotts and other forms of resistance have moved the governors of Michigan and California to offer students money (“scholarships” of up to $2,500) for taking or scoring well on state-mandated tests. Indiana politicians are bracing for an enormous backlash against the state graduation test, which threatens to keep 50 percent of the seniors in urban districts and a quarter of seniors state-wide from graduating this year.

Teachers are the most significant potential pitfall to the standards movement, according to the Public Agenda report. While many school administrators and the top leaders of the teacher unions are solidly on the standards bandwagon, rank-and-file teachers’ pivotal role is rightly acknowledged: “If teachers believe that standards policies are important and well thought out, they can sustain and nourish parental support. If teachers are convinced that standards policies are unfair or destructive, they can undercut parental support with extraordinary speed…District directives are often ridiculed or resented, and experienced teachers have already been through waves of reform, which in their minds produced very little of value. Public Agenda’s research strongly suggests that bringing the nation’s teacher corps firmly inside the movement to raise standards could be the most pivotal challenge of all.”

Following the lead of Public Agenda, the top agenda item at the summit was teaching, in particular devising ways in which teacher preparation and pay can be tied directly to the standardized curriculum and tests developed by states.

For their part, education leaders promised to align college-admissions requirements with state curriculum standards. The standards, which threaten academic freedom in K-12 classrooms, are now being applied to university teacher preparation programs as advocates work to create a rigid system in which the education of students and teachers is defined by interests accountable only to corporate America. As a result, the standards movement poses a threat to parents, teachers, students, and other members of local communities to define their own interests and desires and use them as platforms for deciding the content and pedagogy used in public schools.

The idea of paying teachers based on their students’ test scores, which was endorsed at the summit, is backed by Bob Chase and Sandra Feldman, the respective presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In the past six months unionized teachers in Denver, St. Paul, Cincinnati, and Seattle, to name a few, have agreed to some sort of pay-for-performance plan. Governor Gray Davis of California recently approved $50 million for one-time bonuses of up to $25,000 for teachers whose students show substantial test score improvement. Davis’s plan, like other teacher pay-for-performance plans, is an attack on the notion that teachers should be engaged in deciding what’s best for their students by shifting the focus from students’ welfare to teachers’ pocketbooks.

Paying teachers for student performance is not a new idea. History shows that most of the gains from such programs are destructive illusions that narrow the curriculum offered to students and encourage teachers and administrators to cheat—as we have recently seen with the high-stakes exams used in New York City public schools. In an article for Education Week, Wellford Wilms and Richard Chapleau of UCLA described pay for results schemes implemented in England, Canada, and the U.S. in the last two centuries and conclude: “Few results that are forced on the schools (especially destructive ones like pay-for-results) will ever penetrate the classroom and positively change the teaching and learning processes. Teachers are every bit as adept at deflecting or sabotaging reforms of this kind today as they were at deceiving English school inspectors in the 1800s. Politically driven reforms like pay-for-performance are nothing more than reflections of public frustrations. And rather than helping to solve the root causes of failure, they paralyze us and deflect public attention from reforming the educational systems at their core.”

    In the end, the National Education represents our hierarchical society, where citizens are made to be passive spectators, disconnected from one another and alienated from their own desires, learning, and work. The spectacle of standards, test scores, and summits obscures the role of parents, teachers, and students in decision-making public education. This spectacle expresses what society can do, but in this expression what is permitted with regard to teaching and learning limits what is possible. Ultimately, the achievement of standards-based educational reform is the preservation of the unequal conditions of existence.

The bottom-line is that the more members of local communities are allowed to decide on school curriculum and teaching methods, the more equitable and democratic the society will be. Standardized curriculum and high-stakes tests are attacks on democratic education. Organized parents, educators, students and community people have an honest stake in responding and are doing it.                              Z

E. Wayne Ross teaches in the School of Education and Human Development at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He and David W. Hursh are editors of Democratic Social Education: Social Studies for Social Change (Falmer Press).