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March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

On Using the Standards: A Conversation with Ramsay Selden

    National standards in the various subject areas are now available. How are they likely to be used? Ramsay Selden of the Council of Chief State School Officers offers his perspective.

      National standards in the various subject areas are now available. How are they likely to be used? Ramsay Selden of the Council of Chief State School Officers offers his perspective.
      A decade ago, the idea of national standards in the various subject areas would have been inconceivable. Now, it's a reality. What changed?
      We recognized the scale of our needs in education. After A Nation at Risk came out, we set out to change what we could through new policies: by increasing graduation requirements, for example. But we found that this first wave of reforms didn't have dramatic effects.
      So there was a feeling of urgency that the education system needed to be stronger, and that—in addition to what states and districts and individual schools were doing—we needed a stronger presence at the national level. Since issues like economic competitiveness affect society as a whole, we tried to define what a national role might be. We recognized that we didn't need a national curriculum, so national goals and voluntary national standards came to be seen as good mechanisms for providing a focus.
      But there's never been a shortage of guidance about what to teach. State curriculum frameworks, district curriculum guides, and so on all suggest what ought to be in the curriculum. Why bother developing standards at the national level?
      Well, there have been a lot of ideas about what ought to be in the curriculum, but much of it was not really authoritative. You know, even if a state or a district had curriculum frameworks, people knew that there wasn't a lot of authority behind those. It wasn't until the last six or eight years that states really tried to get their assessments linked up with the curriculum frameworks. So even though there has been a lot of guidance for teachers, it's been mixed.
      Some people see this movement toward national standards as an intrusive federal effort to dictate to local educators what ought to be taught. How are state officials reacting to national standards?
      State officials aren't concerned about some kind of federal takeover. On the whole, state chiefs have been surprisingly responsive to and supportive of the national standards movement. They've been reassured because the standards have been handled in a very nonmandatory, voluntary way. Even though the federal government has supported the development of these standards, they were created by nonprofit, professional associations of educators to be used on a voluntary basis. They carry no requirements with them.
      How do states plan to address the standards? Will they adopt them wholesale, develop their own...?
      I think we're going to see a range of responses. Some states probably won't do standards at all. Some other states—Kentucky and California, for example—are trying to build a standards-based system, and they're taking some care to make sure that their standards are consistent with these voluntary national standards. Other states are doing different things. Vermont is using national standards as a strong reference point but organizing them differently. Instead of keeping them in isolated disciplines, Vermont is organizing them into clusters. Math, science, and technology are in one cluster, and the arts and humanities are in another cluster. What's profoundly important is that the states need to understand the reasons for the direction they take with standards.
      National standards in mathematics were issued in 1989, and they've been followed by standards in the arts, history, and science as well. What are your impressions of how good these emerging standards are?
      All of the standards that I've seen are to some extent useful. Teachers can respond to them as guidelines for what they're trying to do in art or geography, and so on. As the standards emerge, they're going to be different. Some of them are going to be a little more forward-looking, some a little more traditional, some more elegant in the way they're formulated. They will have their own distinctive characters, and that's one of the things that we in the field have to deal with. One point we have observed is that none of them contain performance standards.
      One of the things we're concerned about is the cumulative impact of all these standards. We have to start considering realistically what the expectations in geography, history, art, math, and science add up to, particularly for the elementary school. It's really tough to figure out what kind of curriculum and what kind of instructional day you'd need to address these standards and do them justice. When it gets down to brass tacks, the local curriculum people and teachers are going to select particular topics to address; do we really presume that everything within the standards will be covered? We're concerned about how, at the state and local levels, these standards are going to get put together into a coherent instructional program that addresses them appropriately and still makes sense.
      The Council of Chief State School Officers recently received a major grant to help states use the standards. How do you plan to use it?
      The states need a tremendous amount of assistance, coordination, and leadership in the use of standards. We're going to try to cluster the states into groups. Which states want to develop their own standards? Which want to use the national standards? Which want to do something else? As we organize them, we're figuring out what kind of activities and assistance the states need, and we'll try to play a leadership role in providing that assistance.
      We've learned a lot about the school improvement process and the crucial role of teachers. We need to help states figure out how they can use standards, then support the professional growth and capability of teachers as they start to work with the standards.
      All of the standards projects have sought input from teachers. Yet the impression persists that standards are another top-down approach telling teachers what to teach. How do states propose to get more teachers to “buy into” the standards?
      States are going to have to figure out a way to provide support to virtually all teachers in an effective way. Right now, some particularly active teachers are involved in the standards development process, but a lot of other teachers aren't. So we've got a basic task of informing a lot of teachers what the standards are in the various subjects.
      Second, states have to find ways to help teachers enhance their professional capability. The standards are ambitious, so they're going to really push teachers. But our present system of professional development isn't adequate. Rather than giving districts money for Saturday workshops, or having teachers take three credit hours every five years to keep up their certification, states need to figure out how to involve all teachers in long-term professional development.
      Occasional workshops don't really help teachers change their practice. A better model is long-term professional growth networks: things like the National Writing Project or the California Math Project. That's where teachers are given access to state-of-the-art ways of thinking about teaching a subject, and, probably more important, they talk to one another to share perspectives and experiences in trying to develop their practice. You might think these networks only attract and serve teachers who are already “with-it.” But people I've talked with say that all teachers can benefit from this kind of resource. They understand the new rationales. They can take advantage of the ways in which these networks help them change their practice. So this seems to be a strategy that's viable for teachers across the spectrum, if states can help to make it available.
      Some local educators say they'll use national standards as a resource: a document from which to pick and choose as they plan a curriculum. That's a far cry from the standards-based systemic reform that some policymakers envisioned. If the standards become a set of resource documents used somewhat sparingly and selectively, do you think the standards movement will have fallen short?
      Yes, because we want impact far broader than that from these standards.
      In large measure, it's unclear what kind of impact these standards are really going to have. I find myself wondering how the presence of standards might affect things like state and district curriculum frameworks. It may be that with national standards—and possibly different sets of national standards in some subject areas—states and local districts might not need to develop something called a curriculum framework. Instead, they might focus on helping teachers use the standards, helping to “broker” how the standards are used and what themes are emphasized, how they're selected and put together. But it's an open question right now.
      Several years ago, some policymakers were talking about national standards and a national student exam system as going hand-in-hand. They argued that high-stakes exams, linked to national standards, would create the leverage for change faster than anything else. What's your view of that?
      Most people realize now that this kind of system wouldn't work. You can put the high-stakes exam out there, but no matter how much the assessment and accountability system push people to change, all you're doing is cracking the whip harder. People still have to find the resources to change.
      There's a growing realization that it's the improvement process that matters. We've got to figure out viable ways for schools to become better and how to get many more teachers and schools involved in improvement. I think the states have to start collaborating with the teacher education institutions, the school districts, and the schools to figure out how to start the process and make improvement resources available. At least we're concentrating on that part of the problem now, whereas a few years ago people were more concerned with high-stakes accountability. There was a sort of fantasy that by having these high stakes, the system would somehow marshal the resources to change when pressure was placed on it. That just wasn't right.
      You think it's more reasonable to address the question of capacity rather than accountability.
      I think the advent of standards into our system is incredibly important, and we've got to be smart about it. I would hate in a few years to have standards-based education be a faded, formerly trendy development. We ultimately have to be real smart in showing teachers how they, with their professional responsibility, can use these standards to work toward high student achievement. If we move in that direction, the standards will have an impact. They just won't have much impact if we take a top-down approach.

      John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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