THE CLINTON Administrations education bill that is working its way through Congress looks a lot like last year's version, which died in the final days of the session. The new bill is a warm-up for bigger things to come (especially the reauthorization of Chapter 1). It would make the national education goals a formal national policy, continue work on higher curriculum standards, and support the development of a new assessment system. The school delivery standards of 1992, which were meant to ensure that reforms are fair, have now become "opportunity-to-learn" standards in the new version of the bill.
In just a few months, however, the context surrounding these proposals has changed. The more education reform is debated and analyzed, the more we learn about what makes good -- and mistaken -- policy. The current legislation could make some big mistakes. Embedded in it are two approaches that fall short of the sophisticated policy making we need in American education today: one is the blame game; the other is the top-down quick fix.
Undoubtedly, the frustrations of teaching today encourage those who wish to play the blame game. Students will not be serious about learning, the argument runs, until there are consequences, either from schools or from employers. Thus our national policy should be to set standards and conduct high-stakes assessments. The leading proponent of this idea is Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who believes that, until penalties are attached to poor school performance, things will not begin to improve.
In addition to the standards/assessment component of the Administration's bill, vestiges of the arguments in support of high-stakes strategies are evident in the Administrations decision to continue the development of a consensus about new entry-level job skills needed by young people. Consequences attached to the failure to demonstrate these skills would become another card in the blame game.
The other major flaw in the thinking behind this legislation is the assumption that there is a direct, clear line between policy making at the national level and changes in the classroom. The strategy looks something like this: set challenging content standards, tie new assessments to them, and expect miracles to follow -- soon. The experience of many district and state reform plans (and the history of past federal interventions) should give pause to those who hold such beliefs. On the other hand, the failed bottom-up policies of the past should also prevent everyone from moving precipitously to embrace that mode of change. Top-down and bottom-up efforts must converge somewhere on the reform map.
This quick analysis is not meant to minimize the ambiguities in the situation or to understate the need for higher standards and better assessments. Rather, it is a plea that federal policy acknowledge and deal skillfully with what research consistently reveals to be a complex set of problems.
The Washington policy community, including congressional staff members, received this message clearly at a session on Capitol Hill in February when Stanford University researchers presented their analysis of a five-year study of what it is like to teach in secondary schools today. Their conclusions provide a much better foundation for federal policy making than do conjectures about what will happen when students are made to toe the line and a voice from above speaks authoritatively to teachers.
At the core of the systemic reforms set in motion by the national education goals, said chief researchers Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, is the problem of helping teachers learn how to "translate enhanced curricula and higher standards into teaching and learning for all their students. …