And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
Will historians and songwriters look back on July 14, 2022 as the day that standards-based Education Reform died? And is this how it ends, not with the bang of a fiery crash in the fields of Iowa, the fountainhead of state standardized testing, but with a whimper from the digital pen of Chester E Finn, Jr.
I have come to accept the articles and posts of the past few years pronouncing, often celebrating, the death of state testing and test-based accountability. Frankly, in their current form, the expiration date for both of those tools of education reform was fast approaching, if not already here.
That’s fine because standardized testing and NCLB-era accountability systems are simply tools, and old tools are replaced by new tools as technology advances and circumstances and needs change. I would be disappointed if state testing and accountability didn’t look very different 5, 10, or 15 years from now.
I can gaze across my office at the Underwood typewriter I was using to write a term paper the night that John Lennon died (and it was already an anachronism then), but I am composing this post on my MacBook Pro with my Apple Music writing playlist playing in the background. Imagine.
But Education Reform, standards-based reform of U.S. elementary and secondary schools, ensuring equity and excellence in the educational opportunities available to all children attending public schools….
That’s why we get up in the morning. That’s why we fight the good fight.
However, when the three people I admire most on Education Reform express fears and doubts I have to wonder. While not quite the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I truly value the work and opinions of Chester Finn, Mike Cohen, and Laura Slover.
A long, long time ago when I was a young, idealistic grad student and barely adequate high school math teacher just starting to attend national conferences, there were two people whose sessions I made it a point to attend. One was Linda Darling-Hammond talking about teacher education. The other was Chester Finn talking about what works and improving schools. Linda Darling-Hammond caught an early train for the opposite coast to try another tack, but Chester Finn remained steady and true through the years.
And when the focus of my own career shifted to Education Reform, specifically large-scale state testing in the service of Education Reform, I had the privilege of working closely with Mike Cohen and Laura Slover in a variety of capacities for more than a decade.
It was with great interest and anticipation, therefore, that I read Mike and Laura’s recent paper, Unfinished Agenda: The Future of Standards-Based School Reform, and Chester Finn’s reaction to it, Can we revive standards-based reform?.
In Unfinished Agenda, Cohen and Slover provide a blueprint, or at least a solid framework, for the next steps, the next level of state support needed to advance standards-based education reform. They make a strong case for the need for state support to extend beyond outcomes measured by testing and accountability systems to inputs (i.e., curriculum, instruction, teacher preparation) – and for the need for coherence between inputs and assessed outputs. They cite efforts in a number of cities and states as existence proofs that success is possible.
However, in the social sciences, and education is a social science, existence proofs, like measurement principles, tend not to generalize in the way that we might hope. Scale is always the challenge (no, not Linda Darling-Hammond’s SCALE).
Finn, therefore, laments, for lack of a better description, the well- and long-known challenges to implementing Cohen and Slover’s Agenda at scale.
He cites the need for stable leadership at the state level, noting the John White is no longer with the Louisiana Department of Education (neither are Rebecca Kockler and Jessica Baghian) and that Dave Driscoll is years away from Massachusetts (sadly, Massachusetts is also years away from Mitchell Chester). Turnover among state leaders is a real challenge. In my two decades working with Rhode Island on secondary school reform, while Peter McWalters was the commissioner for the entire first decade, the second 10 years saw first Deborah Gist, then Ken (whose last name I cannot remember for the life of me), and now Angélica Infante-Green at the helm. All quite capable (even Ken) but starting and stopping and restarting is tough.
Finn also cites the strong tradition of local control of public schools as perhaps an impenetrable barrier to systemic reform. He seems to view a bottom-up approach as more feasible. However, despite the promise and potential of charter schools, as a long-time colleague once pointed out, we are not going to reform education one student, one teacher, or one school at a time. It just doesn’t work that way. (See note above on existence proofs.)
Reform must be systemic. Then implementation can be individualized.
So, I have to ask the question:
Is the levee dry? Is Satan laughing with delight as them good old boys drink whiskey and rye? Is this the day that standards-based education reform died?
I say no.
Strangely, my optimism is drawn from an outlook that is inarguably even gloomier and more pessimistic at its core than Finn’s.
For when I first read Cohen and Slover’s Unfinished Agenda, my mind immediately went to a scene from 1776– a film I rewatch every year on the Fourth of July. In the film, about a week after Thomas Jefferson was tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams asks to see a draft, leading to the following exchange:
Adams: Do you mean to say that it is not yet finished?
Jefferson: No sir. I mean to say that it’s not yet begun.
It’s Not Yet Begun
And that’s how I feel about standards-based education reform. Despite participating in several decades of state standards, state tests, school accountability, and even an abortive (and quickly and quietly aborted) attempt at teacher accountability, rather than fully embracing either Cohen and Slover’s conclusion that the standards-based reform agenda is unfinished or Finn’s doubts about the feasibility of their plan to finish it, I strongly believe, no sir, it’s not yet begun.
I say that standards-based Education Reform has not yet begun because the preconditions, or prerequisites, for implementing successful standards-based reform have been avoided rather than addressed.
We believed, or more accurately hoped, that with additional funding and supports whatever took place within the school could offset or overcome whatever conditions children might find themselves in outside of school. In simple terms, that was the premise of Title I in 1965, the premise of NCLB, and the premise of school accountability systems that hold all schools to the same standard or expect the same outcome from all schools.
The belief in public school as the great equalizer is deeply embedded in our psyche and is a critical component of the American dream – and I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance.
The alternative, of course, is a dangerous, steep, and very slippery slope. Conditioning on factors that exist outside of the school inevitably has led to or reinforced “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
However, ignoring the reality that exists when children leave school is no more of a solution than holding certain schools and students to lower standards out of a sense of fairness due to factors “outside of our control.”
Logically, we know that it’s not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice between those two perspectives, but Americans like their policymaking, like their social media, free from nuance.
We are well beyond the point where school reform alone can make up for the debilitating conditions that exist outside of school walls – everywhere, not only in poor, urban, or rural communities. And no, I’m not afraid to describe these conditions as deficits.
Title I was never designed to operate in isolation. Title I, actually all of ESEA, was but a single front in the massive War on Poverty, the Civil Rights movement, the Great Society. Systemic reform does not begin or end at the schoolhouse door. If Finn regards Cohen and Slover’s proposals as “a very heavy lift” then what I am suggesting is akin to moving mountains. Nevertheless, for decades now, in the streets, the children screamed, the lovers cried, the church bells all are broken, and not a word was spoken.
The mountains must be moved, and we must commit to moving them.
I look at it this way:
If we are going to ride into the valley of death no questions asked to fight the unbeatable foe, let’s at least pick the right valley and the right foe.
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
But what of Finn’s valid concerns about centralization, local control, and culture wars leading to “bad choices in the curricular sphere.”
He’s probably right. So what? Life and democracy (even democratic republics) are messy and chock full of bad choices.
Will local control remain an issue? I hope so. Will it be an insurmountable barrier to standards-based education reform? It doesn’t have to be.
What is curriculum? What is included in a curriculum and the curricular sphere? Definitions online range from a “sequence of courses” to the “totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process.”
When applied to “state curriculum” or “state-certified curriculum” I am confident that we can agree on a definition of curriculum somewhere in the middle that identifies the minimal core knowledge, values, and deep thinking skills that all students must possess to be lifelong learners and productive citizens. And yes, my vision is a curriculum (at the state level) that is heavily focused on thinking skills and processes and agnostic on all but the most essential content.
I pray (intentionally selected verb) that states, districts, schools, and communities continue to engage in healthy and vigorous debate about issues that should be debated, not mandated, or even legislated – when kids should be taught this, who should teach that, and how to interpret the other thing.
And I am fine with states or communities arriving at different conclusions.
Those debates and their outcomes need not affect the core knowledge and thinking skills that should be included in all state standards and addressed in a state-level or state-certified curriculum.
So, yes, by all means, with no time left to start again, let’s move forward with Cohen and Slover’s Unfinished Agenda. But let’s do so with our eyes wide open and our blinders off.