Clinton flunks on school policy

Diane Ravitch

May 27, 1993|By Diane Ravitch

IN HIS campaign document "Putting People First," Bill Clinton promised to create "a set of national standards for what students should know" and an examination system "to measure our students' and schools' progress in meeting the national standards."

Unfortunately, the administration's school reform bill is not likely to fulfill that promise but would expand dramatically the scope and cost of federal regulation of local schools.

Instead of emphasizing standards for students, the bill focuses on standards for schools.

You do not have to be a seer to predict that the new standards, euphemistically called "opportunity to learn" standards, would permit federal regulation of curriculum, textbooks, facilities and instructional methods without adding significant federal aid.

The demand for national standards and assessments results from the education goals endorsed by President George Bush and the nation's governors at an education summit meeting in 1989.

Bill Clinton played a leading role in forging the six ambitious goals for the year 2000, including pledges that children will start school "ready to learn" and that students will be "first in the world" in mathematics and science.

Progress toward these goals depended on setting high internationally competitive standards and on creating new kinds of tests based on those standards.

The strategy focused on results -- that is, whether children are learning -- and on deregulating schools so that teachers would be free to innovate and do whatever worked.

The participants in the summit meeting knew other changes were necessary -- reform of teacher education, more money for retraining, greater use of new technologies in the classroom and larger budgets for programs for disadvantaged and pre-school children.

When Lamar Alexander was secretary of education, his department made grants to professional groups to develop voluntary national standards in science, history, the arts, civics, geography, English and foreign languages. (Curriculum standards in mathematics already had been developed by the )) National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.)

Given the history of cooperation on the national education goals between George Bush and Bill Clinton, there was every reason to expect there would be continuity between the two administrations.

The bill originally prepared by President Clinton's Department of Education was intended to further the bipartisan support of national standards and assessments.

But key Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee rejected the proposal, arguing that it would not be fair to assess students until school resources were equalized.

To satisfy congressional critics, the administration revised its bill, weakening its testing provisions and laying the foundation for an interventionist federal role in local schooling.

The bill seeks to establish new "opportunity to learn" standards, which are intended to measure the resources, teachers, facilities and policies available in each school.

At the heart of the bill is a powerful new agency, called the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which would function like a national school board. It would certify national curriculum standards, state tests and state "opportunity learn" standards.

All 20 members would be appointed by President Clinton, with no requirement for bipartisanship. By law, at least 15 of the members would be professional educators, thus abandoning the tradition of lay control of education.

Any state that presented its testing program to the council for certification would be prohibited from using that assessment for promotion, graduation or program placement for at least five years, thus rendering the test virtually useless.

And any new national standards would wither if students continued to be tested on the old multiple-choice quizzes that are not based on the new standards.

More worrisome are the bill's new "opportunity to learn" standards, which would be defined by a new federal commission. They would include whether teachers knew the curriculum, whether teachers used "the best knowledge" in their classrooms and what kinds of technology and materials were available in schools.

They might also include class size, disciplinary policy and policy regarding ability grouping.

The bill describes the federal "opportunity to learn" standards as "voluntary," but litigation would quickly turn them into mandates. Even now, some members of Congress want to make these standards mandatory or to require them as a condition for federal financing.

If Washington were demonstrably wiser than states and local districts, this might be a worthy reform program. And if Washington put up 50 percent of the cost of schooling instead of only 6 percent, it might have the right to tell everyone else what to do.

But for the past decade school reform has been launched at the state and local level, not in Washington.

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