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Sattler: Don't Blame Feds For Lax State Standards

Sattler head shot 0209There's an interesting historical inaccuracy in week's National Journal education experts question, which asks in regards to the proposed college and career-ready standards , "Would it be problematic to change Title I funding in this fashion? Is the federal government reaching too far with this proposal?"   

Truth is, the feds have been linking money to state standards for years, in response to low or even nonexistent standards for poor minority students. But not everyone seems to remember that, and some of the NJ experts seem to be blaming low standards on the feds rather than the states.  Diane Ravitch, a Bush I education staffer (here), seems to blame the existence of the standards requirement itself for the fact that states have dumbed down their standards. 

In reality, states were already dumbing down standards before the feds came along, by having separate standards for poor and minority children (and, although it got less press, for students whose first language isn't English). The whole rationale for the federal government's involvement in education is the fact that, without federal intervention, states were not doing right by these kids.

In 1994, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was known as the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA), Bill Clinton was President, and Richard Riley was the Secretary of Education. That year, the law required all states to adopt - as a condition of Title I funding - (as I recall) "high, uniform standards" for all students. The states also committed to testing students three times during their education - once per grade span. The Department of Education didn't enforce the law's timeline to adopt either standards or assessments, and by the time No Child Left Behind rolled around in late 2001, only 17 states were in full compliance (and see the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights report here).

Before 1994, states were required to have standards - but only for their Title I students. It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise - or it shouldn't - that those standards were tragically low. In some states, adequate progress for those students could be as small as one Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE). I'm not a psychometrician, but believe me when I say that's tiny.

So 1994 was a watershed year, because the focus of the IASA became not just low-income and minority students, those students who had prompted the original law back in 1964, but ALL students. Judging by the incredibly slow pace at which most states moved to adopt uniform state standards, without the feds, many states still wouldn't have them.

As NCLB has been implemented, the limitations of 50-plus sets of different state standards (and assessments) have become clear: a student's "achievement" level is defined by where that student lives.

Now that we have more data, thanks to tests and those pesky standards, it's even clearer that these kids get the short end of the stick. Hello, 7 percent passing math in 11th grade in that Rhode Island school? Guess who is educated there: poor kids and English-language learners.

Sandy Kress, who (together with Margaret Spellings, then Margaret LaMontagne) was in the Capitol so often during the debate over NCLB that he should have had an office there, is all for the new CCR standards. But it's worth remembering that the law he shepherded, NCLB, includes very little help - even less of it financial - for low-achieving schools. Enforcement, as NCLB has shown, isn't sufficient to actually fix schools (but it's pretty good at humiliating them). All in all, an interesting bunch of options. What's yours?

Cheryl L. Sattler, Ph.D., is Senior Partner at Ethica, LLC, where she tracks the impact of Federal education policy on school districts. She can be reached at www.ethicallc.com.


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Standards are only as good as the teacher makes them. Teachers must take the standards and make them meaningful for kids. Principals must be heavily engaged in true instructional leadership by monitoring the educational process in the school. Central office staff work to support the school leadership in its endeavors and provide oversight for standards based instruction.

Using a standard that requires most professional development to be "in field" and making sure special needs kids get funded at the actual cost to educate them would be a nice start.

Puerto Rico, Singapore, Finland, and now Minnesota and Massachusetts have made advances. Simple and obvious changes made in different ways that were nonetheless effective in raising achievement on tests.

Yet the national dialog centers around "choice" and "great teachers" instead.

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