Archive for August, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Monday, August 24th, 2009

The Devil Is in the Details

By Phil Schlechty


America’s experience with alcohol use and cigarette smoking should be instructive to those who are trying to develop and impose national education standards. What we might learn if we studied these matters is that standards that have any real substance cannot be enforced unless they are enforced locally. The Prohibition Amendment set a national standard of total abstinence from the use of alcohol. Many local communities only enforced the standard in a ritual way and closed their eyes to many illegal activities. As the life of Junior Johnson (the famous racecar driver) illustrates, high-stakes penalties such as going to jail for running booze were not a disgrace in some communities. Hell, Junior became a hero and a cultural icon and it was partly because he did not uphold the standard. I remember a case as late as the 1950s and 60s that involved an older female high school English teacher who hired high school students to run a still in her barn. She operated in this way for years and had many alumni. The federal officials never got to her but eventually local sentiment discouraged her.


Smoking cessation, on the other hand, is proceeding on a different course. Many more Americans do not smoke today (that is, they uphold the non-smoking standard) than was the case fifty years ago. The strategy used to produce this result is, however, based more on education than on coercion. Non-smoking in restaurants did not happen until there was enough local sentiment behind the standard to make the standard enforceable. (Most casinos still permit smoking for the simple reason that gamblers seem less likely to uphold the non-smoking standard.) The result is that so many Americans are now so committed to the non-smoking standard that they make smokers quite uncomfortable when smokers fire up a cigarette around them. (There was a time when commitment to the non-smoking standard was so weak that even asthmatic non-smokers were reluctant to challenge impolite smokers. No more!)


As Dornbusch and Scott observe in their book Evaluation and the Exercise of Authority, evaluations that count must be done by people who count. Applying formal sanctions and denying access to dollars will produce ritual compliance with minimum standards. These measures will not, however, inspire excellence. If the standards are high and if they require a commitment to excellence, then evaluations done by state and federal officials from far away count for far less than the evaluations done by local folks.


Equity and excellence go hand in hand, but they do not go hand in hand when we define equity as guaranteeing only mediocrity and more bureaucracy. What we need is an elite public education for nearly every child. What we are headed for is a situation in which local “elites” abandon the public schools, and the schools are transformed from community schools to government schools serving only the children of the poor, the ill-informed, and the uniformed.    


Make National Education Standards a Local Issue

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

By Phil Schlechty

Governors and chief state school officers from 46 states and other members of the policy elite are threatening or promising to embrace common national standards. If they really mean common standards, this might not be a bad idea. Unfortunately, what will follow the development of national standards will be a drive for a common national test—a standardized test—to assess performance against the standard. The result will be that the test will become the standard and the standards themselves will recede into the background.

I don’t know whether the proposed national standards will be rich and powerful, but I do know that rich and powerful standards cannot be assessed from afar or with too much reliance on standardized tests. How do I know this is so? Two decades of state experience proves it to be so. The morphing of powerful standards into trivializing tests is the history of the standards movement in the United States. What we need are standards for assessing performance against national standards and a means of holding local communities accountable for ensuring that whatever standards they claim to uphold serve as the basis for local assessments.

Political leaders are wont to quote favorably the statement by Tip O’Neil, the longtime Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that “all politics is local.” It is time they embraced the equally compelling notion that all assessments, if they are truly to affect performance, must be local as well. Test scores are not standards, even though state officials and bureaucrats tend to treat them as though they were. Test scores as they are currently used are either auditing tools or instruments to bludgeon teachers and local communities into compliance with standards they often do not understand and do not embrace as their own.

The strength of bureaucracy is found it its ability to standardize. It is not the characteristic of bureaucracies to inspire excellence. Thus, the standards that can be enforced by bureaucracies and by bureaucrats are designed to produce standardized education. The pursuit of excellence depends on the commitment of local communities to standards and the willingness of local publics to enforce the standards to which they become committed.

Standards may be a national concern, but the assessment and enforcement of standards is a local responsibility. What is needed are ways to ensure that local communities accept this responsibility. Rather than strategies for taking the responsibility for enforcing standards away from local communities and lodging it in government offices far removed from the schools and classrooms to which they apply, state and federal governments should be concerned with helping local communities and local publics develop the capacity to embrace and enforce the standards of excellence to which every child is entitled.