Can We Revive Standards-Based Reform?

Statewide curriculum sounds seductive, but charters, vouchers are more promising.
Great big top-down systemic education reforms surely glitter.

Georgetown University’s FutureEd project was right to declare that “few people have played a larger role in efforts to raise standards in the nation’s schools” than the coauthors of its latest paper, Unfinished Agenda: The Future of Standards-Based School Reform.

Michael Cohen and Laura Slover, both now associated with CenterPoint Education Solutions (which Slover heads), do indeed have impressive track records in this realm, including Mike’s long-time leadership of Achieve and Laura’s leadership in developing and launching the PARCC assessments. I’ve known them forever, like them a lot, and greatly respect what they’ve done and are doing.

I also respect their new paper, even as I find myself doubting the feasibility of its proposals.

The paper is squarely in the tradition of “systemic reform,” an honorable, perceptive, and ambitious approach that says, in essence, that making any major gains in America’s K–12 results requires a holistic understanding of how the system works and a strategy for overhauling its many key elements in synchronous fashion. Prominently identified with Marshall (Mike) Smith and Jennifer O’Day, this understanding of education reform has been present in the field for more than three decades. The ERIC system summarizes it as “a design for a systemic state structure that supports school-site improvement efforts and is based on clear, challenging standards for student learning. Policy components would be tied to these standards and reinforce one another in providing instructional guidance to schools and teachers.”

Those “policy components” are legion, ranging from “a coherent [statewide] system of instructional guidance” to major changes in the structures and governance of schooling. Included, of course, are academic standards and assessments, but also aligned teacher preparation, professional development, a perhaps-surprising injection of school-level autonomy—and considerable financial investment. With everything synchronized, of course.

That’s a very heavy lift, which is why no state, to my knowledge, has given it a full test. Some have moved a fair distance toward it—Massachusetts, Louisiana, Tennessee—but it’s not just hard to do. It’s next to impossible to sustain. The main obstacles, sadly, are obvious and familiar: the difficulty of reaching a durable consensus over what, exactly, the state’s schools are supposed to teach and its children to achieve; a vast, lumbering, loosely-coupled K–12 enterprise that is loath to change, beyond perhaps doing more of what it’s always done; adult interests that are vested in the status quo; widespread complacency regarding that status quo; and election-year changes (and leadership turnover) that make it daunting to stay on course, notably when that course is disruptive, disputed, and politically vulnerable.

Cohen and Slover know all that, of course, and have scars to prove it. They acknowledge widespread exhaustion with and pushback against even the simpler forms of standards-based reform, while recognizing that “it has increased the rigor of state standards and improved the quality of state tests overall.” They also acknowledge the complicated role played by the Common Core, which has served both to raise standards in many places and to stiffen resistance in some. And they’re honest about the generally disappointing results of all this effort: “Millions of students—particularly Black and Latino children and those from low-income families—continue to be taught to low expectations. And that lack of rigor remains a major barrier to economic mobility and social justice.”

Darn right it does.

But they’re not giving up. Far from it. Their new paper restates the centrality of standards in the reform of American education in the name of both excellence and equity. It restates the “systemic reform” thesis that a standards-driven system needs its many moving parts to mesh. But it then focuses laser-like on what Cohen and Slover see as the part of that system that has been widely neglected but that, they say, may be the most necessary: “the instructional core,” particularly an “adequate supply of standards-aligned curricula” and the “related professional learning” that would equip teachers to deliver such curricula effectively.

Why neglect something so vital? The authors astutely explain that “Most state officials were loath to influence districts’ curriculum decisions—sometimes because the politics were deadly in light of the nation’s long history of local control of education, oftentimes because they lacked the capacity to do so. Publishers, meanwhile, were quick to assure districts that their materials were aligned to standards, despite evidence to the contrary.”

Darn right.

But what to do? Cohen and Slover seek a rededication to standards-based reform centered on an aggressive statewide approach to the “instructional core.” They see this as having four vital components:

  • High-quality, standards-aligned curriculum.
  • Professional learning connected to the curriculum.
  • Curriculum-aligned assessment.
  • Accountability focused on instructional coherence.

Sounds right, no? Yet the very first step of their action plan for states is “a fundamental shift in state accountability systems,” beginning with states adopting “policies requiring every district to demonstrate that its curriculum, instructional materials, professional learning, and local assessments are aligned with each other and with state standards.”

And on they go, citing Louisiana since 2013 as one place that’s put a number of these elements into operation (more with incentives than coercion); noting a multi-state effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers to “encourage” districts to adopt and deploy such aligned curricula and professional development; and mentioning several organizations (including CenterPoint) that are “helping.”

They seek far more of all of that, and in many more places.

But obstacles loom, perhaps insurmountable. Truly doing what Cohen and Slover recommend amounts to a statewide curriculum or its virtual equivalent, as well as ensuring that many other currently-local instructional decisions conform to state norms if not actually replaced by state decisions and actions.

Their plan also entails a subtle but important shift from school accountability centered on student achievement and gap closing to something more like schools’ successful fealty to an instructional strategy. Of course the authors want and expect that stronger achievement will follow—that’s ultimately their point—but it’s no small thing to change the focus from results to the machinery intended to produce them.

Yes, I favor instructional coherence. Yes, I understand that many schools and districts cannot produce satisfactory results by just whipping the troops to try harder. Yes, I’d like to see states doing far more to help. I might be talked into the Cohen-Slover approach if I thought it was feasible and if I had confidence that state-level decision makers would make sound decisions in all those realms, implement them thoroughly, and stick with them. But I approach despair when I watch the fast-changing cast of characters at the helm of state education agencies, the timid, rigid, and bureaucratic behaviors of those agencies, the difficulty they have in attracting and paying for the requisite talent, and their vulnerability to interest-driven political interventions and course changes. I worry, too, that a fully coordinated instructional system at the state level will leave even fewer options for dissenting parents and educators to escape from what they view as curricular indoctrination, whether from left or right.

We’ve seen some states struggle toward coherence, but how many of them last long enough to make a material difference? John White is no longer in charge in Louisiana, Carey Wright just retired from Mississippi, Dave Driscoll is years away from the Massachusetts job. Penny Schwinn inherited a promising start in Tennessee and—well, so far so good. But in how many states would even the suggestion of such centralization of K–12 control not trigger protest and pushback? And in how many states might such centralization amid culture wars lead to bad choices in the curricular sphere?

Great big top-down systemic education reforms surely glitter, and on more than one occasion I’ve been seduced. That might happen again. It’s easy to be smitten by Mike and Laura’s vision, which glitters brightly. In the end, however, I’ve almost always ended up favoring workarounds and end-runs, ways (such as charters) of letting schools escape from the grip of state (and local) rigidities, and ways (such as vouchers and education savings accounts) of letting parents escape from the monopoly.

In a private note, one of the authors insists to me that “The agenda here is necessary, complex, and doable, with sustained leadership and effort.” I’d like to think so, and would applaud signs of the requisite “sustained leadership and effort.” But three decades after the debut of “systemic” reform, and after three (and more) decades of results that are too flat, too low, and too disparate, I’ve grown harder to seduce. And more determined than ever to factor painful reality into our reform strategies. Which, sadly, means (to me) acknowledging that what glitters sometimes turns out to be fool’s gold.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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