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THE THINKERS: An advocate assesses use of standards in education

Ohanian Comment: Lauren Resnick is the Standardisto's Standardisto or, as the reporter puts it one of America's pioneers in pushing for higher standards in the nation's schools. She spouts the Business Roundtable position: All our children need to get educated for all those high-paying global economy jobs.

Previous Work: Associate director, director of research and development, and research associate, Learning Research and Development Center; dual professorships in psychology and education, Pitt; co-founder and co-director of the New Standards system since 1990; senior fellow, National Center on Education and the Economy, 1996-99.

Resnick thinks its "miraculous" that most states "use tests to hold teachers and students accountable." Of course she's intimately involved in one of those test. Some people regard the National Center on Education and the Economy as satan incarnate, others as saviors. They do New Standards. They also do America's Choice, who trumpet this statement, "The National Center on Education and the Economy is the nation's leader in standards-based education. NCEE's founders created this not-for-profit organization in the conviction that virtually all young people in the United States can and must achieve at the same high standards reached by their counterparts in other nations."

NCEE also does School to Work, whose goal is embedded in the infamous
Dear Hilary
letter, written right after Bill was elected. The introduction to this letter on the Eagle Forum makes for interesting reading in the face of No Child Left Behind. Maybe conservatives deserve credit for recognizing a mangy cur when they see it.

As one of America's pioneers in pushing for higher standards in the nation's schools, the University of Pittsburgh's Lauren Resnick finds herself in an odd position when she talks about the hotly debated No Child Left Behind law.

On the one hand, she thinks it's almost miraculous that during the past 20 years, most states have adopted standards that public school students have to meet, and use tests to hold teachers and students accountable.

On the other hand, she thinks the federal law and the way it's being carried out are shortchanging America's schools.

As many states scramble to meet the law's requirements, she said, they are emphasizing narrow, multiple-choice tests over other improvements -- challenging curriculum, better professional development for teachers and more effective ways to help struggling students -- that are needed to truly boost academic achievement.

Because there hasn't been enough willpower or money at the federal, state or local level to tackle all those issues simultaneously, the No Child Left Behind law has been "hijacked" by standardized tests largely developed by private companies, she said in recent interviews.

Resnick runs Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center, and she has been a key figure in the standards movement since it started to blossom in the 1980s.

She has served as an expert consultant to several national groups, and her center at Pitt helped develop the New Standards system, a model package of written expectations in reading, math, science and applied learning, accompanied by exams, that has been used in 22 states.

In addition, the center's Institute for Learning is currently working under contract with 14 large urban school districts to raise the quality of their instruction, including Los Angeles, two of New York City's districts, Denver and Baltimore.

Resnick, a tiny dynamo of a woman who is still going strong at 68 and says she is "having too much fun" to retire, said there are two key reasons why the standards movement has not died out as so many other educational reform ideas have.

One is the ever-changing economy; the other is the search for greater equality in public schooling.

For much of the 20th century, she said, America didn't really expect most of its young people to meet high educational standards, and didn't even expect most of them to get through school.

In 1910, for instance, only 13 percent of Americans had finished high school, and there was a widespread belief that only a small percentage of citizens had the mental capacity for college.

Even up through the 1960s, there wasn't a general expectation that high school graduates should go on to college, especially when there were still lots of good-paying industrial jobs that only required a high school diploma.

"We didn't use to have the idea that everybody was supposed to have these high-level skills to understand and use math, to read complex material and understand it, to write well," Resnick said.

The emerging high-tech economy changed all that, she said, as business leaders, educators and politicians began to realize that all the better paying jobs of the future were "going to go to those in the knowledge industry."

"Coming along at the same time was a continuing concern for equity," she said. Thirty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling had ended legal segregation of schools, it was depressingly clear that "there were still large gaps between whites and African Americans."

While not all black parents have reacted favorably to tougher standards and make-or-break testing, many have embraced it, she said. They see the standards movement as "a tool to make the system pay attention to their kids."

She vividly remembers the time she was speaking at a national education conference a few years ago when an African-American woman took the microphone out of her hand and said: "We have to listen to this woman because she's telling the truth, because the system has been lying to us."

The woman had been through a disturbing but not uncommon experience.

When her children were in a poor neighborhood, they were getting A's in their classes and she was told they were doing well. When she moved to a more affluent neighborhood, suddenly she was told that her children were reading far below grade level, and some teachers wondered aloud if they might be retarded.

Resnick said many black parents believe it is the school system's responsibility to hold all students -- white, black, Asian and Hispanic -- to the same expectations.

She works as a consultant in more than a dozen large urban distrcits, she said, and many have movements to close the achievement gap between white and black students, "but I don't think there's a voice saying tests are unfair, so let's get rid of them."

Some of Resnick's passion for equal educational opportunity comes from her own early experiences.

Raised mostly in New York, Resnick went to Radcliffe College in the late 1950s, graduating magna cum laude, and then attended graduate school at Harvard University after meeting her husband, historian Daniel Resnick.

She got her master's and Ph.D. in education, and after some early work helping to train teachers, she thought she might like to become one herself.

The problem: Because she was married, no one would hire her, under the prevailing theory at the time that married teachers might become pregnant and leave.

After her husband found a job in New York, she began working in research at the City University of New York. She and Daniel were soon expecting their first child.

"I went to the dean, and he said, very matter of factly, 'So, you'll have to resign by such and such a date. Under our policies, you're not allowed to teach when you're visibly pregnant.' "

Angry, she rooted around and found a business card she had been given for a small firm doing early work on training programs in the military and business.

She called the owner up and he hired her immediately.

By the time her husband moved to Pittsburgh in the mid-'60s to take a teaching post at Carnegie Mellon University, her academic and professional work earned her four immediate job offers: one from CMU, one from Pitt, one from a company and one from the Pittsburgh schools.

She took the Pitt job, and thus began her long association with the Learning Research and Development Center, where she became director in 1977.

She got involved with the standards movement after she had worked with national groups on teacher training and curriculum, including the American Federation of Teachers.

That eventually led to her appointment to the board of a Washington D.C. think tank called the National Center on Education and the Economy, and when she expressed interest in working on national educational standards, the center put her in touch with legislators, labor leaders and business executives who were also focused on that issue.

The fact that the various national summit meetings and studies that came after that didn't end up gathering dust on a shelf, and actually led to a national statute, still impresses her.

But there is a big problem with the system right now, she said.

The tests being used in many states to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements are often inadequate.

The tests, most developed by private companies, are filled with multiple choice questions that examine basic knowledge, rather than more complex questions that require students not only to show what they know, but demonstrate how they arrived at their conclusions.

Resnick said many other nations have figured out a way to require more challenging tests with lots of written answers, and to find enough qualified people to grade them.

She admires the French national exams, for instance, because they not only are high-quality tests, but have a social benefit that most American tests lack.

Studies in France have shown that "students love the ritual they have with teachers" as they work together to prepare for the exam. And the day after the test is given, "people all over the country, in shops and stores and other public places, talk about the test, going over questions and answers.

In the French, British and other national- testing systems, the curriculum taught in the schools also is more closely aligned with the high-stakes exams than in America.

The standardized tests used by most states here often don't match up at all with the official curriculum, she said, and yet teachers, under pressure for their students to do well on the tests, are devoting increasing amounts of time teaching students the kind of material that is on the tests.

In a paper she co-authored with Pitt's Chris Zurawsky this month, Resnick wrote that these problems could end up causing the whole No Child Left Behind effort to backfire.

"The accountability aspect of the program [using tests] is . . . running dangerously ahead of the system as a whole . . . and if we don't sharpen standards and assess what we really mean by them, the nation is likely to wake up in a few years to find that it has created a 'fool's gold' system."

But she doesn't want to leave people thinking that she is an opponent of No Child Left Behind.

"While it hasn't become a good embodiment of the goals we're after, it's really been an achievement to have moved a large part of the population out of that 'below basic' category [of test results].

"The question that's still open is whether the [law's] approach will be able to move large numbers of students into proficiency. The jury's still out on that."

— Mark Roth
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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