Standards, Benchmarks & Vital Signs

David Wiles, Eaps 760


     It began in the early l980's as part of the "nation at risk" condemnation of public education performance. Under the Reagan administration, the Department of Education started a campaign for "wall charts" that would profile what public schools were doing for their community. In retrospect, the "wall chart" initiative was perceived as more a political attempt to discredit public educators than an honest effort to provide information to the public. Yet, the ideas that the public has a right and obligation to consider honest information about the schools and that performance information must be coupled to resource and sociological "input" data took hold. A decade later many states across the nation (including New York) are providing school Report Cards that include organizational, performance and census information.

     The creation of standards that provide content and performance measures of student achievement is a difficult task. Information must be rationalized by basic intention then differentiated according to some scheme such as elementary, intermediate and commencement levels of accomplishment. Further "benchmarks" of expected performance must be established against the actual academic results of students being evaluated.

     One alternative to performance outcomes for the student "client" is to consider the complex organization on a spectrum of healthy to unhealthy and monitor the organization's "vital signs." Public education is at a crossroads in determining its core function to society. Some would argue that the public schools are the last stable institution in the entire public service sector. The stability is enhanced to the extent it can provide health and safety to school aged citizens who are living lives of high risk. Literacy and conventional meanings of academic performance remain important but not as vital in the sense of the critical immediacy of a healthy organizational setting .

     The complexity of the task may have convinced many educational analysts and researchers that sets of content and performance standards that have political saliency and intellectual integrity could never be developed. Much of the negative reaction against "outcomes" education was not the knee-jerk response of the fundamental Christian far right. there were (and are) honest concerns by excellent methodologists who question whether an "output" descriptor or an external test result creates an honest and "authentic" evaluation of learning processes leading to performance results.

     Yet, one of the truisms of complex bureaucracy and problem solving that takes place in such a context is that the initial efforts are almost always incomplete and highly questionable. Bureaucracies rely on multiple iterations and successive process of refinement to get something right. The first time through is usually a "trial balloon" filled with hot air and designed to draw out the political "flack" and legitimate opposition. Looking backwards from the mid l990's, this seems to be the process of evolution surrounding the educational standards and benchmarks efforts. It has taken the educational community about a half a decade of continuous effort to "get its act together" concerning educational standards.

     In the mid l990's the commitment of state educators to create and maintain a "standards" focus to improve performance is matched by the capability to deliver a logic that can drive implementation efforts. For those that believe in the long term efforts of organized bureaucracy it is encouraging that the best effort, to date, came out of a Department of Education grant and work coordinated through a Regional Educational Laboratory. With four state turning down Goals 2000 money because of fears of "federal mind control" it is nice to see the federal initiative in standards paying off.

     For New York State, the credibility of the Regents curriculum and the new "learning standards" developed as part of the Compact for Learning reform initiative rise and fall on the same political dimensions of perceived credibility in the standards movement.

Readings & Sources