Executive Perspective

When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas

by Paul D. Houston

My father always told me that confession is good for the soul. OK, I confess. I was one of the early advocates of the standards movement. It is ironic that such an admission makes me feel a little sullied. What started out as a wonderful idea now looks like an off-color joke. What happened to turn a noble idea into something that feels dirty?

Quite simply, the standards movement of today bears little resemblance to the concept that was once envisioned. For decades schools were asked to act as a sorting device for our society. We needed to separate out the talent and to place people in a hierarchical framework. And schools were great at it. As our society evolved, we came to realize the moral price we were paying for that kind of separation. As our economy evolved, we came to recognize the economic price extracted by wasting human capital. We realized everyone needed to be raised to a higher place.

The solution was simple: Raise the standards and provide opportunity for everyone's boat to rise. The standards movement was a civil rights movement that saw everyone as deserving the same opportunities. Higher standards for everyone meant greater opportunity for those who had been left behind. Create a clear set of expectations that would shape curriculum and assessment.

Endless Requirements
Today the standards movement has morphed into an amalgam of simplistic assessments tied to complex goals without adequate resources to meet them. The victims of the movement are in many cases those very children it was created to save. They are the ones failing the tests and dropping out. Those punished by failure are the children we had wanted to empower. What happened to the good idea?


Two things occurred early on. One can clearly be laid at the feet of educators. Educators insisted that we be the ones to create the standards. The task was handed to the subject-area specialists. The outcome was predictable. The social studies folks thought that was the most important area and created massive lists of what kids should know in that area. This was repeated throughout the curriculum so that to meet the standards, children would have to stay in school many years past current graduation ages.

The community should have been more involved in setting standards—they are the ones whose values should embed education. What standards should a student meet to be a good citizen, a productive worker and an upstanding family person?

Politicians created the other major problem. Everyone knew that for children who had not previously met the old standards to get to an even higher level they must be given dramatically increased resources to support them. The term "opportunity to learn" standards came to be discussed as the way to move resources—the opportunity to learn—alongside the new academic standards. But politicians almost immediately dismissed them. It was recognized that creating an equal opportunity would be very expensive. So expectations were raised, but very little was offered to help children meet them.

Some states, such as North Carolina and Texas, have had success in moving kids up in achievement. It is no accident that these are the two states that developed a comprehensive plan that included additional resources to support the higher standards.

Answers from Prayer
It is no mystery why poor children don't do as well in school as their more affluent peers. They don't have the same social capital given to them. They bring greater problems with them to the schoolhouse door—a door that in many cases leads to a classroom with fewer resources. For them to catch up, they must be given some of the same opportunities. If we insist on accountability through high-stakes testing, then we must also insist that these children be given some of the same advantages that others have enjoyed for decades.


There are those who insist that you can't solve the educational problems by throwing money at them. If you look at the last 40 years, we must acknowledge that during the '60s and '70s we threw money at schools by increasing resources without insisting on accountability. During the '80s and '90s we threw accountability at schools without a serious increase of resources. Perhaps we now have reached a point when we can all agree that accountability and resources must go hand in hand. Resources without accountability is foolish. Accountability without resources is cruel.

For the standards movement to reach its initial promise, we must realize that we are going to have to go back to the basics. We have to simplify the expectations and tie them more directly to the real world that the children will have to navigate. The assessments we give children will need to reflect that world, not merely be a paper-and-pencil drill of filling in the bubbles. We will have to give those who aren't meeting the standards a lot more support before we hold them accountable for meeting a tougher set of expectations. Anything less means we all should go to confession and pray for all our souls.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org