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Warren Simmons

Warren Simmons directs the Annenberg Institute for Reform at Brown University.

Michael Casserly

Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

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BENCHMARKS OF REFORM:::Warren Simmons and Michael Casserly: School Reform Story


Education in America has changed course over the past quarter century. It has embarked on a new path with more rigorous standards and accountability for all students and all schools. In an interview with Hedrick Smith, two experts in the field of education – Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute of School Reform, and Michael Casserly, Executive Director at Council of the Great City Schools – tell the school reform story, highlighting the pivotal events that have marked the reform movement in the current era.

Hedrick Smith: What are the forces driving school reform in America?

Warren Simmons: American students aren't competitive when we compare ourselves in our performance to other countries throughout the world and that threatens our ability to be economically competitive but also our ability to support a democratic society in the way that we'd like.

Smith: What began pushing this American search for better schooling?

Michael Casserly: Well the 1983 Nation at Risk report was a trigger to some extent for focusing the nation on education and the quality of education in the country. But there have been any number of triggers. We had the Sputnik event in the late 1950s. We had the civil rights movement in the mid 1960s. We certainly had the desegregation movement that came out of the Brown decision in 1954. But it really reached its head in the 1970s.

And the Nation at Risk in 1983 was a seminal event in the sense that it called attention to the question about the quality of education in the country and its role insuring that the nation had a future and a direction and a competitiveness that would allow us to go toe-to-toe with any country in the world in terms of our overall economic engine.

Smith: What was the impact of A Nation At Risk in terms of educational reform?

Simmons: We're a country that has what's called a federalist education system. That is, unlike other countries we don't dictate national education policy from Washington. We have over 15,000 school districts with local school boards and superintendents and they have the bulk of the responsibility for setting educational goals and for holding schools accountable. So we're a country that believes in localism and our educational system reflects that localism. Those 15,000 districts are embedded in 50 states that have state education authorities and they are mostly responsible for compliance monitoring – making sure that special education students are treated fairly or students with disability, making sure that desegregation requirements were met. But they didn't have the requirement to insure that all students achieve high levels of performance.

Well the report in 1983 laid the groundwork for change. That report said that we have to have a stronger curriculum. That our curriculum has to focus on core subjects in reading, mathematics and science, and that we should consider setting national standards and having a national assessment system. That report didn't put that into place but it set the groundwork for that to be considered in 1989 as part of the Education Summit involving the governors and the President.

Smith: Charlottesville Education Summit, 1989 – President Bush and Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas and Chairman of the National Governors Association – what was the importance of that? What were its goals and what was its impact?

Simmons: Well by 1989 we had time to look at the implementation of the recommendations in A Nation at Risk, the report of the National Commission in 1983, and we found ourselves wanting, in part because we actually didn't have a mechanism for getting all 15,000 districts to move. The mechanism was the states because the states have primary responsibility, and to get the states to move in unison for what we had to do in an unprecedented way was to convene the leadership, the political leadership of all 50 states. And the only person who could do that was obviously the President of the United States.

Casserly: What was important about the summit in Charlottesville in '89 was that the main policy makers in the country – the Governors, the Secretary of Education, the President of the United States – got together to try to answer the question: what do we do about the situation that the corporations and the Nation at Risk report really laid out for us. What kind of policies do we need to put into place? And it was really from that event that the standards movement really took hold.

Simmons: It took that 1989 summit where the first President Bush brought together the nation's Governors to develop at least a policy framework organized around six national education goals.

Casserly: There was a panel set up. It was called the National Education Goals Panel that actually codified the national goals and measured progress on the national goals from 1989 all the way through the year 2000.

Smith: And the key goals were?

Simmons: The key goals were being internationally competitive particularly in reading and mathematics… Our goals were to be first in the world by the year 2000. So the target for meeting those goals was the year 2000 and as you know and I know we didn't come close to meeting those goals, which is why we now have a stronger, more robust educational policy.

Smith: I'm wondering whether or not the Charlottesville summit is a declaration of frustration and urgency, and kind of a call to the nation to really exert itself?

Casserly: It certainly was a wake up call. It was in many ways an act of frustration that not much had happened between the 1983 Nation at Risk study and 1989. I remember at the time that there was a great deal of frustration amongst lots of actors – on the hill and in the corporate community and the education community – that in fact not much had happened. But as I look back on it over all of these years, I think in a lot of ways five or six years is not a whole lot of time to put into effect a huge national movement to improve the quality of an institution as large as public education is in this country.

Smith: Do you see the state standards as an outgrowth of that summit meeting in Charlottesville in 1989?

Simmons: When the Governors met in 1989 what they agreed and began to develop legislation on was that in order to meet national goals we needed to have national standards. And because we don't have a national education system, we didn't have a national department that had the authority to develop standards. And so we set about encouraging national organizations like the International Association of English Language Arts Teachers and Math Teachers to develop standards in mathematics and literacy and in science.

Then through federal legislation throughout the '90s we encouraged states to use those voluntary standards, to even develop their own standards, but more importantly to develop state assessments that would measure school progress toward reaching those standards.

So some states, like Massachusetts and Texas and North Carolina and New York and California at the time, were leading in that effort to develop standards of their own or to use standards developed by other organizations to guide the development of assessments. So in the '90s we began to see state assessments start to report data on school progress. That data having been recorded was supposed to build the kind of public will and also the information base needed to inform school improvement efforts.

Smith: So the 1989 summit did a great deal to spawn and promote the standards movement. But I'm also struck by another phenomenon – the proliferation of these models of school reform. Did the Charlottesville summit act as a trigger to push the school-by-school approach?

Casserly: There was a fair amount of conversation at the time that basically said if you're to get any improvement in schools, particularly in urban public school systems or public schools around the country, you've got to go around the central office and the bureaucracy of school systems because they are, in fact, not one of the levers of reform and improvement but one of the barriers and the problems. So what you're going to have to do is set up an apparatus by which educational reform is defined at the state level down to the individual school level that bypasses the school system per se.

There was also a fair amount of research – that was somewhat coincidental – that was evolving at the time around what it would take to turn around the individual schools.

So there was a conceptualization of the problem that if you were going to try to fix schools you were going to have to do it without the central office. You were going to have to do it school-by-school and you were just going to have to go around the bureaucracy because the bureaucracy itself was so much of the problem.

And from that conversation really grew all of these reform models, the Success for All, the Comer schools and the like. There were probably a good 15 or 20 of these models that emerged – some out of research, some out of people's conceptualization of what it would take to turn around individual schools. But it was that individual school-by-school approach and that notion that to reform education in this country you were going to have to do it one school at a time that really gave rise to all of those models.

Smith: You also had the phenomenon of an organization like New American Schools with a lot of corporate support and corporate leadership trying to foster and promote the generation of new models. Talk about that.

Casserly: Well there was a fair amount of corporate backing for New American Schools and that corporate backing came from all quarters. It came from national groups, it came from large corporations and the like. It certainly did have its backing and support as well in the first Bush administration which was very much in support of New American Schools. And frankly that support lasted well into the Clinton administration as well. So there was both bipartisan support for it and there was support in both the public sector and the private sector.

Smith: School-by-school took off?

Casserly: School-by-school reform really took off and lots of school districts all around the country really began to implement more of a school-by-school approach.

Smith: Is there any triggering event that set off this movement towards district-wide reform?

Casserly: The emergence of a district-wide appearance to educational reform in this country really rests in three things. One was the frustration that the school-by-school approach wasn't producing any better gains across the systems, that most of the gains were really coming school-by-school. The second thing that prompted the district-wide approach was a question that was emerging about whether or not the initial reforms were getting us the kinds of gains that we had really wanted. And then third, the accountability movement really started to hold superintendents and school boards in central offices responsible for the kinds of performance that they were getting in their systems. And leaders in those school districts started to ask the question: if I'm going to be responsible then what is it that I have to do to boost performance, not just in pockets of schools but across the whole apparatus?

Smith: And what is it that pushes accountability at this point?

Casserly: The accountability movement in the late 1990s really comes about because of the frustrations among lots of policy makers that states and the individual school districts have simply been too slow implementing a lot of the reforms and the standards and the assessments that they had wanted to put into place. And that the results that they were starting to see were pretty paltry for what they felt was a lot of money being put into the system.

But the accountability piece didn't really take hold in the way that we see it now until No Child Left Behind came on the picture. And for better or for worse, Congress put into effect some pretty tough sanctions if districts or individual schools didn't meet the goals that policy makers had set.

Simmons: What No Child Left Behind has done is basically say you have to have standards at every grade level and you have to have assessments at every grade level between kindergarten and eighth grade, and they are now thinking of amending No Child Left Behind to introduce assessments in high school. So you see in the '90s movement on a broad based assessment system to one that is now applied grade by grade at individual schools.

But also what you see in No Child Left Behind is an emphasis on disaggregating the data so that you now are not only able to look at students as a whole but you are able to look at performance in subjects, African Americans, Latinos, males, females, advantaged students and disadvantaged students. You are also required to have benchmarks for success for individual schools and districts as well so that if the percentage of schools in a district continues to fail then the district can be taken over by the state.

So we went from the '90s thinking about school reform to now in this decade thinking about district reinvention because No Child Left Behind, in part, collects data and reports findings not just for individual schools but on the performance of districts themselves.

Smith: Can you see this as a kind of ratcheting up of standards?

Casserly: There is lots of observation in the United States about how reform in education really flip-flops from fad to fad. And while there is some truth to that, there is also truth to the fact that we have learned a lot with each step of the reform movement – articulating a problem in 1983 that has national and international consequences for the country; asking the question in 1989: “What is it that we need to do to improve education;” to 1994 where we start to articulate what the individual states need to be doing, what kinds of assessments do they need to be putting into place to measure progress in academic performance; to the voluntary national test call in 1997 where President Clinton was trying to goad, spur, prod the states into greater action and responsibility; to that conversation in the late 1990s and early 2000 about holding people responsible.

Each one of these things in many ways is a series of steps, a new architecture that has been built over the years that has come to define and improve public education across the country and, I think, over the long run will in fact produce a better quality public education system in this country.

Smith: How are we doing on reform now?

Simmons: Well we're stronger in our goals and articulating our goals than we are in meeting them and I think that's because we didn't really fully recognize the magnitude of the challenge. And we didn't fundamentally understand the nature of the goal. Our goal now is to create the schools, the educational system, that gets the vast majority of students to high standards. That hasn't been historically the goal of our American education system. The goal in the past has been to give everyone 12 years of public schooling and to basically allow them to learn what they learn in those 12 years.

We went to schools that had programs for students who were going to college and usually that was around 20 or 30% of the students. Another percentage of the students were in something called the “general educational track” and another group of students were in vocational education and training programs. So historically – certainly for the better part of the 20th century – our schools were designed to educate students to reach different standards. That's how they evolved. That's how our system supported them.

And now, since 1983 but more recently with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we are asking that same system to now turn on its head and stop educating students to meet different standards, and educate the vast majority of students to meet one high level of standards and to send most of them on to college and/or career technical training. So that's a sea change with respect to our nation's goals. But it also requires us to rethink not only the nature of schools and how they operate and how they are supported, but the nature of the public education school system as a whole – the districts, over 15,000 of them, the state education agencies, 50 of them, and also the role of the federal U.S. Department of Education which was just created in the Nixon administration.

Smith: How urgent is the challenge?

Simmons: Oh it's as urgent as ever. That achievement gap still exists and we see the growing economic might of places like China and we want to remain first in the world, third, or at least fifth. And so people like us who have had the benefit of living most of our lives in a country that remained at the top of the world, we have a lot of work to do to insure that that future continues to exist for our children and grandchildren.

If people aren't educated they won't be informed citizens and informed voters. And they will be susceptible to manipulation. So it's not just an economic imperative. It's critical for the continuation of our democracy. And what other way do we have in this country for knitting together the rich diversity that always exists in this country because of immigration and emigration? It's our schools that take all the people from the different countries of the world and different languages in the world and different beliefs in the world and creates a common ground for them. And that's the job that our schools have now and that's the job that our schools will hopefully continue to do onward and to do successfully.

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