You mentioned a number of states that are doing it well. But most states
say, "We have standards."
I know, but that's what worries me, because that's exactly how America takes a
complex idea and sort of oversimplifies it. It's not whether you have them or
not; it's how challenging, how coherent they are; and that's where we tend to
fall down. Even the states I mentioned may be moving in the right direction,
but they're not there yet. I mean, really, when you look internationally, one
of the reasons we don't perform very well -- and the data are very clear on
this -- is because we simply don't have as rigorous and demanding a set of
"Rigorous" and "demanding" are the adjectives you use. I have heard that
American standards are too broad.
That's part of it. They're not very focused. There's two parts to that,
actually, in my mind. One is we have so many standards at each grade level,
compared to other countries. We're, for example, at eighth-grade telling
teachers to teach 35 topics. Other countries are telling their teachers to
teach 10 to 15. So there's one aspect of it. But secondly, the standards
themselves are often times not very clear or focused, so that a teacher could
say, "Of course, I cover that." And in some sense, they do. But they're over on
this corner of it, versus the real depth of the standard, which is over here.
I've been talking to some math teachers, math professors, and they said to
me that even if we had rigorous, coherent, progressive standards, we don't have
That's a real issue. That's a very serious issue. My focus, nationally, has
been trying to get the dialogue going to develop the standards and get them in
place. But once in place, the most serious issue would be the quality -- and I
don't mean the quality in a generic sense -- but the knowledge of the teachers,
how we would get teachers that would have the deep subject matter knowledge
that's required to teach those kind of standards. ...
I'd fix it by starting with decent, rigorous, coherent standards. And once
those were in place, that articulated what each and every child needs to know
at each and every grade level, then we would be able to address the issues like
what knowledge teachers need. And we would be able to adjust university
education for these people. We'd adjust credentials. All of that could follow,
once we knew what was critical for the teachers to teach at that grade level.
Do you sense any urgency in this country to say, "Whoa, what are we doing to
I do, actually, I really do. I have been fortunate enough to deal with
governors, especially. And I think that the governors do see an urgency in
this. They recognize that it's not enough for us to keep developing standards
that we say are comparable to other states. But we need to start thinking about
how our standards compare to the rest of the world's standards. People have
bandied about this term "world-class education," "world-class standards." But
for a long time, nobody really knew what that meant.
Now we have data. The data are available to governors and others, as to what
the rest of the world is studying, and now they're concerned. I think one of
the things that many of the governors want to do is to raise the standards of
their states, because they recognize that their kids are not just competing
with the state next door; they're competing with kids all around the world.
That's what it means when you have an economy that's without barriers, trade
barriers. These companies will go wherever they can find people who can do the
jobs that they want done.
Let's talk about tests. There's seems to be a real obsession with test
scores. ... It seems to me it would make sense where you develop the standards,
and then you test. But is this in sync?
... If you look, again, internationally, the tests reflect the standards. It's
all sort of coherently together. In this country, the standards that we have
don't necessarily define what's on the assessments. Or another way to say it:
The assessments don't line up very well with the standards. We actually did a
series of analyses as a part of the Achieve
project, and we looked at some 20 states' standards and assessments in both
mathematics and science. And a couple of general conclusions are possible from
First of all, the standards and the assessments don't very necessarily line up.
There are topics and standards that aren't tested, and there are topics in the
tests that are tested, but that aren't in the standards. And the second
generalizable statement is that no assessment, because of limits of time, could
test all of what's in the standards -- especially given that the standards in
the United States have practically everything in them; there's the "mile-wide,
inch-deep" thing, everything's in there. So they have to select what they test.
What we found is they tend to test what's on the simple end of the spectrum in
math and science. The more complex stuff, which the reform advocates push, is
never tested. Now, that's really a critical issue, because teachers, knowing
that their kids will be assessed accordingly and their jobs may be dependent on
how well their students do, they'll go with what's on the test. And that pushes
them in the direction, in mathematics, of more simple computation type things,
and leaves out the more complex mathematics that's comparable to what other
countries do. ...
Now some states have purchased tests "off the shelf."
And in those cases, probably these problems of alignment are even worse than
they are in those cases where the assessments have been developed very
specifically to the state standards. ...
Is this like coaching me to thrown the javelin, and then testing me on
whether I can get over the high jump?
Yes, that's about what it amounts to, in some cases. ...
I mean, what the heck, it's track and field. A test is a test, right?
That's what a lot of Americans believe. I think even educators believe that a
test is a test. So if it has on the top of it "mathematics," they think that
means it's the same test as any other test that's labeled mathematics. We
analyzed most of the standardized tests -- I think virtually all of them that
are used in the eighth grade in mathematics -- and what we found is those tests
are really not the same. They measure different topics. Some of them
have such a heavy emphasis on computational skills, like basic arithmetic
skills, multiplying, dividing. Others of them have more of an emphasis on some
of the algebraic ideas.
There's a lot of variability. So a score on one state assessment or one
standardized test does not tell you anything about how that child would do if
he or she took another standardized test or another state assessment. And I
think that's what the governors are beginning to understand -- that it's not
enough just to know that the student is doing sort of OK on this ... pick a
state, North Carolina State Assessment -- because if they took the state
assessment from Michigan, they might not do very well at all. There are
differences enough that you can't assume they mean the same thing.
Does that mean you think we should have one test -- a national test?
I believe we should have a national vision, a national set of standards. And if
we ever did that, then of course it would make the absolute most sense to have
a test which would measure those national standards. When you look across the
rest of the world, that's one of their secrets. It's well defined, it's well
articulated. Children, no matter where they live, all have the same
expectations. It's not a matter of which part of the country you live in, or
which side of the tracks you live on. It's there for everybody.
In this country, that's not true. And therefore we have such unevenness across
the country, and across the proverbial tracks, that this creates huge
differences in opportunities for students to learn. Then when we test, we get
different results, and then we say "Aha!" But of course it's not "Aha!" It's
like, what would you expect if you don't have a comparable curriculum for all
kids? Likely, you will get large differences between different groups of
I was watching a teacher the other day getting fourth graders ready for the
math test. And she put a computation problem on the board, a four-digit number
and a three-digit number, and they added up the ones column. And she put the
multiple-choice answers on the board as well. And for the ones column, the
answer was a five-and-carry the one or something. She didn't do the rest of the
problem. She said, "Let's look at the multiple-choice answers. Does any one of
them end with a five?" Only one ended with a five.
Is that good teaching?
Hardly. I think that's good test-taking skills, perhaps. But it surely doesn't
represent what I would think is good instruction. Or if the test was that
obvious in that way, then I'm not so sure it was necessarily a good test
either. That's part of what I mean by standards that are really coherent and
We shouldn't just be measuring basic computational skills all the time. Some of
that, of course, is necessary. Children do need to learn these basic
computational skills. But if that's all the test is, then it's going to lead to
that kind of coaching, if you will, on how to do well on the test. But that
doesn't contribute to the kids' understanding of mathematics. I think what
really is important about assessments is they not only should line up with the
standards, but they ought to represent the kind of challenging mathematics that
we want the students to learn.
I don't think teaching to the test is necessarily bad, if the test were really
good, really challenging, really coherent mathematically or scientifically.
Then, in fact, this would make sense, because that kind of thing couldn't occur
in a good test.
We're in the middle of something, so it's hard to know how it's going to
come out. But is your overall sense that this is a good thing we're doing? Are
we doing some damage to ourselves, because we're testing, high-stakes testing,
and we say we have standards, when we don't?
Yes, I think there's a real danger in all of this. Because it just seems to me
so often when we try to reform education, instead of really dealing and
grappling with the real issues, we tend to go with the surface issues. So when
you talk about standards, the issue is whether you have them or not. When you
talk about testing, the issue is whether you have them or not, are you holding
kids and teachers accountable or not. But those are the surface aspects of
The real issues have to do with what it is -- the substance, the discipline.
What are we expecting children to learn at those grade levels? Is it the kind
of things that give them a chance in life to compete internationally? And I'm
not talking about just on a test. I mean for their jobs, for their futures.
This is what's important. And this means we have to have a dialogue about what
mathematics, what science, what literature, what history is important for kids
to know at sixth, seventh, eighth grade? And then test those accordingly. We
don't go there.
Because it's hard work?
That's right. ... But other countries do it. Why can't we do it? Other
countries that have a lot of heterogeneity in their populations, other
countries which grapple with local, regional sorts of issues of control. But
they still do it, because it's important for the future of their students. We
get hung up in the politics. And then we leave our kids out of the equation,
and it's for them that we should be having this kind of serious dialogue.
People talk about content standards and performance standards, and we pass
quickly over the subject of opportunity standards. What do we mean when we say
I can tell you what I mean. I'm not sure it's what everybody necessarily means.
But opportunity standards are the notion that if you're going to have
standards, content standards, and if you're going to have assessments to
measure those, then there ought to be somebody concerned about making sure that
all students will have the opportunity to have what's in those standards.
[To use the track and field example] ... you and I are going to be judged on
whether we can get over the bar. But you have a coach, and I don't?
Yes. That would be a difference in opportunity. Or you've been trained for some
time in jumping that bar, and I've never seen it. This is the first time I've
walked up, and all of a sudden somebody says to me, "Hey, you have to jump over
that bar," and I've never seen a tape of how that's done, or the backward roll,
or the other ways you can go over that. And I have no idea. So I just run up to
it, and give it my best shot. That's different than when you've been trained
over many years to go over that bar. You've got a better shot at it.
In education, to continue the analogy, we would say "Bill, you didn't make
it that time, but we're going to let you try it again and again and again.
We'll test you again and again and again."
Unless there's something intervening -- maybe I'm a quick study -- but still,
if I don't get much instruction, I'm just going to keep repeating my mistakes
and running into that bar. ... And that's what we need to deal with -- those
Now carry that back into education. How does that work out in public
We have those standards, say, at the state level. But then there's nobody that
worries about whether all kids and all schools at that grade level are given
those kinds of opportunities. We might have some children who simply have never
ever heard of the concept of congruence in geometry. And all of a sudden,
that's on the test, and they have no opportunity to actually study that,
whereas another set of children in another school spend two weeks on it. Guess
who's going to do well on it? Does that mean that the children who didn't do
well are stupid, which is often the label associated with failure in these
things? No, it means that they never had the opportunity to learn this.
Is opportunity standards the same as the money we spend?
Oh, I don't think so. No, no. I mean, it's certainly correlated with money.
Newark, New Jersey spends $14,000 a kid or something. Does that mean those
kids have more opportunity than some school where they only spend $8,000? Yet,
Newark's kids do poorly.
Interestingly enough, it probably does have some of that meaning, but in a
strange way. I don't think it's dollars and cents but ... the wealth of the
community, in effect, speaks to other issues, so that in fact wealthier
communities have parents who, by their social class and their interest, push
harder on the school. So they make sure that the standards ... the local
standards ... what's done in the schools ... are at a higher level. So those
children then correspondingly get better opportunity.
You go to a large urban district, where you don't necessarily have parents
pushing in that way, their opportunities may be radically different. They may
be spending eighth grade doing nothing much more than whole number arithmetic
and fractions. Whereas in the suburbs, those kids are studying the algebra and
geometry, comparable to what other countries' children are doing.
But if a big piece of it is the push from the parents, then you can't
necessarily just buy fair opportunity?
No, it's sort of related to that issue, but it's not really just dollars and
cents. I think it's the whole cultural thing. You see, in the other countries
around the world, the way they mitigate some of this is that they have
standards, so that no matter where you live and who you are, if you're in sixth
grade, you're going to study these things. You'll all have those same
opportunities. In this country -- given that we don't have a national set of
standards, and even the state standards aren't necessarily adhered to -- what
you have is this local notion. And so that then allows the curriculum and the
standards to from district to district. That, then, tends to be related to the
parents and their background and their social class.
In the recently released TIMSS data, we found
evidence to this effect, ever so strongly. When you looked at the districts
that participated, you had the suburban districts doing very well and the big
city districts doing poorly. And in fact, if you looked at the relationship
between them, it was almost like a straight line. The wealthier and the higher
the social class of the parents, the better the performance. But when you
looked at the data more subtly, what you found was there's another strong
relationship almost falling in line, which is the same social class-type stuff,
but the other variable was what the curriculum opportunities were.
So the kids in the districts where the parents were wealthier and higher social
class had more demanding curricula than did those kids that attended schools
[in] districts in which the parents were of a lower social class.
So if you set coherent rigorous standards, then you can say, "OK, how do we
make sure everyone has the opportunity to meet those standards?" Or, "What does
it take to meet those standards?"
So it becomes a rational process.
It does. Now it raises a whole host of other issues ... that do go into
finance. Which has to do with, if in fact you recognize that the children's
family background and how much home support there is does make a difference
--which clearly it does -- then maybe the funding of the schools would somehow
have to take that into account.
What is currently the case is that the wealthiest districts have the most money
put into schooling, so that those that have more, get more. Maybe that model
would have to be modified, so that more money from the state or the federal
government would supplement those districts where kids had a longer way to go
to begin with.
How would you make that political argument: "Let's spend more money on poor
I think the notion of equality, making it an equal playing field, is sort of an
American ideal. I'm not so sure that that couldn't be sold to people and to
parents. I do know that the state of Michigan did this. They removed the
property formula, the local property taxes, as the main vehicle for supporting
schools. It went to the state level, supported through state sales tax. So
there's much more of an equalization now in the state of Michigan across the
districts. So there are ways to do this. And I've heard of other states that
are doing similar sorts of things. ...
For years, the idea has been, if we could just equalize the spending, these
wealthy districts out in the suburbs, if we could just spend as much money on
the kids in poor areas as they do in the suburban areas, things would be fine.
That's not the answer?
I don't think that's the only answer. I think that's a step in the right
direction. But without dealing with the standards, the issue of what it is
that's in the curriculum, I think just equalizing the funding will probably
mean that this social pressure from the wealthier and more educated parents in
the suburbs will still be there. It will probably be not as present in the city
So even if you equalize the funding, there wouldn't be anything pushing the
kids in the urban centers to higher expectations. That, I believe, would only
come from a concerted set of national standards that would make it the case
that all children no matter where they live should be learning the same basic
You said "national." But one state could do it?
One state could do that. And that's a great step in the right direction.
So you set the coherent content standards. And then you say, "OK, we have to
make sure every kid has the opportunity ... to reach those standards." Every
kid has a math teacher who understands math.
That's right. ... It's multiple parts. First of all, it's that the expectations
are there. And that's a huge step, because we have data that show that in fact
in some of these poorer districts, what's considered mathematics at eighth
grade is just low-level computational stuff that in the rest of the world is
third and fourth grade. And that's what our eighth graders have as their
expectation. Whereas in other districts, there are much higher expectations. So
therefore, that's what has to be equalized in my mind. Now, the funding should
probably go with that.
But first and foremost, we've got to deal with the leveling of the playing
field from a content point of view. Because then alone will we really begin to
get a chance to equalize what children learn. That's what I mean by "equal
opportunity." It's not just money.
You're working hard on this. Are you optimistic?
You know, I am. I've just been very fortunate, since the TIMSS results came
out, to have the opportunity to address and speak with the president, members
of the House and Senate, with the governors and state legislators and others in
the business community. And I find a lot of interest right now in trying to
grapple with these issues, and to make progress.
I see the real solution lying at the level of the state and the governors. And
I see a real opportunity here. I've spoken to many of the governors in various
contexts, and I see a strong commitment. One of the visible signs of that is
the organization called Achieve, which is a non-profit organization of
governors and business leaders. They're really trying to move in this
direction. They have, in fact, developed a set of standards that would be world
class -- by my definition, comparable to the rest of the world -- in
mathematics, for the middle grades, 6, 7 and 8.
And there's a draft of those now developed, in some 10 or 15 states that are
really seriously thinking about adopting those, and putting in place
professional development and an assessment that lines up with those standards,
and would push in the direction of giving this kind of first-class education to
our children. So yes, I am optimistic.
The flip side is at the school level. I hear teachers talking about leaving.
I see teachers leaving. "I don't want to teach fourth grade because that's the
assessment year." They're taking something out of teaching. Does that worry
Oh, yes. In fact, just there's a huge turnover about to take place -- that's
beginning to take place, as I understand the numbers. A large number of the
baby boomers who were teachers are now about to retire. I've heard various
numbers, but in the millions of teachers that will have to be replaced over the
next X number of years.
But I mean the young teachers who teach for a couple of years, and they say,
"I didn't know it was going to be like this, all this test, test,
That does seem to be a problem. But I think if we did a sensible job of
testing, where the teachers saw it as something that would give them helpful
information about the progress of the school, their students, their
instruction, and it was good solid coherent stuff we were asking them on these
tests, I have to believe teachers wouldn't object to that as much.
I think one of their problems right now is, A) We do a lot of it, because we
have all these different sources, different local districts. Sometimes they
have a district test, they have a standardized test, they have a state
assessment, they have the national assessment every so often; and other kinds
of things like this. That seems burdensome to them.
But if we had something more coherent, [if] we had one test, for example, that
would tell them how well they were doing, and it was on sensible decent
mathematics that teachers agreed children should know, I don't think there'd be
as big a problem. I think part of the problem now is [that] the tests don't
necessarily line up with what the teachers are doing. But that's because the
teachers don't have a clear vision that articulates what they're supposed to be
It's just chaotic. It's a chaotic situation where none of that coherence
exists. Nothing lines up. And so you have a teacher being torn in so many
different directions. Standards saying this. The textbook is so big, and has so
many things, and I know they can't do it, but they try to do it. The tests are
in another direction. That's not a professional environment.
But it's within our reach?
The changing of it all? Oh, yes. It's really more a matter now of the political
will to accomplish it. We know where we need to go. The data are clear. It's a
matter of developing the will to make that change.
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