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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2002 (2002) 226-228

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Comment by Michael J. Petrilli

[Standards and Accountability in Washington State]

Criticizing this excellent paper by Paul T. Hill and Robin J. Lake is difficult, because it achieves all of its aims. It contributes to the research base on effective schools, and it astutely analyzes Washington State's attempts at reforms. Instead of offering criticism, then, I would like to highlight a few findings that I believe are especially poignant.

The good news section of the paper is good news for the entire nation. Educators and policymakers have known it for a long time, but it is worth repeating: Schools matter. Demography is not destiny; effective schools can improve student achievement regardless of how poor the students or challenging the environment.

While many people know that schools matter, the message needs to be communicated to the world, because too many educators and political leaders continue to assume that poor children cannot learn. In President George W. Bush's words, they continue to practice "the soft bigotry of low expectations." This paper says loud and clear that poor students can learn and that good schools are the key.

The bad news is bad, but not for all the usual reasons. Many commentators would look at Washington's experience and focus narrowly on the demise of its accountability provisions. Washington's original plan focused heavily on standards and testing. It did so because growing evidence from Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere shows that standards-based reform, well implemented, works. The Bush administration strongly supports this approach, as evidenced by the president's education proposal.

However, standards, testing, and accountability represent only one side of the equation. The other side goes by various names--flexibility, freedom of action (as Hill and Lake call it)--but is equally important. According to Hill and Lake's account of the past few years, policymakers in Washington seem to have made a serious mistake by not taking the flexibility agenda seriously.

Why is flexibility so important? The current system is top-down, rule- driven, and process-oriented. The culture of education in this nation needs to be changed to a culture of achievement. Standards-based reform takes the system part of the way by focusing attention on results. But without clearing the underbrush of years of rules, compliance culture, and mandates, schools face an impossible situation. They are told that student achievement is what counts, [End Page 226] but their hands are tied with rules and regulations. Society demands results, but at the same time schools are loaded up with nonacademic responsibilities.

The experience in Texas is instructive. While Texas's standards-based system gets considerable attention, part of its strategy was to dramatically increase flexibility at the local level. Political leaders cleared out the Texas education code. They demanded that districts give local schools greater autonomy. While Washington considered such moves early in its reform movement, the state quickly dropped them when resistance from the established interest groups became clear. This was just as great a loss as the failure to win meaningful accountability.

Furthermore, both Texas and North Carolina are weak union states. Their policymakers were able to create systems that held educators accountable for results and gave administrators power to shake things up. What happens to standards-based reform in states with hidebound union regulations and in schools with calcified union contracts? How does a principal shake up a school when he or she cannot bring in new talent or remove incompetent employees? How does he or she focus on academics when the recruitment pool is disturbingly shallow?

A major part of a flexibility agenda, then, would include a commitment to giving schools the tools to recruit talent from anywhere they can find it. Early on, Washington's reformers perceived the need to change the pipeline of new teachers, but efforts to reform teacher certification were quickly abandoned. Abandoned, too, were efforts to give principals control over teacher assignments and budgets. As Hill and Lake report, business groups held the view that "no organization can be responsible for performance if it...