Standards Reform: Focus on Learning for All

By M. Hayes Mizell

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 pp. 27-28

During the past two decades, the South has emerged as the star graduate of the nation's remediation class. It ended up there after several centuries of making what a school counselor might euphemistically characterize as "bad decisions:" slavery, racial oppression, de jure segregation and massive resistance. But whether because of pathology or choice, the South had become rebellious and out of control. Striking the teacher was the last straw. It surprised no one when it flunked. Alone, down and out, with no money and no friends, it finally resorted to something it had avoided for centuries: learning. The more the South learned, and the more it used what it learned, the more self-confident it became. It discovered that skills have value, and folks who have money and want to make more money seek out skills. These skills, combined with the South's work ethic (it had never been afraid of hard work, it had just worked hard at the wrong things), made it prosperous and proud, embracing education almost as an article of faith.

Like any low-performing student who migrates into the ranks of achievers, the South's progress has been impressive because its efforts to improve education started so far behind more prosperous areas of the country. For most of this century, it struggled to provide even a semblance of public education, from a full school year, to decent facilities, to adequately trained teachers. The South denied even these to children from low-income and African-American families, and, of course, to children with disabilities. Only in the 1970s did Southern states finally begin to provide inclusive public education systems similar to those elsewhere in the nation.

Now, just as the South is catching up to the nation, the dynamics of schooling are changing dramatically. The emphasis is increasingly on the results of education, what students actually know and can do, rather than on merely providing the components of the educational process. There continue to be concerns about the fairness of some states' education financing systems and the supply of qualified teachers, but most policy makers and taxpayers are more concerned about what students are learning. Are schools challenging and encouraging all students to master increasingly difficult subject matter? Are schools adequately preparing students for the next grade? Will students have the knowledge and skills to compete successfully in a global economy?

These concerns have caused most states, and some local school systems, to develop and mandate "standards." This term is political comfort food, meant to reassure an increasingly skeptical public that schools are just as rigorous, if not more so, than the schools that were attended by adults who are middle-aged or older.

In their current incarnation, however, standards are potentially much more important than in those alleged glorious days of yesteryear. An overly simple explanation of standards is that they define what students should know and be able to do, perhaps at each grade level, or at certain benchmark grades, such as four, eight, and twelve. Standards also define the level of proficiency that students must demonstrate in order to prove that they can perform at standard. In other words, a standard may state that a student must be able to explain the causes of the Civil War, but it also should describe how much knowledge the student must exhibit in order to satisfactorily meet the standard.

In theory, standards are powerful tools. They provide the means to know what students should be learning and to monitor whether students are getting the instruction and support they need to learn it. States are more likely to hold school systems accountable for ensuring that increasing proportions of students perform at standard. There is at least the potential for parents to understand specifically what schools expect students to learn, and to develop partnerships with teachers to make sure students are satisfactorily progressing towards the desired academic results of schooling. Most importantly, however, standards assume that nearly all students can meet high expectations for learning, though not at the same rate of progress, and for some not without considerable help and even multiple chances.

Many people are nervous about standards. Time and again education bureaucracies have demonstrated their expertise in screwing up a sound and promising concept. They have tied good ideas in so many knots of complexity that few people, particularly overburdened teachers, can understand or implement them effectively. Standards are often written either in pureed education-speak or so broadly that they provide little helpful direction to teachers and parents. Standards-setting bodies often go overboard and mandate too many standards, more than most teachers can address.

Standards: A Majority-Culture Conspiracy?

Some people believe standards are part of the majority-culture conspiracy to set the "bar" of academic perfor-


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mance so high that it will increase the failure and dropout rates among students of color and those from low-income families. There is no doubt that one purpose of standards is to prod all students to take their education more seriously, but standards should put just as much pressure on schools and teachers to perform at higher levels. Significantly greater numbers of students will not perform at standard unless schools and teachers become much more effective. If there is evidence that schools are using standards only to hold students accountable, then communities should be vocal in demanding school and teacher accountability for implementing reforms necessary for students meet the standards.

In spite of the risks of states, school systems, and schools abusing standards, evidence of their potential is beginning to emerge. Some school systems are using standards to stimulate broad reforms. A problem common to many schools is that teachers are relentless in assigning homework, but the assignments may have more to do with demonstrating the teachers' "rigor" than with increasing student learning. If one takes standards seriously, the purpose and quality of teachers' assignments become more important. Are the assignments primarily "make work" exercises, or are they developed specifically to help students progress towards performing at standard? The need for reform in this area would not likely arise in the absence of standards.

A related problem is that in awarding grades, many teachers give greater weight to students' "effort," or whether they handed in assignments on time, than to the quality of the students' work. Because of standards, from Boston to Long Beach there is an increasing emphasis on the quality of how students demonstrate what they know and can do. In some classrooms, teachers and students even reach consensus on criteria for assessing student work. In these classes, students begin to think more critically about the quality of their work and become more willing to revise and improve their assignments to meet higher standards of performance.

The Corpus Christi, Texas, school system is using standards to raise expectations and performance across the district. Each year the school system sends a complete copy of its standards to every household with school-age children. A leadership team of teachers from across the district annually plans and leads a full day of standards-based staff development in which teachers share promising practices with their peers. This year Corpus Christi is using a new report card that informs parents which specific standards their children have met and which ones they have yet to meet. These and many other reform initiatives based on standards have yielded impressive results as student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills has improved significantly over time.

Unfortunately, the use of standards has also revealed that many teachers lack the knowledge and skills to help students progress towards performing at standard. There are, for example, mathematics and science teachers who did not major in these subjects in college and who are not secure in their knowledge of the content they are teaching. These teachers are the ones whose instruction is most dependent on textbooks and who lack the confidence to engage students creatively in learning. The Louisville, Kentucky, school system is trying to address this problem by supporting five full-time teacher "fellows" who provide one-on-one staff development for teachers in low-performing schools. In San Diego, California, each school principal now spends at least two hours each day in classrooms, working with teachers to improve instruction.

In many ways, the new focus on standards represents the culmination of the South's long educational journey. While there are inequities, for the most part the region provides the basics of adequately funded education systems, literate teachers, comfortable school facilities, technology, and a wide variety of ancillary supports. There will always be a need to improve on these basics, but it is unlikely that by themselves they will significantly increase student learning. What is now emerging in the South is a four-part debate over (a) what all students should learn, (b) how well they should learn it, (c) how to determine what they have learned and how well, and (d) how to support and hold accountable school systems, schools, and teachers to help students perform at standard. There will be those who resist efforts to improve their performance because to do so they will have to develop new attitudes and behaviors based on the belief that nearly all children can perform at standard. Overcoming these obstacles will not be easy, but at long last the focus is on the right thing, not just the conditions of education but the results of education.

M. Hayes Mizell directs the Program for Student Achievement for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. He was born in North Carolina. The Program for Student Achievement supports standards-based reform in San Diego and Long Beach, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Louisville, Kentucky; and Corpus Christi, Texas. For more information about the program, contact the Foundation at 212-551-9100.