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By All Measures: 'Rethink Classroom Strategies'

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New standards and assessments are not a first priority for educational change in the United States. Building common understandings and mutual respect among our diverse cultures is the paramount issue for schools.

Because families and communities are more significant than schools in the education of children and youth, a high priority must go to enhancing their support for children. Without decent lives, supportive surroundings, and more access to adults for America's children, schools alone cannot guarantee maturity, responsibility, and learning. Growing poverty among our young people is served by a far less effective safety net than those in other countries that compete with us economically. We assume that we can fix the schools so that the schools can fix the kids, no matter what we do to them in families and communities. Not so!

For major leverage to change schools, new standards and new assessments are not the best starting place. Instead, the most promising as well as the most difficult school-based initiative is to help teachers rethink their classroom strategies. As they do this, new standards can be introduced gradually, as was done in secondary schools when the Advanced Placement program was launched in the 1950's. The recent announcement by the College Board of its interest in new standards is a happy circumstance, because it would keep the school curriculum separated from politics.

Curriculum and assessment practices do need attention, but attempts to change them without seeking a new and different pedagogy will be wasted. Research by John Goodlad, Theodore Sizer, and others underscores the weakness of classroom procedures in our schools. Teaching an improved curriculum in the same old ways will produce the same results as the "legislated learning'' of school reform under the banner of A Nation at Risk--frustration for teachers and failure for students.

Introduction of new assessments as levers to change both pedagogy and students' learning modes, and their simultaneous use as high-stakes measures of performance, will constitute an unacceptable combination. Such assessments will be like throwing teachers and students with no opportunity for swimming lessons into deep water.

Harold Howe 2nd is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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