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By All Measures: 'Resisting the Factory System'

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The greatest potential benefit of a national standards-and-assessment system is that it will lead us out of a 75-year history of schools organized like Taylorized factories and provide new grounds for ensuring equity in educational opportunity.

We sometimes forget that our present schools are a creation of our present national system of standards and assessment. Almost everywhere you go, you will find laws requiring minimum competency for graduation, extensive lists of behavioral objectives and standards for every subject and grade, a battery of machine-scored tests measuring student progress toward these standards, the teaching of reading and writing with daily routines of fill-in-the-blank exercises, and teachers with assembly-line schedules of too many students and no time for planning and reflection.

The hope is that these new standards and assessments will give more students the opportunity to read and to discuss whole stories, to write whole pieces, and to engage in problem-solving beyond fill-in-the-blank exercises. Many teachers have been resisting the factory system for years and are leading the way in helping us understand what must be done.

But any statement of goals and standards must be derived from--and accompanied by--actual cases and vignettes, showing the work of individual students and their interactions with teachers and others. We must begin with the student work, not a list of features or behaviors. Let parents look at the student work and tell us what they think. Let teachers look at the work and tell us what they think. Teachers and parents will reach a consensus, as long as everyone understands that we will look at samples again next year and review their statements. The process of examining our standards is never over.

In the process just described, something has happened at the school site. Teachers are examining and discussing the work of individual students. Some of these cases become exemplars of special needs or different patterns of development. The school provides time for observation and reflection. And everywhere one looks, student work is on display or available in portfolios for examination. The school site becomes a center for inquiry and reflection, a center that welcomes challenges from students, parents, and teachers to the school's program and standards.

A new system will require money and time in a political environment where our leaders seem inclined to promise quick fixes at no cost. And we cannot be certain that the new system will not hurt some students, will not create new forms of institutionalized inequality. But the desperate situation of children in our urban schools seems to me to justify the risk of trying a new approach.

Miles Myers is executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

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