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By All Measures: 'Do It the "Dirty'' Way'

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When haven't there been de facto standards, pray tell? There have always been exemplary curriculum and performance standards to adopt and adapt locally. Visit any good elementary school where first-rate children's literature is used; examine the syllabi and exams used in the best high schools, public and private; see our best vocational programs; study the Advanced Placement program, the International Baccalaureate. ... We already have a plethora of possibilities.

Still unasked, therefore, are key questions: Why haven't schools chosen to adopt genuine standards? Why do few districts "benchmark'' their work against the standards of exemplary programs? Why do teachers still give grades based on mere parochial norms? Why do we still allow self-fulfilling prophecies of poor performance, by expecting test results distributed along a "curve'' on low-level tests? And why does the public tolerate all this?

Three insights emerge from such a perspective. Our obsession with imposed "proxy'' testing has crippled the essential capacity to set goals and measure performance locally in a credible, "value added'' and useful fashion. Secondly, there are few incentives for most students to care about their grades and course quality: Only students who wish to attend our best colleges need a specific grade-point average or program. Thirdly, we foolishly continue to believe in a "one size fits all'' view of schooling, as if there weren't many possible standards, necessarily contextual and based on appropriately different aspirations and entry standards at the next level.

And isn't there some hypocrisy here? No one proposes setting performance (as opposed to safety) standards for every car built by our automakers; no one proposes mandating one "standard of excellence'' for all writers' submissions to any periodical in America. Why is it that our policymakers want to re-invent failed Eastern European socialism in education? Why not instead foster local entrepreneurship by encouraging each school to be many schools-within-schools, so that parents and students can vote with their feet, and where incentives reward team risk-taking and success? What we really need from policymakers are tools for such teams: useful design standards for local standard-setting and assessing; and technical resources for ensuring higher-quality local decisionmaking.

The current debate is thus hopelessly misframed: Standards aren't imposed, they are chosen, because, without that ownership, the difficult work of local change is impossible. This fuss about national standards will not improve schools any more than the government's development of better economic indicators will improve each hardware store in America. If you want to change schools, you must do it the "dirty'' way, one school at a time, from the inside; through strong leadership, incentives for risk-taking, technical assistance, and with the shared belief that the status quo is indefensible.

Grant Wiggins is director of programs and research for the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure in Geneseo, N.Y.

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