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Raising Our Standards for the Standards Movement

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Almost every state either has academic standards or is producing them. That might lead the casual observer to decide that the move to use standards to boost student performance is nearly complete. That is hardly the case.

What the states have produced are content standards--statements about what students should know and be able to do. Though these standards have some serious flaws, producing them is an achievement. But the main problem is that these content standards are difficult, if not impossible, to use for any practical purposes because they are not performance standards.

Performance standards enable teachers, students, and parents to judge whether a particular piece of student work actually meets the standard. Performance standards have three parts--a succinct description of what students must know and be able to do (that's the content standard), samples of student work to create a vivid image of what kind of work meets the standards, and commentaries on those samples that explain the features that raise them to the standards. Including examples of student work is the key to making the standards usable by teachers, children, and parents. Any student should be able to look at a performance standard and say, "I understand now. I can learn how to do that."

In most cases, the content standards the states have produced are lacking. Many are full of language that is vague, referring to things that cannot be assessed (like love of literature). Others are crammed so full of the wish lists of experts and teachers that no one could teach a course based on them in the time available.

Or ideology takes over in standards writing, as recently happened in California. A politically driven state education board there narrowed the whole math curriculum into little more than the mastery of math facts and algorithms. What they decided to leave out was any need for students to understand the concepts that underlie the facts and formulas, or to use the algorithms they master to solve problems of the kind they will encounter in real life.

The result is that few states have standards that are internationally benchmarked, describe a curriculum that can actually be taught, include an emphasis on conceptual understanding and applications as well as basic knowledge and skills, and incorporate examples of student work that meets the standards.

Even if states had good standards, that would be only the beginning of building a standards-based education system. At their summit in 1996, the nation's governors took an important step by adding student assessment and accountability to the standards dialogue. But few states have assessments that match their standards. So teachers are teaching to the old tests rather than the new standards.

Good standards and assessments will inevitably create the need for curriculum materials that are matched to the standards. The districts and schools using the New Standards performance standards and assessments our organization has developed have learned as much. They are discovering that the available materials cannot be assembled into a coherent curriculum that fits any well-designed standards. That is not the only curriculum problem. Before, we simply dismissed the low-performing students as lacking ability and gave them pabulum for a curriculum. Now, if we are serious about standards, we must get students who are several grade levels below where they should be up to grade level quickly.

The new curriculum materials will be very different from what is now available. The materials for each year will concentrate on a few key topics, each treated in depth. More attention will be paid to helping students grasp the conceptual underpinning of the material. The curriculum will do a better job of helping students apply what they have learned to real-world, complex problems without sacrificing any of the strength of the core disciplines. The touchstone of the new curriculum materials will be careful attention to the constant production of student work that meets the standards for that subject and grade level.

Once we create a new standards-based instructional system, we will need to give students a reason to do the hard work that is required.

To accomplish this, we must shift the benchmark at the end of schooling from a high school diploma based on time in the seat to a "certificate of initial mastery." The certificate will be based on standards of achievement in core subjects benchmarked to what is expected of 16-year-olds in the highest-performing countries. Most students should earn the certificate when they are 16; others will take longer. Every student will be expected to reach the certificate standard before they leave high school.

The reason that students will work hard to reach this standard is simple: Most colleges and employers will require one as the price of admission or employment. It will signify that a student needs no remediation to go to college, that a student has what it takes to do the reading and math to succeed on the job.

The certificate will become the standard for both the students and schools. All but the most severely handicapped students will be expected to earn the certificate, and schools and school districts will be held accountable for making sure that they do. The result will be fundamental structural changes in our school systems.

First, and foremost, it will lead to the demise of the comprehensive high school. The comprehensive high school was born of the idea that only some students could learn and something had to be done for the others. So we had science classes without science, math classes without math, and vocational classes in technologies long since extinct.

The high school should be about academic excellence for all. Its first job should be to get all of its students to the certificate-of-initial-mastery standard. Once they earn the certificate, students will have three choices. Each will be a valued path to a productive, fulfilling life. Some students will opt to begin a professional and technical program leading to an employer-approved occupational-skills certificate. Technical and community colleges and other institutions will offer these programs, freeing high schools from their losing race to keep up with swiftly changing technologies.

Other students will stay in high school to complete a program of study designed to prepare them for entrance exams required by selective four-year colleges or to earn them credit in introductory college-level courses, or both. Thus the high school could offer the International Baccalaureate program, a coherent set of Advanced Placement courses, or the state equivalents of these programs that are now emerging. A final group of students will move directly to less selective colleges.

Putting a real system of standards-based education in place will require states and districts to make tough choices that only a few have shown themselves ready to make.

Surely, these changes will take iron determination on the part of policymakers and professional educators. Consider reading. Research appears to show that a student who has not mastered the basics of reading by the end of 1st grade will never read as well as students who do, no matter what subsequent instruction the nonreaders receive.

Because reading is the key to virtually every other subject, schools must act quickly and decisively, we believe. Part of the answer is for every elementary school whose students are not reading at grade level to cut class sizes to no more than 12 students through the 2nd grade. The jobs of the upper-elementary teachers will be much easier if all students read well, even if their classes end up larger.

A key to getting virtually all students to standards, especially to literacy in the basic skills of math and English, is time--time after school, time on Saturday mornings, time during the summer--for students who are behind to catch up. Inevitably, this use of time will conflict with other priorities, like interscholastic sports and summer vacations and after-school jobs. It will take strong policy measures and equally strong educators to defend what is right.

Realistically, schools and districts are not likely to make the difficult choices needed to get virtually all students to standards unless strong new incentives are in place. Only one state and a handful of districts have instituted a system of tough incentives for schools to improve their performance against clear standards year after year, with tough consequences for those who do not, including losing their jobs. Standards-based education will not work without these incentives and consequences.

But incentives won't accomplish much until school faculties get the room they need to exercise their professional judgment to accomplish the work. Central offices and school boards must find ways to set goals, measure results, and provide important support. They must give up trying to manage the affairs of each campus. The professional staff of each school should have the power to decide how at least 85 percent of their pro rata share of the entire district budget is spent. Again, only one state we know of has given school faculties real control over their budgets.

Putting a real system of standards-based education in place will require states and districts to make tough choices that only a few have shown themselves ready to make. The exceptions are several cities that could win big as a result. But nothing short of facing up to these difficult decisions is likely to bring all students to standards that match the highest in the world.


Marc Tucker is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which is based in Washington. Judy Codding is the center's vice president for programs. This article was adapted from their new book, Standards For Our Schools (Jossey-Bass Publishers).

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