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Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as 'Standards Are Not Magic'


'Standards Are Not Magic'

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Higher standards for all students. A worthy goal indeed. But a closer look at seven districts trying to implement standards-based reform suggests this is no small challenge. The realities of urban districts and the ambitions of standards-based reform are not easily joined.

In a nutshell, standards-based reform rests on the notion that ultimate increases in student achievement begin with the adoption of challenging standards statements about what students are expected to know and be able to do. Standards, in turn, guide the choices of assessments that measure their attainment and of curriculum and instructional practices that enable students to meet the standards. Professional development that equips teachers with the skills and knowledge to enact these practices, and accountability based on the assessments, among other incentives, are intended to help and to motivate teachers to change.

Putting these pieces in place requires a host of changes in the rest of the system, from resource allocation to reorganization and redefinition of district roles. Sometimes called systemic reform--because the whole system is implicated--such efforts present a massive undertaking for urban districts.

Most urban districts begin any new initiative with tight budgets, increasingly poor and minority students, racial tensions, and a shrinking number of highly qualified staff members. Moreover, new reform efforts are layered on top of old, creating an increasingly crowded agenda. These and other obstacles work against the success of any major reform effort.

We are following seven urban districts as they attempt to become standards-based systems. Partners in the Pew Network for Standards-Based Reform, these seven districts are struggling to increase student achievement, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Halfway through the four-year grants, we see pockets of success among the seven districts, and even evidence of achievement gains in the district with the longest history of a focused reform direction. In general, however, we see trends that suggest a difficult road ahead for standards-based reform in urban America.

For starters, drafting or adopting standards can be a grueling process in the politicized environment of urban systems. Yet it has happened. Although their breadth and depth vary, all seven districts we studied have board-approved standards (and often state standards as well). The network districts are also trying to align their curricula with their standards, usually by adopting new textbooks or alternative materials.

Settling on assessments that measure attainment of standards and creating effective accountability mechanisms have proven more elusive. All the sites initially agreed to use performance assessments tied to their standards. A few have done so, mostly as a result of state testing programs, but always in addition to norm-referenced exams. Strong forces work against using standards-based assessments. They are expensive, increase the already heavy testing burden, and do not satisfy the demands of parents and educators for national norms.

Consequently, accountability--fast becoming a centerpiece of reform in every site--is based primarily on norm-referenced tests. As standards-based components are added to some assessment systems, this may change. Currently, however, most accountability systems in the Pew Network districts are not tied to standards. Nor are they designed with interventions to help low-achieving schools improve. The network districts or their state agencies, along with districts and states across the nation, find it easier to declare sanctions than to create supports. But sanctions do not address the underlying and broader challenges: how to equip teachers with new skills and knowledge, and how to provide students with the extra help they need to reach standards.

Creating conditions that encourage and help teachers actually improve their practice is not easy, especially when resources are tight. Standards--and the curricula tied to them--take on life only when teachers work with them through judging student work, debating what meeting the standards looks like, and, hardest of all, figuring out what to do to get students to meet the standards. Few of the network districts have yet created workable strategies for this, let alone put them in place. And no wonder, because they require complex change strategies combining the need to restructure existing resources and personnel allocations with garnering additional resources and expertise.

A strong and sustained district focus on teacher learning and quality instruction has a dramatic influence on what teachers do in their classrooms.

Most difficult is ensuring that all students have opportunities to reach standards. Efforts to reduce inequities founder on the difficulty of changing the attitudes of educators and the public, and because of the vast differences in how well-prepared students are.

All seven network sites retain some form of tracking, with a trend toward fewer tracks. Several sites produce data disaggregated by race or income; but we found little evidence of disaggregated data being used as a basis for improvement, and some concern that such data tend to reinforce stereotypes. Teachers and administrators struggle with their own beliefs about standards and the children they teach. For some, the notion of all children reaching standards flies in the face of their day-to-day experiences. For others, standards have provided the impetus for more challenging instruction, which typically results in improved performance from low-achieving students. These findings underscore the obvious: Standards are not a magic solution to income disadvantage, racial discrimination, and language barriers.

So, then, does standards-based reform hold promise for urban school improvement? Not surprisingly, in the seven districts--and even more so in the national press--the rhetoric certainly outstrips substantive progress so far. Yet in these districts, some compelling data already run counter to this. We see pockets of success in all sites, and one district with demonstrably higher test scores as a result of its efforts. From these examples, taken together, we cull several themes that suggest some elements essential for the success of standards-based reform efforts.

One theme is that a strong and sustained district focus on teacher learning and quality instruction has a dramatic influence on what teachers do in their classrooms. Whether the specific focus is on literacy or mathematics, or on a particular curriculum or philosophy, the district challenge is to maintain that focus over time, even as leaders and state agendas change. The best ideas in the world are no better than the amount of time folks have to get good at them. As long as superintendents and school boards change direction every few years, significant changes in teacher and student learning are unlikely.

A second theme is that changes in teaching practice require a new conception of staff development to replace traditional workshop and trainer-of-trainers models and requirements for teachers to accrue hours. Effective strategies for enhancing teachers' knowledge and skills look more like part of their everyday jobs. They involve entire faculties over a period of many years and include opportunities to learn new content knowledge and teaching strategies, to learn from colleagues, and to have help available at the school site from staff developers, the principal, and peers.

A third theme is the need for districts--and their voting publics--to invest in attracting and strengthening teachers and school leaders. Without heavy recruitment and development of strong school leaders of teacher learning and highly motivated teachers, no reform is likely to get very far. By the same token, minimizing unnecessary transfers of teachers and principals, so that strong school communities can develop, is a major contributor to improvement.

A fourth theme is that low-performing students need extra time, help, and structure. Without these supports, standards-driven reform risks becoming "another way to fail students," as one teacher expressed her fear. This extra time must consist of a well-designed program taught by well-trained teachers, not the usual remedial and repetitive work. And it must start early, not wait until children are several years behind. One district estimates that by having a longer school day, coupled with a summer program offering intensive instruction, students who are behind in 1st grade can have the equivalent of an extra year of instruction by 4th grade--greatly increasing their likelihood of reaching standards.

The Pew Network districts provide evidence that standards can be a powerful tool in the hands of strong leaders. Standards can guide promising changes in curriculum and professional development. Standards can also be used to maintain pressure on a system already highly invested in teacher learning and continuous improvement. The latter is the case in the one network district with consistent evidence of increasing achievement. This site began by focusing first on instruction and teacher learning, and only years later added the idea of standards and assessments.

But as these seven districts know firsthand, there is nothing magic about standards in themselves. Standards cannot replace long-term investments in building the knowledge and skills of teachers and helping low-performing students. These sustained investments are the backbone of improvement. When the rhetoric of standards is accompanied by a focus on high-quality instruction and a concentration of resources behind this focus--for teachers and students--standards can make a major difference.

Jane L. David is the director of the Bay Area Research Group in Palo Alto, Calif. Patrick M. Shields is a manager and senior policy analyst in the education-policy-studies program at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. The views expressed are their own and are not intended to represent those of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Pages 40,42

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