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Published in Print: March 1, 2006, as Progress Report

Progress Report

A decade ago, the standards movement was in its infancy. We've come a long way—but still have far to go.

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In March 1996, the nation’s governors met in Palisades, New York, and called for an “external, independent, nongovernmental effort” to measure and report on each state’s annual progress in raising student achievement and improving public schools. At the time, the notion of standards-based education was in its infancy, though states had already begun setting clear and challenging guidelines for what students should know and developing tests and accountability systems closely aligned with those standards to prod schools to reach higher.

The Standards Movement:
A Progress Report
Tracking Devices (Delaware)
Go Your Own Way (Iowa)
Boom or Bust (Nevada)

Now, a decade later, it’s fair to ask: Has student achievement improved? To what extent have states put in place the pieces of standards-based education? Is there any evidence that the two are related? And what role do teachers’ qualifications play?

Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Teacher Magazine, responded to the governors’ call by launching the Quality Counts project, with the goal of producing an annual report card on public education in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The results since compiled by the EPE Research Center have been at once heartening and sobering. They’re heartening because student achievement has improved since 1992, near the beginning of the standards movement, particularly in mathematics and particularly for those students who started furthest behind.

At the same time, it would be hard to ignore the fact that progress has been slow. That’s especially true in reading, where average scores nationally have budged just slightly since 1992. It’s also true that despite the solid gains of poor, African American, and Hispanic students during this period, the achievement gaps between those students and their more affluent and white peers remain disturbingly wide—the equivalent of two grade levels or more.

It's What You Know

As part of the push to improve instruction, every state in the country has reconsidered what it means to be a highly qualified educator. While such efforts come in the form of subject-knowledge testing, stepped-up credentials, mentoring programs, and pay-for-performance plans, to date there’s been no one-size-fits-all approach, as the following statistics suggest.

Number of states (excluding the District of Columbia) requiring prospective high school teachers to pass subject-knowledge tests, up from 29 in 1999-2000: 42

Number of states requiring high school teachers in core subject areas to pass subject-knowledge tests and major in their subject: 25

Number of states reporting that 90 percent or more of their classes are taught by highly qualified teachers, which will be an NCLB requirement as of the end of this school year: 25

Number of states requiring—and funding—mentoring programs for new teachers, up by just one from a decade ago: 15

Number of states providing financial incentives to teachers for boosting student test scores: 2

Number of states rewarding teachers for some combination of specific knowledge and skills and student test scores: 5

And the standards focus is shifting to teachers. While state accountability systems appear to be linked with gains in student achievement, “the only way we are going to get the substantial improvements in student performance that we want is through upgrading the quality of teaching and the quality of teachers that we have in our schools,” says Eric Hanushek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “And that is a much more difficult policy issue.”

Indeed, growing numbers of states now require prospective teachers to demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they will teach, either by holding a subject-matter major or by passing specialized tests [see “It’s What You Know,” opposite page]. But the EPE Research Center’s exploratory analysis has yet to find any relationship between state efforts to strengthen teacher quality and gains in student achievement on national test scores.

One problem, says Hanushek, is that any policy “has to allow for the fact that we have this huge overhang of existing teachers, and you cannot think of simply changing the entire stock of teachers overnight. So to me, that suggests you have to have a much longer planning horizon.”

While it will take far more than a decade to gauge the ultimate effects of the standards movement, it’s clear they’ve already meant different things in different states. In the pages that follow, we look at Delaware, a small state that’s notched big gains in achievement; Nevada, which has been challenged by a population boom; and Iowa, where a long tradition of local independence has carried over into standards-setting.

Vol. 17, Issue 05, Page 16

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