Special Report

Missing Pieces

By David J. Hoff — January 11, 2001 13 min read
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Come March, about 175 teachers will bid to join an exclusive New York club.

The applicants will be seeking entry into a society called the New York State Academy for Teaching and Learning. A panel of experts will judge the teachers on a lesson plan they’ve each prepared that is directly linked to one small section of the state’s academic standards--the official bases on which the Empire State intends to raise student achievement.

The teachers will be evaluated on the quality of their work, the ease with which other teachers can adopt the lesson, and how well it addresses the content of the state standards.

New York’s academy is an example of how one state is trying to help teachers understand and use its academic standards to transform what and how they teach. But the academy and other such efforts have yet to reach a level at which they can make a large-scale impact, according to most experts--including both those supportive of and skeptical about the drive for standards- based education. Overall, the experts say, states and schools have failed to provide the curricular content and the teacher professional development needed to ensure that the standards take root and thrive.

“It’s a ripple in the pond,” Joseph P. McDonald, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University, says of the academy, which is run by the state education department. “It’s a good first step,” continues McDonald, a consultant to the program, “but it’s hardly sufficient to the task.”

The academy exemplifies much of the recent scramble to incorporate into the nation’s classrooms the standards that 49 states are building their school systems around.

Teachers like California’s Kathlan K. Latimer find model lesson plans only a starting point. What they truly need, she and others say, is a full understanding of their states’ standards and the opportunity to experiment with ways to teach what’s in them.

Like other state efforts, it is an innovative way that encourages teachers to master a particular slice of their state’s standards. It spreads the product of that work to others who may want to adopt it. The number of applicants to the New York academy has risen gradually over its five-year history, and regional activities have cropped up to introduce a larger cadre of teachers to the process of writing standards-based lessons. For the small percentage of New York teachers who participate in the academy, the encounter represents one of the few professional experiences that allow them to wrestle with the state standards and decide what they will do to make them part of their daily classroom routines.

“It helps you say, ‘Now I can document how I’m using the standards,’” says Jeffrey E. Arnold. The former mathematics, science, and technology teacher at Hannibal High School in upstate New York took part in the academy in 1998 and 1999. Before going through the process, Arnold says, he often believed he was teaching to the state standards even though he hadn’t changed any of the course content he had covered from the state’s pre-standards days.

With the intensive learning experience required to earn a spot in the academy, teachers get a start on teaching with the standards in mind and on seeing how they need to change what they do throughout the year. “The process says: ‘Take one lesson and fully develop it,’ ” says Arnold, now an adjunct professor of education at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. “You’d love to have all your lessons developed to that point, but it can’t be done in the amount of time you have.”

While the academy has been successful in engaging Arnold and others in the nitty-gritty of standards-based school improvement, it has not put a major dent in transforming classroom practice throughout the state. The New York Academy for Teaching and Learning may have as many as 2,000 members by the end of March--but that’s under 1 percent of the state’s teachers.

“It’s been a major challenge to figure out how to bring standards into the classroom,” says Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group that advocates standards-based education. “It’s a critical piece of the puzzle that we have too few shining examples of.”

Behind Schedule

When the standards movement began in the late 1980s, its political patrons promised that professional development and classroom materials would be available, along with the standards and tests by which schools would be judged. Roy Romer, a crusader for standards as Colorado’s governor, called content “the meat” between the standards and assessment.

“There’s still some distance in what we expect students to be able to do and what our curriculum does,” Romer says today.

In the 723,000-student Los Angeles district, where Romer is now superintendent, teachers “have a good hold on what standards are,” but they still lack concrete ideas for linking them to classroom practice, he says.

What’s more, the nation’s second-largest district has only pieces of the comprehensive package needed to ensure that teachers are applying standards in their classrooms, according to Romer.

For example, the Open Court reading series used throughout the district is strong in many sections of elementary school reading. But “it doesn’t get it all the way there,” Romer says. “What it doesn’t accomplish, we’ll supplement beyond that.”

Catching Up

At a 1999 national education summit--convened by Achieve--governors, business leaders, and educators adopted a statement declaring they would “work together in our states to ensure that every school has in place a rigorous curriculum and professional-development programs aligned with state standards and tests.”

States are working toward keeping that promise, but they are still in the early stages of their work.

In his review of plans that states submitted to explain what they’re doing to address that promise and other provisions of the summit statement, Gandal found most states had bits and pieces of a strategy to address curriculum and professional-development needs. But, similar to the experiences of Los Angeles and New York, few had a comprehensive package designed to reach all teachers and students.

“These two areas--curriculum and professional development--were the ones that were the lightest in these state plans,” Gandal says.

Implementation is similarly sporadic on the local level, according to a teacher-educator who consults with districts on standards-based issues.

“It’s very idiosyncratic,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If you go some places, everything is test-driven. In other places, people wave away the standards because their kids tend to exceed them anyway. It varies from school to school and district to district.”

Most states are trying to provide a mix of services with many common elements, including:

  • Projects that provide an intensive learning experience in which teachers and school leaders design a specific tool for using standards in classrooms. Like the New York Academy for Teaching and Learning, such projects reach out to nonparticipants by distributing exemplary work, usually on the Internet.
  • Coaching and mentoring programs in which expert teachers work with other teachers to advise them on standards-based practice, such as a Delaware program that reaches just about every school.
  • Materials--such as California’s curriculum frameworks or Illinois’ student-performance standards--that define what teachers should be covering at every grade level and often show examples of work students need to accomplish to meet the standards.

While those initiatives have expansive goals in many instances and may indeed provide the link between standards and classroom practice, most are in their early stages and remain experimental.

Even though California’s curriculum frameworks have been completed, for example, the state board of education is two years away from identifying the textbooks and other teaching tools that match the state standards in the four core subject areas.

“It’s going to happen, but it’s going to take time,” says Sherry S. Griffith, the director of the curriculum-frameworks and instruction-resources division for the California education department. “The hard work we’re doing now is going to pave the way for the next six years.”

Finding Curricula

All the state work appears to be well-intentioned and valuable. But, many experts ask, is it enough?

Survey Highlights

Fewer than half the teachers surveyed for Quality Counts said they have “plenty” of access to curriculum guides or textbooks and other materials that match state standards.

While California, Illinois, and other states are producing detailed guides to what a curriculum should contain, few are creating curriculum and instructional materials that exactly reflect the standards.

And so far, the commercially available curricula aren’t good enough, according to state officials.

“I don’t see enough movement in the textbook industry, and I don’t see quick enough movement into using other instructional materials,” says Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona state schools superintendent. “We’re so frustrated.” With the market dearth, Arizona is considering writing its own mathematics curriculum, she says.

The goal of many experts is to find ways to tailor existing materials to fit the needs of standards-based instruction. Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is pushing for the U.S. Department of Education to form a commission that would review curricula currently available to see which ones match states’ standards.

The commission would “cast a wide net for high-quality curriculum in every subject ... that is in some sort of alignment for states that have standards in place,” says Feldman, whose union represents 1 million members.

In a separate project, Achieve, which was founded in the wake of a 1996 education summit between governors and business executives, is working with one of the eight federally subsidized education research laboratories to match instructional materials with standards.

The database, still under construction at the Midcontinent Regional Educational Laboratory, would list sections of books or other instructional materials that could be used to accomplish the goals in a specific learning standard.

“The goal is to make it easily accessible so it won’t be a logistical burden,” says John S. Kendall, a senior associate at the Aurora, Colo.-based nonprofit research center, known as McREL.

Not Teacher-Proof

Even if Feldman’s proposed commission becomes a reality and MCREL’s database is helpful, teachers will still need intensive and extended professional development to help them learn how to use the standards.

Past experiments with a “teacher-proof curriculum” have failed because teachers need to be engaged actively in learning the content of the standards and creating ways of communicating their knowledge to students, argues Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin.

Research on professional development for California math teachers suggests that the most effective approach is to offer instruction that is rooted in the subject’s content, but includes teaching units that can be used in their classrooms.

But prefabricated lesson plans often fall short of what teachers need, Ladson-Billings adds.

“It’s like saying; ‘You can do your own income taxes. Just go to the Web; we have the information.’ What the Web doesn’t have is your personal financial information or your financial goals,” Ladson-Billings says. “All those lesson plans can be is a template.”

Teachers do find such plans useful--as a starting point.

“It gives me at least an example or a model, so if I’m developing a unit of my own, at least I have an idea of what a standards-based unit would look like,” says Kathlan K Latimer, a 3rd grade teacher at Oak Brook Elementary School in California’s 21,700-student Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, which is about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento. “That’s something people are really puzzled about.”

But a model plan is not the answer. “I would not take anything and use it because you have to personalize it,” Latimer says.

What teachers truly need, according to Ladson-Billings and Latimer, is time to acquire a thorough understanding of their states’ standards and to experiment with ways to teach what’s in them.

Some states are offering such experiences. Forty-two states fund some professional development for teachers. But only 24 provide such funds for every district or school. While 38 states require teachers to participate in ongoing training to renew their teaching license, only seven require at least some of that training to be in the teacher’s subject or endorsement area.

Washington state is spending $10 million to conduct workshops and produce videos of national experts on mathematics topics. The workshops cover such topics as interpreting assessment data and applying those analyses in the classroom, using calculators in classrooms, and working with parents to help them understand the standards. About one-fourth of the state’s math teachers have participated in at least one of the workshops, according to Beverly R. Neitzel, the math instructional specialist for the state education department.

Over the past two summers, about 70,000 California teachers who were inexperienced or uncertified have attended special institutes. In the first year, the seminars focused on the teaching of reading. Last year, they expanded to include the teaching of algebra and instruction for students learning English. Still, fewer than a third of California’s K-12 teachers have participated in such a seminar, says Sonia C. Hernandez, the president of LAAMP/LEARN, a nonprofit organization working to improve Los Angeles public schools, and a former state deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

And while the institutes are “an intensive experience” for those who do take part, Hernandez adds, they aren’t effective unless the state follows up with coaches to assist teachers once they return to their classrooms. “That second piece is critical,” she says.

Some researchers suggest that the follow-up is far more important than the seminars themselves.

“The bulk of the work is going to have to be in the classroom,” says Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “If it’s not in the classroom, the change is not going to happen in the classroom. You have to find a way to bring [the training] into the teacher’s work.”

The bulk of the work is going to have to be in the classroom.”

While many states are aware of what it takes to provide solid professional development, one precious resource is lacking: time. “The biggest challenge is coordinating professional development so that teachers don’t feel overburdened,” says Audrey J. Noble, the director of the Delaware Education Research and Development Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. “Teacher time and resources are so precious that you have to make tough choices of what to be involved in.”

Out of Alignment

Because the curricular and professional-development aspects of standards implementation have typically fallen short, schools have built their instructional programs around the measure they know will matter: test scores. Yet in most states, the assessments are not closely aligned with the standards, according to a study by Achieve. In California, teachers pay less attention to the state standards and curriculum frameworks than to the content of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, according to Latimer, the 3rd grade teacher.

“Overall, I’m not sure if teachers are paying really close attention [to the standards] because of the SAT-9,” she says. “As far as [standards] driving the curriculum, I don’t hear that conversation. We have to align because there’s the SAT-9 out there.”

Without adequate classroom materials tied to state standards, or a teaching force prepared to teach them, experts are certain that teachers are going to continue to tailor their instruction to state tests-not to the standards the tests are supposed to measure. And that, in turn, will reinforce the current perception that standards-based reforms are driven by tests.

Some observers are optimistic, though, that the situation will be reversed.

“In the long run, it will start to turn toward standards first, curriculum delivery second, and then assessment,” says Griffith, the director of California’s curriculum division. “While assessment drives it all now, in the next couple of years, it’s going to turn.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2001 edition of Education Week


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