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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why I’m Optimistic About Standards-Based Reform

By Guest Blogger — February 19, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, is guest posting this week. You can follow him on Twitter at @mpolikoff.

Yesterday, I talked about why I’m optimistic about U.S. educational performance. Today, I’m going to talk about why I’m also optimistic about standards-based reform (the latest incarnation of which is the Common Core State Standards + state waiver accountability systems). In short, my read of the evidence is that standards-based reform works.

Briefly, it’s useful to remind ourselves of what problem standards-based reform is intended to solve and how it’s supposed to work. The problem, as the creators of standards-based reform see it, is in curriculum and instruction. Largely because of unclear and often-conflicting policy messages and the historically isolated nature of the profession, teachers’ instruction in U.S. schools is characterized by things like 1) excessive breadth, 2) repetitiveness from grade to grade, and 3) tremendous variation in content and quality within and between schools. Often, the argument goes, the most disadvantaged students have had the least opportunity to learn quality academic content. The theory of change for standards-based reform, then, looks something like this:
a) Establish clear standards for what students are supposed to know and be able to do.
b)Create aligned assessments and curriculum materials to reinforce the content messages of the standards.
c)Apply some modest accountability to encourage teachers to teach the content in the standards.
d)Students will learn more/better.

Standards-based reform has been around in various incarnations for decades, and we actually have a fairly reasonable research base on several of the key elements of this theory of action.

First, do content standards influence teachers’ instruction? Here, the answer is clearly “yes,” even though the evidence is not quite as strong as the achievement evidence I’ll discuss next. Surveys of teachers demonstrate convincingly that they perceive instructional changes resulting from standards and assessments. Research based on arguably less problematic survey measures also demonstrates that teachers have increased the alignment of their instruction with content standards over time in the NCLB era. Furthermore, teachers’ alignment is greater when they receive more coherent content messages from standards and assessments, as spelled out in the theory of change of standards-based reform. And studies of earlier waves of standards-based reform show that teachers’ instructional responses are highly dependent on the nature of the assessment--bubble tests breed a certain kind of instructional response, and portfolios or performance assessments breed an altogether different kind. Of course, there are a number of observational studies and document analyses suggesting that teachers’ true instructional changes are probably not as great as teachers think they are--in other words, instructional reform is hard but not impossible.

Second, let’s discuss where the rubber meets the road--does standards-based reform and accountability improve student outcomes? I would say there is no reasonable way to read the literature and conclude the answer is anything other than “yes.” There are a large number of studies in peer-reviewed journals demonstrating positive effects of accountability systems on student achievement (measured on tests other than the state assessment). A recent study even demonstrates long-term effects of the threat of accountability for low-performing schools on students’ college attendance, graduation, and earnings (though it also shows negative effects of accountability rewards).

To be sure, there is evidence of “gaming” behaviors from accountability such as focusing attention on “bubble kids” and even outright cheating. However, there is also evidence that educators respond to standards-based accountability with changes in instructional practices and time allocation that boost student learning.

Together, the results of this large body of research suggest to me several general conclusions:
1)Teachers clearly respond to standards and assessments by changing their instruction but more support would likely help them implement standards more effectively.
2)These instructional responses are clearly shaped by the nature and quality of the assessment used to measure student performance.
3)School accountability policies improve student performance and possibly longer-term outcomes but can lead to unintended consequences, especially when poorly designed.

These conclusions are remarkable given that our implementation of standards-based reform so far has been mediocre, at best--questionable-quality standards, poorly-aligned and low-quality assessments, and poorly constructed accountability systems.

The conclusions also leave me quite optimistic about the potential of current standards-based reforms (including Common Core, which most who’ve reviewed say is better than most of the state standards they replace, and the No Child Left Behind waivers, which vary in quality but may more fairly and accurately identify the schools most in need of intervention and support) to continue to improve student performance.

However, there are a number of threats to these policies, and my last two days here at RHSU are going to talk about what I see as the biggest concerns.

--Morgan Polikoff

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.