Education Opinion

Why Schools Need Standards And Innovation

By Albert Shanker — December 06, 1995 10 min read
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Everybody is trying to “save” public education these days. Voucher and privatization supporters say that their approach will do it. The public education establishment is trying to save schools by saying that nothing’s wrong, it’s a manufactured crisis that can be solved by public relations. Many reformers are urging a “do your own thing” approach with charter schools, while others push “innovations” like de-tracking, interdisciplinary studies, restructured schools, and so forth.

Parents and the public aren’t buying this. The American people still support public schools, and they want them fixed so they’re not forced to abandon them. But parents, teachers, and the public have other ideas about what’s wrong with the schools and what will fix them. They are frustrated that the schools are not delivering on their most legitimate and fundamental expectations--an orderly, disciplined environment for learning and high academic standards. Their patience and support are wearing thin, and increasing numbers are considering vouchers, because no one’s listening to them.

If we really want to save public schools, we need to look at what’s troubling the public and respond. In a democracy, if we think the public’s right, we ought to give them what they want. If we think they’re wrong, we need to convince them that they’re wrong.

We think the public’s right about what our schools need, and we think they should get what they want. For that reason, the American Federation of Teachers has launched a national campaign focused on standards: standards of conduct and standards for achievement. It’s called “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,” and it aims to make safe, orderly classrooms and higher academic standards a reality in American schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

The reactions to this campaign have been instructive. Parents and teachers all across the country are adopting the campaign enthusiastically. Support is coming from business leaders, elected officials, school boards, and community and religious groups. Finally, they say, someone is listening and responding to the issues we care about!

But the campaign has also raised questions, especially among some in the wider education community. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.) Because the questions come largely from those responsible for education policy and research, many of whom are actively engaged in various reform efforts, I think it’s important to address them. Let me take these questions one by one.

Q: Your focus on order and discipline sounds Dickensian, like you want students to be quiet, stay in their place, and live in terror of the principal. Is that the kind of school we really need?

A: No, I’m not arguing for a return to the Dark Ages. But right now, schools are captive of an ideology that puts the rights of a few disruptive students above those of the majority who want to learn.

Advocacy groups claim that the disruptive kids are the true victims and can’t really be held responsible for their behavior. Administrators often downplay discipline problems because they don’t want their schools’ reputations damaged--or because they have no alternatives for troubled children. Efforts to deal with disruptive students by keeping them in regular classes have a long history in this country, and they haven’t worked. Disruptive students aren’t helped in the present system, and the education of the rest of the kids in the classroom can be brought to a standstill by one disruptive child. If we can’t move chronically disruptive students to an alternative setting, the parents of the other children will demand vouchers to put their kids in schools that don’t admit or retain disruptive students.

One purpose of education is to teach children that actions have consequences. I believe that we have a moral obligation to teach that lesson and to preserve the education of the majority of students who want to learn. At the same time, we need to place the relatively small number of disruptive students in alternative educational settings, where they should get the special services they need.

No reform has any chance of working in an atmosphere of disorder and disruption. If we don’t solve this problem soon, we risk losing what public confidence there still is in public schools.

Q: By stressing standards and discipline, aren’t you just calling for a return to traditional schools?

A. What’s “traditional”? If by “traditional” you mean factory-style schools that teach only the basics and rely on rote learning, no, I’m not calling for that. But if by “traditional” you mean schools that have a system of rigorous academic standards for all students, assessments tied to the standards, and incentives for students to work hard, then, yes, that’s what I think we need.

But in American education, this is a radical proposal. We don’t have these schools, and we never have had them. It’s time we try them, since they work well overseas. Other advanced industrial countries have education systems that, on average, do a much better job with their students than ours do. They all have four essential elements: discipline, rigorous state or national standards, external assessments, and incentives for students.

We can’t just copy these systems. We need to adapt them to our circumstances. But they work, and we have a moral obligation to do what we know works. This is also what parents and the public want.

Q: But you used to talk about restructuring and other innovations. Does this mean you’re opposed to innovation?

A: No, I’m not opposed to innovation. I think we should continue to experiment with new approaches. Different kids learn at different rates and in different ways, and we can find more effective ways of reaching all students. Schools should recognize and seek to develop a broader range of talents. We should use the insights of cognitive science, for example, to make sure that teaching really leads to understanding. Technology also holds great promise for improving student motivation and understanding, and will enable us to provide individualized instruction.

But we need to be honest about this. We don’t know if many innovations actually work. It may take a long time to figure out how to make them work. While we are doing that, we have an obligation to put in place a system that works now and is far superior to what we have now.

Q: Are you criticizing current innovations?

A: Yes, some of them. Not all innovations are equal. Reformers, by and large, have not been honest with the public about how effective their programs are. They rarely acknowledge that what they’re doing is still experimental. They get a few places to try their reform, and then they claim that it works and should be put in every school. They don’t do careful evaluations. Some don’t even focus on student achievement--are students learning better? They substitute anecdotes, like stories of smiling students and happy parents, for hard evidence. And they don’t bother to develop any technology for implementation--that is, training, materials, suggested approaches, assessments, and so forth.

Without this technology, you don’t have a reform that can be reliably implemented, you have a philosophy. And you can’t expect 3 million teachers to figure out on their own how to turn a philosophy into a classroom program. Some of the innovations we’ve seen may have been effective, but we’ll never really know, because they left nothing behind for others to build on.

We ought to take the same approach to innovation in education as we do in medicine. When a new drug or procedure is first discovered, doctors and researchers express great caution about its use. They do a considerable amount of testing and refining before making these innovations publicly available. This caution is part of what creates public confidence. In education, we rush to proclaim the immediate success of new programs, without carefully evaluating them and determining that they really work. This undermines public confidence in reform.

Q: Doesn’t an emphasis on standards stifle creativity?

A: Creativity has become an object of worship in education. It’s the only profession where people are expected to be constantly creative. But we need to do some careful thinking about where creativity is called for and where it is not.

There’s a prejudice among some reformers against anything done systematically, with prescribed procedures and common materials. They think the only way to do reform is school by school, with each being unique and home-grown. What’s wrong with disseminating outstanding ways to teach the Pythagorean theorem or fractions?

Are teachers that use the same lesson plan over and over again when it’s a terrific lesson plan to be branded uncreative? An ailing patient wouldn’t want a doctor who said, “I know what’s usually done in situations like yours. But I like to be creative ... " In law, medicine, even the arts, most of what’s considered effective--even outstanding--practice is based on tried-and-true, common, routine procedures. Creativity is used in cases where the routine practices don’t work, not as a substitute for effective routines that embody the wisdom of previous practice. I would argue that’s the proper role for creativity in education, too. Passionate commitment to the creative that shuns the tried and true most often leads to approaches that are hit or miss.

Q: Won’t this focus on standards and discipline really lead to factory-style schools and lock-step learning?

A: Not at all. Here are two examples that show how standards and discipline work in very different places, and neither remotely resembles a factory.

In Baltimore, students at the Barclay Elementary School are making remarkable gains through a curriculum that is nearly a century old. The curriculum is very structured, sets high standards, and demands “error free” student work. Some of the books they use are decades old. In a student population that is 94 percent minority and very impoverished, reading scores have gone from below the 40th percentile to consistently above the 50th percentile, and, in one class, to the 70th percentile over three years. In writing, students have surpassed students two years ahead of them, and in math, they have outpaced students one year ahead. Fewer students are being referred to special education, and the number qualifying for the gifted-and-talented program has increased.

Constant innovation is not highly prized at Barclay. But if your aim is to improve student learning, it’s hard to argue with those results. Clearly this is not the “traditional” school, in which most poor kids would likely be failing. Should it be ignored by reformers because it is highly structured and uses an old curriculum?

In Germany, schools are serious about common standards, a common curriculum, and high-stakes tests for students. Even in a system that seems as rigid as this, there are many innovative schools like the Holweide School in Cologne, a middle school that is a school of choice for students and teachers. It has a diverse student body that includes Moroccans, Turks, and other ethnic groups. Teachers work in teams, with students assigned to the same team for their four years in the school. This is a departure from the usual factory model, in which students are passed on to a new teacher each year, and it creates a real community. The teacher teams and their students become, in effect, schools-within-a-school, much like the “small schools” that are showing promise here.

The teachers decide the schedule, altering it weekly according to the students’ pace of learning, and they use cooperative learning. All administrators teach and all school decisions are made democratically by vote of the faculty senate. The school has only three administrators for 2,100 students.

Holweide students must take the same tests and meet the same standards as other German students, and they are academically successful. For the past 15 years, they’ve put into practice many of the current proposals for reform--team teaching, flexible scheduling, shared decisionmaking, cooperative learning--and made them work in a standards-based system. I would argue that if you pulled the standards out of this school--or allowed disruptions to rule the day--student achievement would suffer.

Standards and discipline are not the public’s goals for education, nor are they ours. But they are the prerequisites to improved student achievement. We need to honor the public’s demands for these things, because they are right and because we must restore public confidence in our schools. If we can restore public confidence in this way, we will more readily gain the public’s confidence when we propose innovations, because they will know that the innovations rest on a solid foundation. Instituting standards and discipline will only bring us up to where other industrial countries are now. It won’t take us where we--and they--need to be in the future. At the same time, as we develop a system that works now, we must support reformers who are engaged in the careful experimentation that will create the models for an education system for the future.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as Why Schools Need Standards And Innovation


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