Standards: The View From the Classroom

By Lynn Olson — April 12, 1995 12 min read
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To find out what teachers think about national standards, Education Week asked the Widmeyer Group, a Washington-based consulting company, to conduct two focus groups of elementary teachers.

We chose elementary educators because they will have to implement standards across a wide range of disciplines. We selected New Jersey so that we could draw teachers from rural, urban, and suburban communities in a state that is developing its own content standards.

One group of teachers received copies of the national standards in the arts, civics, geography, history, mathematics, physical education, science, and social studies beforehand. The second group got a chance to look at excerpts from the standards during the focus-group session and discussed the idea of standards-setting in general.

A total of 21 teachers attended the sessions. They included five kindergarten teachers; two 1st-grade teachers; six 2nd-grade teachers; two 3rd-grade teachers; three 4th-grade teachers; and three bilingual teachers, two in grade 2, and one in a combined 4th- and 5th-grade class. Ten came from urban school districts, 10 from suburban communities, and one from a rural area of the state. Below is a summary of their remarks. We would like to thank the Paterson Education Fund for serving as the host of the focus groups.

If national standards for what students should know and be able to do are to have any real effect, they ultimately must be embraced by classroom teachers.

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Missing From The Debate

Spend five minutes talking with teachers, however, and you’ll find they believe that a set of de facto national standards already exists. Standardized tests loom large in their discussions.

“Test scores, that’s how we’re rated,” one teacher noted. The test scores are used to compare schools and school districts, place students, and provide the public with information about education.

Yet, almost every teacher in the focus groups rated standardized-test scores as the least useful source of information on how their students are doing. This was particularly true for the teachers of young children.

In contrast, teachers rated their own grading scales, the performance of students in the next grade as reported by their teachers, teacher-made tests, and teacher observations as the most important sources of information about whether children are learning what they should.

“If a student can tell me in his or her own words the material that we have learned,” a 2nd-grade teacher said, “in my eyes, that child has mastered that skill.”

Yet, teachers admitted that there are problems with this idiosyncratic approach. “Unfortunately, we’re doing an injustice to the child because then they’re going to the next teacher who does not have your philosophy,” a 3rd-grade teacher noted.

Different teachers interpret a child’s knowledge and skills in different ways, they agreed. Moreover, the standards for what a student should know and do vary from town to town, school to school, and even classroom to classroom within a school.

“We’re talking about standards in the United States,” one kindergarten teacher noted. “You can’t even get standards in 30 schools.”

Expectations and Learning

We then asked teachers if setting standards was a good idea. Should Americans specify what all students should know and be able to do?

At a minimum, the teachers agreed, all children have the right to be exposed to certain content. “I hate to say it,” the same kindergarten teacher observed, “because I view teachers as professionals, but there are many teachers who do not expose their children to things that I think are very important.”

“If you set standards,” she argued, “you are basically forcing people and pushing people to at least present this material to children.”

Teachers agreed that what they expect of children has a strong influence on what students learn. “When you don’t expect a lot from [children], they generally tend to do what they have to do and not beyond,” one 4th-grade teacher said. “And when you raise your expectations for more than that, that’s when they will begin to produce more.”

Most also agreed that student achievement is not as high as it could be. But they disagreed over whether all youngsters could meet a high, common standard.

Some teachers--particularly those in affluent suburban communities--worried that students are already being pushed too hard, beyond their developmental level. Others worried about how recent immigrants or students whose native language is not English would meet the standards. Teachers also complained about holding students to the same standard when they have not had equal access to knowledge and resources.

“Children in our schools don’t have the same things that children in Paterson schools have,” a kindergarten teacher from a nearby suburb said. “How can they know about something that’s happening in Iowa or something that’s not related to their prior knowledge?”

“Maybe the question would be, if they can’t meet [the standards], then what?” asked a 2nd-grade teacher from a more rural community. “What do we as a society do? Do we just flush them out? Do we cast them aside?”

Despite such misgivings, teachers generally supported the idea of national standards and said they were willing to work with them in their classrooms.

“I got excited,” said a 2nd-grade teacher from an affluent suburban community, who received copies of the standards in the mail. “I went to science right away because I happen to be working with science and have been working with the Benchmarks for Science Literacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So I wanted to look and see: How did they compare? And who worked on them? And who came up with these? And how did the two groups fit together? And then I looked at geography, and I said, ‘Oh, this is exciting.’”

But it is clear that the national groups that have been drafting content standards have miles to go to get their message out to the classroom. Most of the teachers in the focus groups had never heard of or seen the model national standards in any subject except mathematics.

What ‘National’ Means

“You know, I had a question,” a 4th-grade teacher asked at one point. “What makes them national standards and who approves them? Why are they giving them that terminology, ‘national’? Is it because it’s a national federation that’s making them, or is it just because it makes them sound better? Is it really a national effort?”

The difference between the inroads made by the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and those under development by other groups was striking.

Virtually every teacher had heard of the math standards, although only a few had their own copies of the document. Most of them taught in schools or districts that were trying to align their instructional programs with the standards.

Teachers from one city said their district bought a textbook series this school year that conforms with the standards. “In our last staff meeting, this was our topic of conversation,” one teacher said. “And we were exposed to some activities relevant to it.”

“We’ve been talking about these standards for a couple of years, and I do have a copy of them at home,” a 1st-grade teacher from another district said. “And when we look at our curriculum, we try to incorporate ideas from the standards: moving away from worksheets, using hands-on materials with children.”

One teacher works in a suburb that has been using the math standards for about three years. “I came in a couple of years ago,” she said, “and I was immediately surprised at the way these children had really imbibed an understanding of mathematical concepts compared to the other children I worked with. They related to things mathematically much more readily than the other kids.”

“I wouldn’t say that if they were given an Iowa Test of Basic Skills based on the new standards that they’d do really well,” she said later. “But they see patterns much more easily. When we talk about figures in geography or in reading--or when we’re talking about something, and we quickly make it into a math problem--it’s very easy for them to work with it that way. It’s not uncomfortable.”

The Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics was published in 1989. Whether proposed standards in other subjects eventually will become equally familiar to teachers remains to be seen.

In general, teachers said, they’d be willing to give the draft standards a try. But they also cautioned that they’d need new materials, professional development, a chance to learn new subject matter, and time to modify their teaching strategies and work with colleagues.

“Having standards, we need to have a lot of support for making sure that they’re consistent throughout the system,” a 4th-grade teacher said. “It needs to be a complete package, not just one part of the package.”

“Help me do it,” said a kindergarten teacher. “Give me some kind of in-service. Don’t just hand me a book and ask me to read it by myself, digest it by myself, and incorporate it by myself.”

Yet, others seemed less certain that they would have to alter what they are doing in their classrooms very much. Once again, teachers seemed clearest about the instructional changes required by the math standards.

Teachers in both focus groups generally liked the teaching activities that accompany the standards because they helped clarify how the standards could be implemented. They said the examples brought the standards to life and made them more concrete for teachers.

“I think the examples are what bridges it,” a 2nd-grade teacher said, “with sample actual cases or stories of how other people have used it.” Several teachers criticized the proposed civics standards for not having such suggestions and said those standards were too abstract.

Small Steps

Teachers also stressed that they would need the understanding and support of parents if the standards were adopted. “It’s a big turnaround, if you’re doing something completely different, and [children] are not being evaluated in the same way, and they’re not coming home with the textbook or the test,” a 3rd-grade teacher from a suburban community observed. “Parents panic, like, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening here?’ So I think you would need their cooperation and support. And I think you probably would need some kind of in-service training for the parents as well to make them familiar with the program.”

“I think, maybe, we as a society need to determine that learning is important,” one 2nd-grade teacher complained. “I don’t know if we really feel that it is.”

Most important, teachers said that districts or states should phase in standards one subject at a time. It could take several years per subject for teachers to become comfortable with them. During the transition, some teachers stressed, they don’t want to be evaluated or judged on the basis of the standards.

“I believe in small steps,” a kindergarten teacher said. “One step at a time. Don’t give me all of these standards at once. I need to take one, digest it, work with it, before I move on to the next one. I couldn’t do all of these all at once in the first year.”

One 1st-grade teacher noted that when her district introduced the use of math manipulatives in 1984, teachers received extensive support and training. The entire school worked with professors from Rutgers University once a week. “Every week, we would talk about the things that went on with math. And it was great,” she said. “You felt like a professional. We worked with them using manipulatives. We also had the opportunity to share ideas. So we were risk-takers. And things that we tried in our classrooms, we had the opportunity to share: Did it work? Did it fail? What could I do to change it? And that was really important in putting together a new program in your school.”

Too Much To Do?

Once the discussion moved beyond the math standards, the teachers’ reaction to particular standards documents varied. Take the social-studies document. Many national experts have advocated replacing the social studies as they are commonly taught with classes that teach more history, geography, and civics. But many of the elementary teachers praised the social-studies standards, which more closely reflect what they are now doing in their classrooms. In contrast, one teacher said, students seldom learn history before the 4th or 5th grade. Another teacher said the civics standards “filled a gap, personally,” because civics is not currently taught in her school.

Other teachers liked the arts standards for the same reason. “I’ve never seen standards before in music,” a kindergarten teacher said. But she predicted that many kindergarten teachers would be intimidated by what the arts standards expect students to know and be able to do. Most found the science standards, in their current draft form, too long and confusing to read. And while some liked the geography standards, others complained that the language was too sophisticated and the standards overlapped in a way they found problematic.

The fact that professional organizations in each discipline had produced the standards lent them credibility for these teachers. But teachers also checked the back of the books to see whether elementary teachers had been involved in drafting or reviewing the standards. “I want to know what other teachers think because they’re the ones who are working with children,” a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher said. “I want to know their standards.”

One teacher commented that he had hoped to see more involvement on the part of those who train teachers. “Then, the way we train teachers might be a little different,” he said. “I think that’s critical at this point. Not only having standards for the classroom but also looking at what we do to prepare people to come into classroom situations.”

But while the teachers liked individual standards documents, they warned that the sum total could be too much. “That’s what I’d say is a liability about the standards,” a 4th-grade teacher warned. “There’s a possibility that this could not work because of trying to do too much at one time.”

One bright spot, another teacher said, “is that I began to see crossovers in geography, science, and math. And, you know, if we think of integrated units, I think that’s a way that we can begin to use [the standards] from different disciplines.”

In general, the message from teachers to those drafting national standards was remarkably consistent: “Less is more,” “simplicity is really important,” “make them user-friendly,” and “focus right in on the main goals and topics that should be taught,” various teachers said.

“And make them things that will make the students successful in life,” a bilingual teacher said, “so that the goals are things that the students will take with them.”

“I was just thinking,” a 4th-grade teacher added, “that I’m not sure if I saw this in here, but the thought of children enjoying learning and wanting to learn. That’s a really important standard.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Standards: The View From the Classroom


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