Special Report
Education

The Standards Keystone

By Lynn Olson — August 10, 2017 3 min read

When it comes to standards, assessments, and accountability, most of the attention has been focused on state policymaking, on the one hand, and individual schools, on the other. After all, states typically set the standards, select or design the assessments, and mete out rewards or consequences to schools.

But research suggests that school districts play a crucial role in determining whether standards breathe new life into classrooms.

Specifically, they can help bring curricula into line with the standards, analyze test data, select textbooks, provide professional development to teachers, and help low-performing schools and students.

As James P. Spillane, an assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., points out, districts can “amplify, drown out, or minimize” the impact of standards in schools.

In his research on nine districts in Michigan, Spillane found that state mathematics and science standards prompted the districts to revise their curricula to align with the new expectations for what students should learn. But only three of the districts had the capacity to forge deep changes in classroom instruction; the rest failed to grasp many of the new cognitive demands that the standards placed on students or teachers.

Similarly, a study of standards-based reforms in eight states and 22 districts by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a federally financed research center, found that districts play a critical role in building the capacity of teachers and schools.

The study found a majority of districts were helping schools use data to improve teaching and learning. A majority also were creating professional-development opportunities for teacher at the school site. And, increasingly, they were using teachers to help develop curriculum, performance assessments, and scoring rubrics linked to state standards.

In addition, nearly one-third of the districts in the study provided support to schools identified as low-performing by state or local tests and accountability systems. All of them targeted special assistance to students who were not meeting local or state goals.

Nonetheless, many district officials talked about the difficulty in helping schools and teachers to move from a focus on test-taking kills to integrating standards into instruction.

In Illinois, a state-sponsored study is assessing the extent to which districts implement the Illinois Learning Standards. Lizanne DeStefano, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is heading that study, says “the importance of district-level involvement in standards implementation cannot be overestimated.”

“I see districts as key because they are the holder of the purse strings, in many instances, and the place that sets policy in terms of personnel, the time for instruction, and instructional resources and materials,” she says.

“Even though we have some rhetoric that says everything is happening at the building level, when you actually look at the processes, many are district-controlled,” she adds. “And when you get down to the building level, it is very rare to find a building implementing standards that doesn’t have district support to do that.”

Striving to Succeed

Some researchers, in fact, argue that differences in the material and human capital available across districts pose a central challenge to the standards movement, further emphasizing disparities between the haves and have-nots.

In the following articles, Quality Counts profiles four school districts that have taken the drive for standards-based improvement seriously, producing clear benefits for their students.

A Maryland district provides aggressive assistance to students who are falling behind academically. A district in Pennsylvania scrutinizes assessment data every nine weeks to tell whether students are learning. A Kentucky district gives teachers the knowledge and skills to teach to new standards. In Texas, a district is translating it state standards into language that parents can understand. Together, these districts shed light on the role school systems can play in making standards real in classrooms.

This article has four related stories mentioned:

Parent Power

Driven by Data

In Support of Teachers

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

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

7796 - Director of EAL (K-12) - August '21
Dubai, UAE
GEMS Education
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read