Needed: School-Set Standards

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Former Mayor Edward Koch of New York City was known for stopping people on the street and asking, "How'm I doing?" I liked that. Of course, I realized the query was political and egocentric, but there was a simplicity about it that was miles away from spin doctors and TV talking heads.

I remembered Ed Koch recently as I thought of the morass we have gotten ourselves into with standards and accountability. It seems as though every journal or newspaper education section either reports on or calls for new standards. The calls and reports are always written by professors of education, politicians, federal or state education-department officials, or people with a special interest in a discipline like mathematics or biology. Can you imagine a group of teachers indignantly rising up to demand more standards? Sounds like material for a stand-up comic to me.

And keeping track of the debate on standards is not easy even if you are interested. First, there is the terminology to deal with: We have "delivery" standards and "content" standards and "curriculum" standards and "professional" standards. Then there are the materials that these groups produce. Many reports on standards or curriculum frameworks arrive in the mail, and I do not know how to take seriously statements like "Students will value the principles and ideals of a democratic system based on the premises of human dignity, liberty, justice, and equality." Certainly I support the goal, but I am at a loss as to what our responsibilities in this area are exactly. And that is only one of 12 expectations in the 11th-grade social studies in a statewide curriculum recently sent my way.

The debate about standards is being held in the wrong place, and it is time for schoolpeople (teachers, parents, students, and administrators) to reclaim their rightful role. But that's not easy, because at its foundation accountability is about opening the windows and letting others look at what we're doing and schools have allowed themselves to be pushed into secretive habits. One reason for this secretiveness is the myth that schools aren't doing the same good job that they used to do. Schoolpeople have been blamed for all sorts of societal ills, and many are understandably reticent to open their practice to public scrutiny.

Another factor contributing to the complexity and confusion of standards-setting is the current hierarchical structure of schools, with teachers, parents, and students making up the bottom tiers of a pyramid and those on top making decisions about curriculum, assessment, and standards and then developing accountability structures to answer for them. Both the decisionmaking locus and the responsibility for displaying results (accountability) have to be rearranged. Professional schoolpeople must assert their dominance in the realm of standards and accountability and display it not just as tokens on blue-ribbon committees but in the daily life of schools.

And finally, because the standards debate has mostly involved people who are not engaged in the day-to-day life of a school and who don't deal with real students, their jargon implies that there can be a universal or "standard standard." Not if it relates to the authentic work of students, there can't! At its best and most powerful, the standards movement will help us understand and move toward a practice that enables all schools and all students to pursue world-class nonstandardized standards. The standards movement will fail if it attempts to provide a simplistic "single form" alternative to simplistic units or tests. We must have a locally initiated, locally sustained, locally controlled system of standards-setting that is at once knowledgeable of the national and international state of the art of schooling and that respects, celebrates, and harbors the highest expectations for all of an area's own local children.

The process is scary and formidable. It will require both teacher initiative and administrative support and leadership. But it isn't as complicated as it sounds. Local School Folk (or l.s.f., since, from all we can tell, we need plenty of acronyms) have to look at students' work and try and judge whether they are learning, and how well and how much. It is not complicated, but it will require lots and lots of talking by people who are willing to think critically and openly about a serious, complex issue (sounds like what we are trying to teach students to do).

Here is the way our school has tried for the past four years to be accountable. Central Park East Secondary School graduates students on the basis of work that they collect in 14 portfolios covering areas we have designated (math, literature, autobiography, media, etc.). The students "defend" these portfolios before committees charged with deciding whether there is sufficient evidence in each of the 14 portfolios and in the student's oral defense of that work to support a judgment that the student has learned to use his or her mind well. Each committee consists of the student's adviser, a second faculty member and an adult of the student's choice, and a younger student. So we have invited lots of people to come to look with us at students' work and have a conversation with us about whether our standards are sufficiently high and consistent.

Here is what some of those sessions look like:

  • We regularly invite local college teachers to come and read portfolios in their fields (for example, in writing, math, science, media, or history) and to compare and contrast their assessments of student work with ours. We send them six or seven pieces a couple of weeks in advance and ask them to assess this work as if it had been submitted as a freshman paper or project. We convene on a Saturday, and they sit in a circle and we eavesdrop on their conversation as they discuss the work. We call this part a fishbowl. We open a dialogue with the guests and argue and discuss. Because we are all teachers, we end up talking about issues like pedagogy, assessment, assignments, and scope and sequence.
  • We invite mixed groups of people--parents, local community people, l.s.f.'s from nearby schools, academics with some broader national experience in standards to come to school in small groups and sit with us in my office. Together we examine the entire body of work of one student--all 14 portfolios and a videotape of one of her or his graduation-committee meetings. We are looking here at our standards, not specifically at the student: It is the school's task to judge the individual, but it is also our responsibility to look outside for help in setting standards.
  • As one of the first schools to graduate students solely on the basis of their performance and not on the basis of Carnegie units or standardized-test scores or seat time or age, we gathered together a group of 15 people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, including parents and representatives from business and industry, to answer two questions: (1) Does our system of graduation by portfolio give us the evidence on which to make this important judgment? (2) Are we holding our students to a high enough standard, and are we holding each of them to the same high standard, without expecting standardized efforts? (Obviously none of this permits simple yes or no answers. People's work isn't that simple. But we are encouraged and validated by other people's judgments--even though they always also make us feel we have such a long way to go that we had better get back to the business of improving teaching right away.)
  • All students in our school are also a part of the standards-setting process. At the beginning of their junior and senior years at Central Park East, they read the work of students who have gone before them and they talk about standards. Did this project really deserve a distinguished grade? How could it be improved? They look at several drafts of papers and decide whether they have improved, and the students serve as critical friends to their peers. Eventually, all of the graduating students must "show their stuff" in public way. We set up stations for each of them to make available to a wide variety of invited guests, including parents, all of the work on which we, the faculty, have judged them ready to advance to the next part of their lives.

Several years ago, I was asked to serve on one of those prestigious national standards-setting groups (actually mine was a subgroup). In retrospect, I realize I was a "Local School Folk" token. But as a member of that group I finagled the chance to convene groups of teachers from around the country and ask them what they thought they needed in order to restructure their schools into "standards driven" schools (which wasn't easy for me, since I wasn't sure what I was asking them). But they knew. Each group immediately said the same thing. "Give us the time to sit together and talk about kids' work," they said over and over. Sounds like standards-setting to me.

Standards-setting done well can have many important results for a school. Standards (and the process by which they are written) have the power to drive (and to improve) curriculum and pedagogy and assessment. They also can reinforce the concept of each school's being a democratic community composed of professionals who are in control of their lives.

Ed Koch is certainly not the first person most people would associate with accountability in education. But his question "How'm I doing?" might give us more cogent and more constructive direction along these lines than the piles and piles of professional literature that continue to flood us daily.

Vol. 14, Issue 12, Pages 34, 44

Published in Print: November 23, 1994, as Needed: School-Set Standards
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