Not Just a Necessary Evil
When Teachers Embrace Standards and Testing
Six months ago, I would have told you that the standards and accountability movement was a necessary evil. It was necessary that we raise our expectations for poor and minority students. It was necessary that we make student-achievement data public. It was necessary that we use test results to weed out incompetent or unmotivated teachers.
But, I would have added, certainly the best students and teachers will find this new environment stifling. The creativity of these high performers will certainly be cramped by standards and tests targeted at the lowest common denominator. Standards and testing will make education, well, more standard, more average.
It turns out that I was dead wrong. Earlier this year, I was a part of a team that visited five of the best districts in the country. What we saw was astounding: Many teachers are embracing standards and testing. These tools, when used correctly, have an incredibly positive effect on teacher morale. Teachers thrive when expectations are clear and when they have immediate access to data about their students’ progress.
Since my “epiphany,” I no longer think of standards and testing as a necessary evil. I now understand what a positive force these tools can be: They have the potential to spark an extraordinary revolution in the teaching profession.
The districts that we visited were the finalists for this year’s Broad Prize for Urban Education, given annually to a district that shows overall gains in student achievement, while also closing achievement gaps. In September, Eli Broad awarded the 2004 prize to Garden Grove Unified School District in California from a finalist group that also included Aldine, Texas; Boston; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; and Norfolk, Va.
These districts were chosen through a rigorous state-by-state analysis of student-achievement data by the National Center for Educational Accountability. All showed very high levels of student performance compared with other districts in their states with similar levels of poverty.
At each district, we interviewed administrators, visited schools, and observed classrooms. Having visited many urban districts over the past decade, I was surprised that these high-performing districts all have many qualities that are relatively rare: (1) stable leadership from top executives, (2) a strong culture of trust, (3) a districtwide focus on student achievement, and (4) support structures that encourage teachers to use the state standards (curriculum guides, benchmark tests, and the like).
But I was most astounded by what we heard from classroom teachers. Almost unanimously, they told us that standards and testing have made their jobs both more rigorous and more rewarding. Specifically, they mentioned that this new focus on results:
• Fosters more teacher collaboration. Because all grade-level teachers now teach the same content at the same time, there are more opportunities for collaboration. In this environment, teachers actively seek out one another to share ideas and improve lesson plans. Teaching is no longer a lonely profession.
• Encourages use of “benchmark tests” as diagnostic tools. To complement state testing (which usually occurs annually), districts have developed benchmark tests to assess student progress. In many districts, teachers see their students’ results within 48 hours, giving them immediate feedback about the effectiveness of their teaching. We observed several meetings in which teachers discussed the relative performance of their students and then brainstormed about how to improve instruction.
• Creates clear job expectations for teachers. By looking at standards documents from the district and the state, a teacher can understand exactly what his or her children are expected to learn. This takes much of the guesswork and fear out of the evaluation process.
• Raises expectations for all students. By publishing standards, states have implicitly challenged teachers to raise their expectations for poor and minority students. Teachers in high-performing districts are rising to this challenge. One teacher told us that she was initially skeptical that poor children could master difficult state standards. Now, having seen her students succeed, she is looking forward to the day when state standards will be even tougher.
• Provides inspiration when student achievement improves. When test scores come back indicating that even the poorest students can meet the standards, teachers feel that they are making a difference. Their morale improves, and they are willing to work even harder to improve student achievement.
Consider the perspectives of the following educators: Dave Brown, the former president of the Garden Grove Education Association and now with the California Teachers Association, says that standards have led to “much greater coordination among colleagues teaching at the same grade level.” While some teachers have complained about a loss of creativity, the vast majority realize “they can still use creativity in how they teach the standards.”
Carol Pacheco, an elementary school field representative for the Boston Teachers Union, reports that “the benchmark tests have been very helpful.” In Boston, Pacheco has seen more collaboration in grade-level meetings where teachers use test results to diagnose students’ needs and then tailor instruction to those needs. “It’s very valuable when test results are used like that,” she says. “It has raised the level of student achievement.”
Cindy Rogers, a language-arts skills specialist at MacArthur Senior High School in Aldine remembers being skeptical when former Superintendent Sonny Donaldson made a push that “all students can learn and all students are going to learn.” Now, she says, “we’ve allowed the assessments to tell us where kids are, so we can teach to their needs.” She adds: “When teachers see measurable success, they feel good. It makes you feel empowered.”
Lou Podesta, the English department chair at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, and a former member of the union’s collective bargaining team, sees that standards and testing have encouraged teachers in his department to collaborate. “It challenges and invites teachers to work together,” he says. “Some of the teachers who were the loudest resisters have come back to me and said, ‘Hey, this thing works.’ ”
Of course, this isn’t the entire story. Despite believing in standards and testing, some of the teachers we met were critical of elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the federal government’s effort to apply the lessons of standards and accountability to the nation as a whole.
In addition, teachers pointed out potential pitfalls of standards that are less than comprehensive. Pacheco says, “My only concern is that there are other things that are being pushed to the side, like the arts and physical education.” As standards evolve, states will have to ensure that they provide for the education of the whole child.
The value of these tools will also improve as states work to improve their state assessments and standards. According to Rogers, the original Texas test, the TAAS, played an important role in raising expectations for students, despite the test’s flaws. But the new Texas test, the TAKS, has more credibility with teachers and therefore may have an even greater impact in Texas classrooms.
The implementation of standards and testing has been contentious at times. However, if the Broad districts are any indication of the future, teaching is becoming a more rigorous—and more rewarding—profession, as teachers learn how to use these tools. As Cindy Rogers told me, “Now we just wonder how much further we can go.”
Vol. 24, Issue 13, Page 37Published in Print: November 24, 2004, as Not Just a Necessary Evil