School & District Management

Forum Bemoans Gap Between Standards and Classroom

By Lynn Olson — April 03, 2002 6 min read
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Unless states move quickly to fill the void between academic standards and their use in classrooms, current efforts to raise student achievement could fizzle.

That was the message of a two-day conference, “Bridging the Gap Between State Standards and Classroom Achievement,” held here March 20-21. The meeting brought together researchers on curriculum and professional development with educators, policymakers, and business leaders.

“It’s much easier to put a testing program in place than to put in place a full program for kids,” said Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and the Washington-based Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit think tank that co- sponsored the event.

Polls conducted by the institute have found that teachers’ support of standards-based school improvement dropped from about 73 percent in 1999 to just over 50 percent in 2001. The union president attributed the dwindling support, in part, to a lack of curriculum and professional development tied to standards.

“If you put demanding standards in place and then you provide absolutely no guidance in the way of curriculum, which almost every state has done,” she contended, and then fail to educate teachers about what they are to do, “then you really are on a downward slide, and unfortunately, too much of that is happening.”

‘The Knowledge Gap’

Researchers here noted that in the past few years, a consensus has emerged around the features of effective professional development for teachers. Among other characteristics, participants said, such practices should be content-focused, linked to correcting a well-defined problem, sustained, situated in or near classrooms where teachers work, and rooted in the curriculum they teach.

Robert Schwartz

“Talking about professional development independent of academic content, independent of curriculum, really doesn’t make much sense,” said Robert Schwartz, the president of the Washington-based Achieve. The nonprofit group works with states to raise academic achievement and was the event’s other sponsor.

Unfortunately, argued David K. Cohen, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, “We’re working with a school system which, for instructional purposes, is emaciated.”

Studies he conducted in California during the early 1990s found that teachers who engaged in professional development centered on the math curriculum they taught, or on the state’s new math tests, used more reform-oriented practices than teachers who engaged in learning that was not rooted in the curriculum. Such practices include asking students to explain their solutions in writing.

Moreover, students in elementary schools in which all teachers reported having such experiences achieved more than pupils in other schools. But fewer than 10 percent of the state’s elementary teachers had access to such learning experiences.

Similarly, Uri Treisman, a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, suggested that much of the improvement in math performance in his state could be attributed to professional development strongly grounded in the curriculum and in how to raise student achievement.

But William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University, suggested that it would be hard to change existing professional-development practices without first tackling the country’s fragmented curriculum.

Compared with curricula in other nations, he said, the U.S. curriculum is characterized by an “absolute absence of any kind of coherence.” Analyses of the Third International Math and Science Study found that the United States tries to teach more topics in math and science at every grade level than any other nation, he noted, resulting in little direction for teachers.

What’s more, while the professional development in most high-achieving countries is geared to the content teachers impart at a particular grade level, that is hardly true in the United States, Mr. Schmidt said. In fact, he argued, a “profound” gap exists between teachers’ subject-matter knowledge in the United States and in top-achieving nations.

“The curriculum gap will not be closed very easily with the knowledge gap that exists,” he said.

Several panelists expressed hope that the United States is more prepared to tackle such problems than it has been in the past.

“The environment has shifted in our state, and people are wanting not a state curriculum, but they’re wanting good resources,” said Terry Bergeson, the superintendent of public instruction in Washington state.

Similarly, Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools chief in Maryland, and Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., schools, described their state’s efforts to establish a model statewide curriculum.

In contrast, in New York state, Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, described her union’s efforts to write a curriculum for New York City schools over the past three years—undertaken in part because the state and the district refused to do so, she said.

Now that the AFT affiliate is nearly finished with its English/language arts curriculum, she said, it is facing resistance from some community district superintendents who have suggested it’s not the union’s job to write a curriculum.

“That’s the dilemma,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Whose job is this? People are saying to us, ‘It’s not your job,’ but the teachers don’t have it from someone else.”

Yet state Rep. Peter J. Larkin of Massachusetts, the co-chairman of the joint committee on education, arts, and humanities, said he wondered just how ready local school systems are to cede their control over curriculum and professional development.

“How prescriptive and directive do you want a state to be to local districts?” Mr. Larkin said. He noted that local superintendents in his state are asking for more flexibility, so they can reduce professional- development costs during tight economic times.

New Funding Options

One large new source of funding, participants here pointed out, is the money for professional development and teacher quality under the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Congress appropriated $2.85 billion in fiscal 2002 for teacher-quality initiatives, in addition to $10.35 billion in Title I grants to districts, some of which must be spent on professional development.

The good news, said Michael Cohen, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Clinton administration, is that there’s a bigger pot of money available. The bad news, he said, is that districts can spend that money on a vast array of options and tend to have a poor record of spending professional-development aid effectively.

Richard F. Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, suggested that states could take a number of steps to promote a more coherent professional-development strategy aligned with state standards: Insist that districts reallocate all their existing professional- development money before providing any new dollars; subsidize only those districts with well-conceived plans for making large-scale gains in teaching and learning, not just separate activities; and develop benchmarks and examples of what good curricula, professional development, and pedagogy look like.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Forum Bemoans Gap Between Standards and Classroom


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