Education Chat

Quality Counts at 10: What's Next for Standards-Based Reform?

Marshall S. Smith, program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, discusses what the future has in store for standards-based education.

Quality Counts at 10: What’s Next for Standards-Based Reform?

Feb. 1, 2006

Marshall S. Smith, program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, discusses what the future has in store for standards-based education.

Lynn Olson (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s on-line chat with Marshall S. Smith about what’s next for standards-based education. Mike was the acting deputy U.S. secretary of education for three years and the undersecretary of education for seven years in the Clinton Administration. A former dean of the school of education at Stanford University, he has since 2001 been the program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, Calif.

Question from Lisa Dilles, English Lang. Program Coordinator, Live Oak School District, CA:
The current system of comparing individual states’ performance on varying standards seems to compare apples to oranges. Do you think that national standards would be a more useful way of measuring actual progress in standards-based reform?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Hi -- This is a question that a lot of people in Washington DC are now asking. A number of studies have shown that state standards differ substantially in their level of difficulty. The National Assessment of Educational Progress provides a single national metric for a state to compare itself with other states. The problem is that states not only have somewhat different performance standards, they also have somewhat different content standards. Thus, a single assessment for say, 4th grade math, cannot be aligned well with every state. This creates a measurement problem -- the NAEP validity for a given state will depend to some degree on how well aligned the NAEP content standards are with the state’s content standards. This leads some down the path of arguing that there should also be both national performance and national content standards. This is a slippery slope toward federal control of the schools.

There are no simple answers in this arena.

Question from Flip Jones, 8th Grade Science Teacher, Whitlock Junior High School, Spartanburg School District #7:
The majority of the students I teach will not go to college. Many will not graduate from high school. The emphasis on standards and high-stakes testing of those standards is causing both groups to increase. How can we make sure we are teaching the “right” things and also teach the things our students need to survive and thrive in the world? It seems as though individuality in teachers is being squelched and we are headed towards a VERY standardized curriculum. Could scripted teaching and then teaching by underqualified (to equip our kids for the real world) but very compliant “teachers” be far behind?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Hi Flip: You have captured a large number of very difficult questions in a single short paragraph. Congratulations!! I am not able to answer them fully in a day, much less than in an hour. So I will have a few terse remarks and if you would like to chat sometime I would be happy to. An initial overall response is that the standards movement was motivated by a desire for rich and poor, minority and majority students to have on opportunity to learn challenging content and skills that would prepare them for future work and schooling. The analysis argued that poor and minority students were receiving a second class education with watered-down curriculum and poor teachers and there were considerable data to support that argument.

The solution was seen as requiring that all students be given a real opportunity to learn the same challenging content and skills -- thus state content and performance standards that are applied to all students. High stakes tests as exit exams for high schools is one way to make it clear to everyone that students (and schools) would be held accountable providing everyone the opportunity.

The theory may be fine, but often the implementation does not measure up. Thus many states do not insure that all students actually get a real opportunity to learn the materials.

Thus high stakes testing for students may have the effect in some places of increasing the dropout rate (though the facts are still not clear on this, in my view). And the testing may lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. But there are very different results as you look across the states and there are some very bright spots. As I argue in the Quality Counts piece I think we are at the right spot in time to begin to seriously address some of the issues that you have rightly raised.

Question from Robert E. Robison, Assoc. Director Introductory Spanish, The Ohio State Unviersity:
What has been the true cost/effect of standards-based education on foreign languages, social studies, and science education K-8 not only to our students and the completeness of their education but also to the teacher preparation institutions and their capacity to meet the new global challenges facing this nation? What can be done to arrest their deterioration?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
This is a narrowing the curriculum problem. If we focus only on math and language literacy what happens to the rest of the curriculum? I agree, this is potentially a very serious problem. In California we have lost a very high percentage of our arts, music, phys ed and other teachers and rarely have K-8 foreign languages.

My sense is that it is time to begin to redress this balance -- I don’t know of any way to have this magically happen. It may well be a state by state, district by district battle. One piece of ammunition is the current national interest in “a flat world” and the science and social studies and foreign language implications of that. Another is the fact that many of our students need rich language experiences and that exposure to science, other languages and social studies provides that in a possibly engaging environment. Another is that many students are motivated by learning in context and these subjects add context.

Question from Michael Zak, teacher, Oakland Unified:
What is the evidence that Standards-Based Education is a path to greater school success?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Hi Michael; The best evidence so far comes from the NAEP test scores for mathematics and, to a small extent, from reading. NAEP is a national assessment that is not high stakes and that generally is highly respected. It shows very substantial (1-2 grade level) gains in math for African American, Hispanic American, and white students over the past decade. In reading at the sub-group level there have been some modest gains (see the Quality Counts stories for details).

In CA if you look at the gains over the past 8 years you will find similar gains -- CA standards were really not in place until 1998 or so.

Question from Sharon Unkart, Teacher Programs Coordinator, Denver Museum of Nature & Science:
In a “local control” nation, how can we blend the states’ wildly varying practices into a comprehensive effort?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Great question!! But, I would probably quibble with you about your description of practices as “wildly varying” -- varying ok but “wildly?” My sense is that we should have clear standards and performance goals for all students -- we should have some smart accountability that applies to the state, the district and to the schools (rewards for gains as well as sanctions, strong support to provide everyone serious opportunity to learn the standards, systems for continuous improvement of practices, good R&D into best practices etc.). But I also believe that the people held accountable ought to be in control of their environment. So local schools and districts should be accountable but also have the flexibility to be creative in supporting their students. Only if the schools do not succeed should they lose this autonomy.

Question from Renee Hill, Math Consultant:
Since we have already made gains in establishing standards and at least having accountability measures, wouldn’t the logical next step be to improve instructional resources, teacher preparations programs, and the secondary school environment?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
The short answer is YES!!! Of course I would have hoped that we would have simultaneously improved instructional resources, teacher training and school environments as we implemented standards and accountability. Now, we have to convince state legislatures and governors and federal officials to provide the resources necessary for the resources and teacher training. But we also need collectively to take action in improving secondary school and other school environments. This can be done but it will take hard work and political will.

Question from Anonymous Parent:
It seems like since the standards movement came to my area, teachers have had to do as they were told, without latitude to individualize instruction for children. My child, who is an advanced learner, came home complaining on a regular basis that he is no longer learning anything in school. What about advanced learners and standards?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
HI - two questions or observations here. One regards individualized instruction -- it is a great tragedy if your teachers feel as though they cannot deviate from a group instruction script -- this is a perversion of everything we know about good teaching. Take a look at the paragraph that I did on formative assessment (cycle of teaching improvemnt) for the QC piece. Good formative assessment really works well and it depends greatly on “personalization” as the British call focusing attention on the specific needs and/or strengths of various children to give help and support.

On advanced learning and standards this too may be affected by an adherence to a script - at the elementary school literacy level this can easily be compensated for by using leveled reading books (more challenging for more advanced learners). In other areas it can be addressed in similar ways.

Question from Eugenia Kemble, Executive Director, Albert Shanker Institute:
Why haven’t the states supported teacher preparation and professional development based on a well-defined core curriculum for students? How can instruction improve when tests are the only tools teachers have?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Hi Gene: The short political answers are that the lobbies for the current ways of doing teacher preparation are too strong at the University system and the state legislative level for advocates of change to prevail. This fact is bolstered by the fact that many teacher education programs are money-makers for the universities and money talks. The cause of the advocates for change is not advanced by the fact that they do not have coherent and compelling new approaches that they would like to change to.

Regarding prof dev in schools and districts I actually think there is a ton money but that it is badly spent -- I include the money spent by teachers (and or the district) on courses that move teachers up the salary ladder.

On tests the only tool -- well, good formative assessments can really help, I think, though they need to be scaffolded with professional development. But clearly tests cannot be the only tool. :-)

Question from Linda Puglise, 5th grade Math teacher, New Jersey:
I agree, substantial gains have been made in the past 10 years. These iniatives have challenged the districts to set higher standards for their students which much success. The biggest problem my colleagues and I face in the classroom is how to help the lower achieving students. My district is doing all the right things so that ‘no child will be left behind’, however, these children are still struggling. After school help, modifications, and child study meetings are not enough to keep them at grade level. How do we help these children more than we are now? How do we get them to be ‘proficient’?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Ahh, I wish I knew the answer. I actually believe there is no one answer, apart from the need to have smart, dedicated and well funded adults working with the students. That said there are many strategies. I believe (and I think the data support this) that there are a few broad areas that we have not done a very good job on -- one is to develop strategies for continuous improvement, evidence based feed back loops that help teachers understand how well their students are learning and that have strategies (personalization or group strategies) for teachers to help students who need help. A second area is that we (generically speaking) do not attend enough to the motivation of the student -- a variety of studies suggest that students that understand why and what they are expected to learn feel as though they have greater control over their environment and are more motivated. Many teachers, unfortunately, talk down too much to their students and don’t let them in on why they are learning, say, about how to solve a quadratic equation. Another issue is time -- some students need more time than others to gain mastery over a subject. Take a look at the data about KIPP schools to underscore this last point. Good luck.

Question from Doug Roberts, Director Business Dev, Wireless Generation:
Is the answer to improving student achievement better standards, or better teaching? In looking at school efficacy, should we be finding a way to analyze the quality of teaching instead of the quality of the standards and instructional materials being used?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Better teaching. But the quality of the content and skills and their relationships to future learning and other experiences is very important. Actually, my first two word answer is a little flip -- it is hard to separate teaching from the content. The child that is not taught algebra does not learn algebra and, in our system, does not get into the high school college track etc.

The standards (content and performance) are intended to sketch out what “every child should know and be able to do!” The task of the system is to give the schools the resources to do this and the task of the school is to do it. Simple, ummm, actually one of the most demanding and most important jobs in the world!

Question from Douglas Levin, Director, Education Policy, Cable in the Classroom:
Mike, thanks for your very thoughtful commentary. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment about the role and promise of technology in K-12 education. What impetus - if any - is needed to bring about more widespread technology-enhanced/technology-based innovation, do you think? Is this appropriately a federal role or a role better tackled by the private sector (whether philanthropic or corporate) or others?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
Hi Doug -- I haven’t changed my views on this over the past five years -- i think we need compelling evidence that technology be a). easy to use by teachers. b). aligned with the teachers goals and c). add value to the teacher in their jobs (help them do something that they could not otherwise do). I think we are getting there -- The Carnegie Learning program in algebra, Uri Triesman’s work in algebra, calculus and other mathematics areas, some of the reading programs, and the extraordinary rich material available on the web are all helping. You are in the right job, Doug. The next five years will show dramatic changes - for the better.

Question from Fred Balfour - Align to Achieve State Stds Database:
In your intro for today’s chat, you said that we need “a better performance-accountability system that sets meaningful performance standards for students…”

Late last year, 10 leading education organizations formed the “Data Quality Campaign” which advocates high quality longitudinal state data systems with 10 Essential Elements. The Campaign member specify Element Three as follows:

“A statewide database of individual student results on state exams and state-mandated local exams should be maintained with the ability to disaggregate the results by individual item and objective.”

Do you consider this data on every student in every state for each yaer to be necessary for a “better performance-accountability system”?

Marshall (Mike) Smith:
I do consider a state wide, individual student based data system to be necessary for successfully running a state school system. In CA we do not know how many students graduate -- we do not even know how many different students have failed at least one part of our state exam. We know the results for math and the results for language but we have no state wide way of linking these results.

Question from Mary Bird, ADj. Prof. - Loyola School of Law:
What standards and resources to meet those standards do you suggest for the group that has traditionally been called “slow learners” - students who typically do not meet standards and typically do not qualify for any services under IDEA? Currently, this population is underserved. Many are dropping out or graduating as functional illiterates. Marshall (Mike) Smith:
I think this issue is one of the most important equity issues that we face. We are on the horns of a problem about whether to work at a slow pace and thereby insure that these students fail to meet the standards or to accelerate the pace with hopes that they will catch up. I believe that some of the problem is time -- people learn at different speeds and many of these students simply may need more time than others to meet the standard. Another problem, of course, is that they are quickly sterotyped and sometimes the sterotype becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy. I would love to see an intervention that gave them more time to see how much gain we would get. Your question is excellent and timely. I don’t think we now have very many good answers to it.

Lynn Olson (Moderator):
I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Thanks for joining us for this terrific on-line chat about the future of standards-based education. Mike, you’ve been a great guest.

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