Standards Opinion

Confessions of a ‘Standardisto’

By Scott Thompson — October 06, 1999 13 min read
The standards movement is not monolithic, and so, yes, one size does not fit all.

An expanding chorus of standards critics is eloquently and passionately raising important, often provocative, questions about the one reform movement in public education that seems too powerful and pervasive to be written off as another passing fad. These are thoughtful voices, and so I find myself seeking them out, wrestling with the questions they pose, and identifying with their deep-lying commitment to democratic education and the uniqueness of each child.

At the same time, they have yet to dissuade me from my own vision of standards-driven systems of schools as exemplars of democratic education, where the unique potential of every child is prized and developed. All available evidence shows that the road leading toward the realization of this vision is long, rough, and unpredictable. But a handful of districts have gotten far enough down that road to give cause for hope.

I must also confess to being slightly vexed by certain ironies and contradictions that recur in many of the standards critiques. The critics invariably point out that one size does not fit all, or as Susan Ohanian puts it in the title of her deliciously irreverent book, One Size Fits Few. Ms. Ohanian dubs us standards proponents “Standardistos.”

My response to her and her skeptical compatriots is, “You’re right, one size does not fit all.” I mean this in two ways. First, the ways children learn and develop are highly individual--even idiosyncratic--and the attempt to have them learn the same things in the same way at the same pace is a form of educational folly. I vehemently disagree, however, that all standards-based reform efforts are aimed in this direction. (More on this point later.) Second, a one-size characterization does not fit all the advocates, practitioners, and policymakers within the vast and varied standards movement. The movement includes not only proponents of national standards and corresponding national tests, but also grassroots reformers who may actually oppose national standards and the development of additional national tests, but who are nevertheless working to transform teaching and learning through the local development and implementation of performance assessments aligned with content and performance standards and a host of concomitant structural and cultural changes in their schools and school systems.

The standards movement is not monolithic, and so, yes, one size does not fit all. If I chafe at the ill-fitting broadsides, I also, however paradoxically, really do value the cautionary words of the critics. Even while large segments of the standards movement are being grossly caricatured by some critics, other powerful segments in that same movement comfortably wear those critical characterizations. In fact, there are enough standards-related horrors to keep an army of hungry skeptics well-fed and righteously indignant.

Many phrases in the various standards critiques I have read are simultaneously dead on and dead wrong, depending on which specific example of standards-based reform you apply the rhetoric to. To be more specific, several critics have argued that standards-based reforms represent an autocratic, regimented throwback to factory-model schooling, where students are forced to regurgitate expert-prescribed sets of facts or face failure. Aspects of this characterization hit the mark in certain instances where, for example, state-imposed standards become indistinguishable from high-stakes, norm-referenced, standardized tests. The characterization is dead wrong, however, when applied to any of a number of districts engaged in standards-driven efforts to transform teaching and learning for all children in all schools.

When I say “dead wrong,” I mean 180 degrees off point. What are the fundamental characteristics of an autocratic, regimented, factory-model system of schooling? Autocratic suggests that one or a few expert managers at the top of the district or state hierarchy exercise control over all consequential decisions and issue mandates, assuring compliance through carrot-and-stick approaches. Regimented and factory-style are closely related. Factories have traditionally been designed with an eye toward optimizing efficiency through routinized or regimented processes. Throughout factory-model schools, classrooms have a striking similarity, with desks lined up in rows; the school day as a whole gets broken into equal periods with bells signifying transitions; students are labeled and sorted into different levels with different expectations; the curriculum is uniform and “teacher proof,” and tests are standardized. In such a system, time is fixed, but student results swing widely. In other words, all students are taught the same material at the same pace, with some achieving at high levels and others at lower levels. Those who completely fail are put through the same process for a second year. Students who can’t handle the regimentation are forced out.

The kind of locally owned and locally driven standards-based reforms that I have witnessed and come to believe in are aiming for a complete inversion of the characteristics described above. Such an approach to public education is not regressive, but revolutionary. It is not regimented, but highly individualized. As the University of Pittsburgh researcher Lauren Resnick has explained, whereas the old approach holds time as the constant with results varying, a standards-based approach holds standards as the constant and time as the variable. In other words, all students are expected to meet challenging standards (a significant departure from the past, when whole categories of students were “tracked” into programs with dumbed-down curricula), but when it comes to pacing, scheduling, and support inside and outside the classroom, it all becomes highly individualized (also a significant departure from the past).

In the sort of standards-based school system I’m referring to, standards are not imposed from on high, because teachers, administrators, parents, community partners, and students collaboratively participate in writing, reviewing, or adapting them. And while content and performance standards are providing teachers with a common point of reference--a framework for the shaping of curriculum, teaching, and assessment--instructional and assessment practices vary widely from one classroom to the next, and schools are given authority and resources for making important decisions. The same standard can be taught through project-based learning out in the community or through direct instruction, depending on the teacher’s experience, confidence, creativity, and inspiration. Different standards in different subject areas are sometimes taught through thematic, integrated instructional approaches, often involving team-teaching. Teachers in these districts use collaboratively developed rubrics and multiple forms of performance and criterion-referenced assessments to evaluate students’ progress and instructional practice.

I would argue that the fundamental intent of standards-based reform (I don’t pretend to be in position to speak for all segments of the standards movement in saying this) is the transformation of public education from factory-model schooling into communities of learners where all students experience a rich and challenging curriculum that holds the possibility of preparing them for the demands and opportunities of life and work in the 21st century. The intent is not only to hold all students to higher standards of performance, but to provide teachers--and all who work with teachers--with the tools, processes, opportunities, and supports that will enable them to help students across the socioeconomic spectrum reach for and achieve high levels of performance according to their “multiple intelligences.”

Not long ago, I visited an elementary school in Beaufort County, S.C., where I interviewed the principal, several teachers, and district-level administrators. The district has developed its own content and performance standards through efforts that engaged both teachers and the wider community. This particular school is organized into K-5 “families” with multiage classes, so that one teacher has both 1st and 2nd graders and another has 2nd and 3rd graders, and so on. Teachers meet to plan and coordinate, and students stay within their “families” throughout their elementary education.

One teacher explained to me that she had 17 4th graders and 11 3rd graders. The 3rd graders were all performing at the 4th grade level, but six of the 4th graders were performing at the level of a beginning 3rd grader. “You adapt your classroom to meet those needs,” this teacher explained. The emphasis is not on having students in a particular grade at a particular age, but on enabling each child to meet all standards according to his or her individual developmental needs and ways of learning. Another teacher in this school, who teaches 1st and 2nd graders, says he sends one of his students down the hall to the 2nd and 3rd grade class for reading, because that’s the level he’s performing at in this subject.

Standards-based reform is fundamentally about the transformation of public education from factory-model schooling into communities of learners.

Teachers at this and other schools in systems that are using performance standards say that their instructional strategies and creativity are at least as varied and individual as they ever were. Teachers and students in a standards-based system are all aiming for the same peak, but there are many trails leading up to it. It’s not difficult to understand why standards critics assume that standards-based reforms lead to inflexibility and regimentation, and there are certainly examples to feed this assumption. But an altogether different reality can also be found on the ground in schools and districts around the country.

At a middle school I visited in Corpus Christi, Texas, for example, teachers use project-based, interdisciplinary approaches to teach to their district and state standards, and students exhibit their schoolwork in “quality product fairs.” Both scheduling and student grouping are highly flexible in this school, where 86 percent of the students are Latino and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The school’s mobility rate is 49 percent. In 1994, the school was at risk of state takeover, having been designated “low performing” by the Texas Education Agency two years in a row. Just three years later, it was the recipient of the Texas Middle School Association’s Outstanding Middle School Award. Over the course of those three years, the school’s scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose significantly. But the numbers tell only a fraction of the story.

This school’s principal identifies district content and performance standards as one of the four key factors in its successful transformation. The other factors--grouping students in “houses,” putting together “the best fine-arts team” they could assemble, and teacher professional development--are perhaps equally indispensable, but the point is that these transformational practices are wholly compatible with district content and performance standards. In fact, I would argue that attempts to reform a system of schools via standards are doomed unless they are accompanied by a serious investment in high-quality professional development for teachers and others in the system.

The struggle to transform public schools into environments where all children perform to demanding standards represents a dramatic break with the factory-model approach to schooling that has dominated the 20th century. The shift is from high expectations for some students to high expectations for all students; from a focus on coverage to a focus on results--that is, applied understanding; from monitoring “seat time” to monitoring performance level; from a focus on quantity to a focus on quality; from a focus on grades to a focus on student work: What is a quality performance? What does it mean for a student to perform to standard? How good is good enough? What instructional strategies and additional supports will be required--of teachers, of schools, of parents, and of the system--to help those students who have not yet met a given standard after repeated attempts to do so?

No autocratic, regimented, heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all, factory-model approach to schooling ever held goals or provoked questions resembling those appearing in the previous paragraph. Standards-based reform in districts I have come to know has transformational implications for every person, policy, and practice in the system.

An example of where critics are dead on is in their (and my) deep concern for the fate of independent-minded public schools that have developed their own internal standards, distinctive curricula, and unique cultures. It would be nothing short of tragic if schools such as the Urban Academy and Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, to name but two, were forced to overhaul their powerful curricula and teach to the state regents’ tests--the exit exams that New York will be requiring all public school students to pass in order to graduate.

Such schools are already standards-based. And, frankly, they don’t need what districtwide, standards-based initiatives offer. But schools like Urban Academy and Central Park East are so exceptional--so far from being the rule in this nation of 85,000 public schools--that their excellence in no way obviates the need for systemic changes that will raise the quality of teaching and learning for all children, regardless of what part of town a given school is located in, regardless of the socioeconomic makeup of its student body, and regardless of a particular school’s reputation and past performance.

While we need to learn all we can from these exemplary schools, we also need to learn from school systems that are beginning to demonstrate the potential that resides in systemic, standards-based change in public education. I refer to such districts as Aurora, Colo.; Community School District 2 in New York City; Edmonds, Wash.; Memphis, Tenn.; and the districts participating in the El Paso (Texas) Collaborative for Academic Excellence. As preliminary and uneven as the results to date may be in these districts, they can speak to the enormous challenge of “scaling up” reform in ways that an individual school--no matter how outstanding--cannot.

If any standards critic sought my advice, here’s what I would have to say: First, keep the questions coming and the red flags flapping. Second, as you do so, remember that your own fundamental insight--"one size does not fit all"--applies not only to students and teachers but to the movement you are criticizing, which includes students and teachers as well as parents, community activists, administrators, and--no denying it--business people, philanthropists, politicians, and state-level bureaucrats. The problem is that when so many diverse players across the spectrum of the standards movement get lumped together as “them"--cold holders-on to tyrannical, assembly-line conceptions of public education--the truth gets clobbered and potentially powerful connections get sliced.

If critics could even momentarily put aside the broad brushes and shift focus down from state-level mandates to the grassroots struggle to make classrooms come alive with high-level learning, they just might find that some of the “them” they attack are really part of “us.” When you take aim at so many “Standardistos,” on the other side of hastily drawn skirmish lines, take care that you do not lose allies through “friendly fire.”

Scott Thompson is the assistant director of the Panasonic Foundation in Secaucus, N.J.; the editor of Strategies, an issue series the foundation publishes in collaboration with the American Association of School Administrators; and the vice president and founding trustee of the Glen Rock Public Education Foundation. He can be reached at sthompson@foundation.panasonic.com.


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