As a former U.S. commissioner of education statistics, I’ve thought long and hard about the value of standards in national and international standings and how they could be deployed to raise the bar for student achievement across the country. In my federal post, I oversaw the first analysis of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or timss, comparing the achievement and teaching methods used in 41 nations. As Delaware’s state schools chief, I worked closely with school districts in the early 1990s (it’s a small state, after all) in building an understanding of the relationship of student performance to well-developed, rigorous education standards by emphasizing the critical roles of core-curriculum frameworks.
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But it was not until I became the superintendent of schools for the Austin, Texas, district in 1999 that I came to understand fully the importance of standards in guiding a diverse, urban school district and the challenges facing such large urban districts in meeting high performance standards in every classroom. When I arrived in Austin, I found a district that was all pluribus and no unum. This was largely the result of leadership turnover—seven superintendents in 10 years—and the absence of clear academic expectations. Texas had developed a fine set of standards—the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. They’re as good as any in the nation. But they had not penetrated Austin’s classrooms. Texas also had a fairly sophisticated accountability system, which disaggregated results by students’ family income and ethnicity and was a precursor to the system set up by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As you would suspect, with wide variability in teaching practice, we had wide variability in results, almost all of which correlated with and never exceeded predictors based on family income.
This had to change, and change quickly. I found myself running more than 5,000 franchises called classrooms, and none of them were speaking the same language. From the start, then, we decreed that the state standards would be our guideposts, and that they would apply to every classroom and student. We would have the same high standards for our most affluent and lowest-income schools. We also shifted our funding to provide extra dollars to the schools with greatest need.
But once you declare the state standards as your gold standard, how do you begin to reduce the variability in the quality of instruction? We recruited help from the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Using the institute’s Principles of Learning as our teaching-and-learning nervous system, we trained our principals and teachers so that we could all speak the same language for teaching and learning. These principles provided our educators with a belief system and a language that require high and clear expectations for all students. The principles require active student engagement in their own education. They require that students learn from each other and that classrooms operate as vibrant learning communities. And they require hard work. At the heart of these principles is a philosophy that the Austin school district now uses as its mantra: “Effort creates ability.” You get smarter through hard work.
We think of the standards as a floor, not a ceiling.
We’ve enhanced this nexus of standards and belief with a system that translates the standards into a scope and sequence. This scope and sequence is designed to provide a teaching framework linked to the standards. In a school system with one in six teachers turning over each year, we need this framework, complete with lesson plans, to guide new teachers day by day while serving as a resource for experienced teachers.
We are now a self-declared “standards-based, effort-based” district. You can’t have one without the other. And the work is paying off. Even as the state assessments grow more challenging, all our groups of students continue to improve. We are also making our curriculum and instruction decisions based on student-achievement data. Our extensive professional development is data-driven. We also use our assessments to guide interventions with our struggling learners through a three-tiered system based on need: extra work with the teacher in the classroom, extra work with a tutor in addition to classwork, or extra work on weekends or during the summer.
Now that we all speak the same language and have the same belief system about teaching and learning, we are ready to move to the next step. We think of the standards as a floor, not a ceiling. To close our achievement gaps, to increase achievement for all students, and to restructure our secondary-school learning to do a better job of meeting students’ needs, we are embarking on a high school redesign process for all our comprehensive high schools. Because we are a diverse school system with some very high-performing high schools and some low-performing schools, we will see several different designs emerging from our schools. We are able to create different models because our standards and beliefs are constant, sound, and imbedded in every classroom and school design. The need to move forward is evident, and the prospects are exciting.
The fly in the ointment, however, is funding. Even as the state requirements increase and the standards rise, we have been operating with no increase in funding for the past four years. As we say in Texas, “You can’t just weigh the cattle; you have to feed them.” The state supreme court ruled in November that even though Texas’ property-tax-based school aid system is unconstitutional, the state does not have to increase funding to schools. The state legislature met four times without being able to come up with a plan that would provide schools with more revenue. This revenue is essential, because not only are the requirements for student performance escalating, but our students also are coming to us with many more challenges. Over the past five years, the number of our students living in poverty has increased by over 20 percent. Our recent-immigrant students have tripled over the past five years. We have begun a new International High School to address the needs of recent immigrants who arrive in our schools with insufficient proficiency in English and little content knowledge. We have to develop the capacity to address the needs of our students through smaller communities of learning.
If quality does count, and there should be no question that it does, then rigorous standards for all must light our path forward.
When he was governor, George W. Bush got it right. When the state decided, in 1999, that 3rd graders must pass the reading test in 2003 in order to advance to 4th grade, Gov. Bush funded new, balanced literacy curricula that emphasized phonics, guided reading, and independent reading, and also gave us extra funds to train our teachers from kindergarten through 3rd grade during the summers leading up to the high-stakes test. The Austin district provided extra funding for summer school for struggling learners in the 2nd and 3rd grades. What was the result? Ninety-six percent of our 3rd graders passed the exam. We equaled the state passing rate, which is a challenge and an accomplishment for an urban district.
Unfortunately, we are receiving no new funding from state or federal sources to help our students get over the higher academic hurdles now placed in front of them under the new, more rigorous state assessments (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS), including our new set of four separate exams (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) required to qualify for graduation. We are looking to the legislature and the courts to recognize the escalating costs of the essential and increasing demands placed on public education.
If quality does count, and there should be no question that it does, then rigorous standards for all must light our path forward. There has been much recent debate about the value of standards. This is to be expected as long as we have not reached our goal, in which all children perform at high levels, including in comparison with the students of other nations. But we can’t abandon the fight. As nations become more competitive, the competition for well-paying jobs within our country also becomes more intense. This is a high-stakes game for the future of our children and our country. We have to make sure all our children have the opportunity to succeed by being able to meet the same high standards. To do this, we have to make sure our standards for funding are as high as our standards for achievement. The resources must be available, so that those with the greatest need will be able to demonstrate the greatest increases in achievement to meet the high standards of the 21st century.