Standards Opinion

Way off Course

By Ronald A. Wolk — October 11, 2004 3 min read

As the nation’s governors were about to convene for the third National Education Summit in 1999, I wrote an open letter urging a mid-course correction in the standards movement that had been launched at the beginning of the decade. Standards-based reform, I argued, had gained momentum over the years, but it was headed in the wrong direction. Many of the problems I cited back then have yet to be solved:

  • There are too many standards in too many disciplines. Itis wacky to expect all kids to know everything.
  • The standardized tests used to assess student achievement still are not aligned with standards in most places. They don’t assess most of the skills and traits parents want for their kids, and they pressure educators to teach to the test.
  • Teachers are generally not prepared to teach in a high-standards system, and they lack opportunities for real professional development. If teachers aren’t learning, neither are students.
  • Accountability hijacked the standards movement almost before it got off the ground. Despite egregious inequities in public education, millions of kids are forced to take high-stakes tests on material they didn’t have an adequateopportunity to learn. We’ve relied largely on the big stick rather than building the capacity in the system necessary for success.

These problems are magnified by No Child Left Behind, which is pushing standards-based reform further off course. If I were writing to the governors today, I’d argue that standards-based reform has gone so far astray, it’s now too late for acorrection. For the reform effort and NCLB to have any chance of succeeding, we’d at least have to guarantee an adequate education to every child and revolutionize and expand teacher preparation and professional development. That’s not going to happen anytime soon—the financial and politicalobstacles are too great.

The alternative, which would also require considerable wisdom and political courage, is to go back to the drawing board and put the standards movement on the course its founders intended. Except for the political resistance, that might not be as daunting as it sounds. We’ve had a lot of experience with standards-based reform in the past 15 years. If we can learn from our mistakes, we might get it right this time.

One very important lesson is that we should treat elementary and secondary education differently. In the first eight years, let’s concentrate initially on making sure all children can read and write and do basic math, then expose them to the humanities and sciences.

The final four years require more radical action. Most agree that the traditional high school does not work for as many as four out of 10 adolescents. Standards are not the solution. Yes, well-intentioned people argue that these kids need and deserve high standards. It’s a civil rights issue, they say, and indeed, it is. So let’s solve the problem by eliminating funding inequities and focusing on teaching and learning. Burying teenagers under a blizzard of academic-content standards may make us feel virtuous, but the students just feel buried.

Standards-based reform ignores the diversity of needs and talents among adolescents and fails to provide them with a matching diversity of opportunities in education and work. To do that, we need to create new schools that include off-campus experiences so young people can learn and grow in the real world.

If we assess these innovative schools with standardized tests, they will most likely do poorly. We need to develop multiple assessment systems that evaluate more than students’ short-term retention of information and consider their work and performance in a variety of situations. We need anassessment system that values and promotes good habits of mind and behavior. These would amount to crucial first steps in putting standards-based reform back on course.


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