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What’s Next?

Our Gains Have Been Substantial, Promising, But Not Enough
By Marshall S. Smith — January 03, 2006 14 min read
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In 1994, only a handful of states embraced standards-based reforms. Seven years later, Quality Counts 2001 reported: “The vast majority of states have been working diligently on policies related to standards-based changes. Almost all now have standards for what students should know in core subjects, tests to measure student learning, and at least the beginnings of an accountability system to hold schools responsible for results.” In the fall of 2001, Congress, in the No Child Left Behind Act, reaffirmed the basic structure of the state reforms, while simultaneously reducing state prerogatives, particularly in the area of accountability.

How are we to judge the effects of all of this? What do we know?


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The adoption by almost all states of standards-based reforms in the mid- and late 1990s appears to have established a long-term governance trend in most states that is leading to greater coherence in state and local policy. At the state and district levels, standards-based reforms provide a structure that shapes resource allocation, professional development, assessment, rewards, and sanctions. The language of reform is dominated by talk about standards.

While the reforms appeared to be becoming increasingly sturdy in 2001, this may not now be the case. Standards have never escaped criticism. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, the intensity of the criticism has increased, especially over the rigidity of the law’s accountability requirements.

As this edition of Quality Counts makes clear, there also are clear indications of long-term trends in student achievement, and promising signs about the achievement gaps. Taking the results as a whole, the evidence appears strong on the side of a conclusion that the nation, and especially its least-advantaged minority groups, is making substantial gains in student achievement, as measured by state and national assessments. Not enough, but substantial and promising.

We need to retain the state standards-based systems. To move the system in a productive direction, we must <br>alter our performance-<br>accountability requirements.

Yet there is a lot on the negative side. Many high schools continue to be boring and dysfunctional, and graduation rates are abysmally low, well below those of other nations in the Group of 8. The evidence about the narrowing of the curriculum, particularly in elementary and middle school, is quite strong, a possible unintended consequence of the movement to clear and focused goals and corresponding alignment of resources, and to our emphasis on a rigid and overly focused conception of performance accountability. Union labor and management, at least in California, are downright hostile to each other. Education leaders often make shortsighted, political, and ideological decisions. Great attention is paid to passing laws, and few resources are granted to the hard work of implementing them. Lip service is paid to using evidence, while few ever listen to both sides of an issue.

Most important, of course, are the continuing gaps in opportunity, achievement, and attainment between our students from well-to-do families and those of modest means. There is evidence of improvement, but our nation has a long way to go.

My vision of the future of schooling is not at all radical. The general characteristics of our school systems will be here for a long while. With technology, there may be greater numbers of students who are home-schooled, but the vast majority will go to school buildings for a substantial part of one-half of the days in every year, from age 5 to at least age 16. Adults will continue to do most of the teaching, teachers will not be particularly well paid (unfortunately), states will have constitutional responsibility, local elected school boards and unions will exist in most places, and colleges and universities will continue to train most teachers and administrators.

Schools will continue to look like schools. But inside those schools, there can be great changes that stem partly from different policies and actions of the larger system, but far more from changes in the way that adults behave inside the schools.

As a start, we need to retain the state standards-based systems. All of my suggestions assume that states will continue to sustain and improve these very imperfect systems. We might think about this as the second phase of the standards movement. To move the system in a productive direction, however, we must alter our performance-accountability requirements, for in their current form they constitute a substantial threat to state standards-based systems. We need to retain the transparency created by making openly available to all the aggregated and disaggregated results of the performance assessments.

We do practically everything else wrong. We hold accountable people in schools, but exempt the people who determine what resources the schools have and the quality of those resources. We set arbitrary rather than meaningful performance standards. Why not set a performance standard for 4th grade reading that is validated to show that a student can read and understand a national newspaper, a 5th grade text in science or social studies, or the directions for setting up a computer? Let’s put some meaning into the performance requirements. I think we might be surprised at how much that would motivate students. Later on in secondary school, as Achieve Inc. suggests, we might even match the assessment performance level to the capacity to carry out certain jobs or to benefit from college courses.

We accept 50 different arbitrary standards for proficiency, some greatly different, thereby rendering comparisons useless and the uniform federal requirements and sanctions absurd and patently unfair, since they implicitly assume a common standard across the states. Were the federal government to impose substantial sanctions on states that have challenging standards and did not meet their goals, I could easily imagine a strong equal-protection lawsuit challenging the federal action. We choose to select only the “proficient” level for reporting, thereby putting attention toward the upper-middle range of the scale, and often we do not report progress below or above. Why not create a system that measures and reports the growth of all students as well as the progress against the proficiency level? Why not reward success all along the scale? We measure with only one form of outcome measure, generally a standardized, machine-scored assessment, ignoring the guidance of experts in assessment who urge us to have a diversified system to help improve the validity of our judgments.

We have a set of sanctions that ignores the vastly different contexts in the country. What does it mean to provide choice to students in rural Utah, or in areas like parts of Los Angeles, where the schools are hopelessly overcrowded? We require actions of state departments of education and districts without providing the resources for them to do their job. We punish, but do not reward. Ask any psychologist of motivation what he or she thinks about that. Most damaging, in many places, we require performance of people without giving them the resources to succeed. And, after finding them lacking, we do not provide the resources to help. This creates great distrust. We are beginning to see the negative consequences. They are avoidable.

In the future, we need to work tirelessly for high-quality and challenging learning experiences for all students, education environments that motivate students and teachers, and adequate time to help students who need it to reach meaningful standards. Four steps would take us a long way:

Broaden our goals for schooling. Let’s listen to what the early Greeks, the business world, developmental psychologists, good teachers, and parents tell us. Our basic goals for content and skills should embrace the language arts, mathematics, science, and history. We should strive to support all students to learn to more challenging standards in these areas, but this is not enough, for our children or our country. Broader goals should include service to our communities, exposure to and participation in the arts, and physical and health education. We need to continue appropriate use of didactic instruction, but move beyond it to achieve a balance that includes involving students in directed problem-solving, creating, and doing—building knowledge and other products with their minds and hands, including in art and music, through use of analysis, the scientific method, structured exploration, and collaboration with other students and adults.

More attention to creation, service, and teamwork will motivate many of our students to stay in school, as well as help prepare them for work or higher education. If schools expose children only to goals that emphasize self-interest, we will lose our vision of a democracy that supports the common good. Positive motivation is a forgotten term in school policy circles. Schools, like places of work and recreation, should be continuously rewarding.

Address inequities and inadequacies in our school finance systems. This requires state action within states, and perhaps federal support to address inequities in resources among states. State standards-based systems, with clear performance goals, create the opportunity for imagining that we can calibrate finance systems to give students the opportunity to reach desired performance levels. If schools do not have adequate resources to reach mandated performance levels, the accountability systems lose the trust that must exist between those who are accounting and those who are accountable. If we ask schools to do what reasonable people think is impossible, our systems lose all credibility.

Though this approach to financing schools has been viewed as appropriate and even necessary by a variety of state courts, it is by no means easy to implement. Political and financial barriers have been difficult to overcome in almost all of the states where such an approach has been tried.

To succeed, we will have to get smarter. In order to gain public trust to increase revenues, we need to address issues of productivity in school systems in tandem with efforts to create fair and equitable financing that is in line with desired performance objectives. We also need to realize that some states have enough money to meet their needs, while others do not. In those states where school systems are well-off, resource-allocation strategies may need to be altered.

Create a habit of continuous improvement within our school systems. In the education system, where stability is critical to overall success, the basic strategy for improvement in almost all of the 14,000-plus districts should not be to “blow up the schools,” or “fire a third of the employees and replace them with computers,” as some people would have us do. In general, stable systems need calmer improvement strategies with constant flows of information from within and outside to keep them honest. This is not to say that we don’t need to shake up a system that is atrophying.

The improvement approach ought to be one of continuous improvement of internal processes at all levels of schooling. This includes states, county districts, local districts, and schools. Goals and metrics should guide the improvement. All levels should be focused on supporting schools to help students achieve to the district and state goals. The implications of such an approach, if taken seriously, reach into all parts of the system. Think about the large school systems that have made sustained gains. In almost every case, the superintendent was in place for over five years. Sustainable change takes time and persistence.

One component of the continuous-improvement strategy deserves specific treatment. Standards-based reforms have helped spur somewhat higher achievement by aligning resources with clear goals and accountability systems. In addition, these reforms create a major new challenge for teachers: teaching all students to be able to achieve to high standards. But the reforms do not address the practice of teaching. In effect, they, like many reforms in other sectors of the economy, set goals and rationalize management, while leaving the production units untouched.

Over the past decade or two, we have learned a lot about how students learn and how to improve instruction in the classroom. Major reviews of the literature on reading, mathematics, science, and learning in general by the National Research Council summarize much of the data. Ongoing studies are contributing to this understanding.

One of the more promising approaches to improving instruction involves the use of systematic and frequent data to inform teachers and students about how well students are learning the material and strategies they are expected to be learning. Substantially improving student performance—bringing almost all students to challenging standards of achievement, whether at the 2nd grade or community college level—appears to require that teachers have the data, skills, and opportunities necessary for continuously improving their instruction. As many researchers argue, systems of formative assessment, where teachers regularly identify and respond to students’ changing needs, can lead to very substantial gains in student performance.

In the past three years, the idea of using data to help improve instruction has caught on like wildfire in the United States. Unfortunately, many schools and districts do not appreciate the complexity of the process: Teachers must have effective and easy-to-use measurement instruments, they must have the knowledge to interpret the instruments, and then they must understand how to alter their instruction to respond to the diagnostic information the instruments provide. In many districts, none of the steps is successfully implemented.

Deliberately support experimentation in public school practices, choice, governance, and use of technology. The theory and practice of standards-based reform does not directly address the issues of stimulating innovation within the public system, or of safety valves for parents and students who would like an alternative to the standard public schools.

Two significant strategies address these issues. The first is the creation of charter schools and the development of small secondary schools in areas where they serve as an alternative to traditional large schools. Both charter and small schools typically offer choices to students, and stem from the widely held perception that many schools (particularly secondary schools) are too bureaucratized and impersonal to do a good job in teaching most students, especially those needing the most help.

Potentially, the two types of schools both provide the opportunity for competition in ideas and practice to the traditional systems and serve as incubators for new strategies. Though charters, on average, look a lot like regular public schools and have similar effects on student achievement, there are exceptions. In my view, the most important of the innovations that some charters have used has been to extend the time of schooling by significant amounts. Of course, the time has to be used well. The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, for example, extends time by roughly 60 percent, and is realizing striking and powerful results on achievement working with poor and minority children across the country. The widespread use of such interventions would greatly enhance our chances of closing achievement gaps.

The other strategy involves the use of technology. The private sector began to realize productivity gains from technology 10 to 15 years ago. At first, technology improved only the work rate. Later, it spurred changes in the nature of the work itself. The use of technology by school systems and schools lags behind the private sector by about a decade. By that calculation, schools, which have already realized some gains in efficiency from technology in their central offices and in certain aspects of instruction, should be just about ready to realize productivity gains from using technology to actually change some of their work processes.

One of the more important recent advances has been in the way central-office, school, and student-level data are gathered, organized, delivered, and used. New data systems make it possible in large districts to track the allocation of resources, as well as student outcomes, on a real-time basis, and to make the data available throughout the schools. It is in the direct service of teaching and learning, however, that the most important advances are being seen.

State standards-based reforms are here to stay. During the last decade, achievement scores in many states, and averaged across the United States, have increased, with African-American and Hispanic students generally gaining one to two grade levels in mathematics and reading. But the states may be ready to enter a second stage of the standards movement, one based on a strategy of continuous improvement, leavened by new knowledge, practice, and innovation from research, technology, and charter schools.

Our first step in that direction must be to fix the performance-accountability system, for in its present form it jeopardizes the standards movement, and will surely impede other important forms of progress. Our next step must be to act on the realization that improved student achievement is a function of improving content (curriculum and instruction), motivation (of students and adults), and time (for students and for reforms to succeed).

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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