Beyond Good and Evil

A once-skeptical consultant argues that standards can actually inspire teachers.

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As recently as this past year, I would have told you that the standards and accountability movement was a necessary evil.

As recently as this past year, I would have told you that the standards and accountability movement was a necessary evil. It was necessary that we raise our expectations for poor and minority students. It was necessary that we make student-achievement data public. It was necessary that we use test results to weed out incompetent or unmotivated teachers.

But, I would have added, certainly the best students and teachers would find this new environment stifling. The creativity of these high performers would certainly be cramped by standards and tests targeted at the lowest common denominator. Standards and testing would make education, well, more standard, more average.

It turns out I was dead wrong. During 2004, in my role as a consultant with the Broad Foundation and the National Center for Educational Accountability, I was a part of a team that visited five extraordinary urban districts in the country. What we saw was astounding: Many teachers are embracing standards and testing. These tools, when used correctly, have an incredibly positive effect on teacher morale. Educators thrive when expectations are clear and when they have immediate access to data about their students’ progress.

Since my epiphany, I no longer think of standards and testing as a necessary evil. I now understand what a positive force these tools can be: They have the potential to spark an extraordinary revolution in the teaching profession.

John MacDonald

The districts that we visited were the finalists for the 2004 Broad Prize for Urban Education, given annually to a high-performing district that shows overall gains in student achievement while also closing achievement gaps. This past September, retired businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad awarded the top prize to Garden Grove Unified School District in California. It was one of a group of finalists that included districts in Aldine, Texas; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia. All were chosen through a rigorous state-by-state analysis of student-achievement data collected by the NCEA, and each showed high levels of student performance compared with other districts in their states with similar levels of poverty.

In each finalist district, we interviewed administrators, visited schools, and observed classrooms. After spending time in many urban districts over the past decade, I was surprised that these five districts all have many qualities that are relatively rare: stable leadership from top executives, a strong culture of trust, a districtwide focus on student achievement, and support structures that encourage teachers to use the state standards—curriculum guides, benchmark tests, and the like.

But I was most astounded by what we heard from classroom teachers. Almost unanimously, they told us that standards and testing have made their jobs both more rigorous and more rewarding. Specifically, they mentioned that the new focus on results fosters more collaboration. Because all grade-level teachers now work with the same content at the same time, there are more opportunities to cooperate on lesson plans. In this environment, educators actively seek out one another to share ideas and improve instruction. Teaching is no longer a lonely profession.

A standards-based approach also encourages the use of benchmark tests as diagnostic tools. To complement state testing (which usually occurs annually), many districts have developed preliminary measures to assess student progress. In many school systems, educators see student results within 48 hours, giving them immediate feedback about the effectiveness of their teaching. We observed several meetings during which teachers discussed the relative performance of their students and then brainstormed about how to improve instruction.

It also creates clear job expectations. By looking at standards documents from the district and state, a teacher can understand exactly what his or her students are expected to learn. This takes much of the guesswork and fear out of the evaluation process. In addition, by publishing standards, states have implicitly challenged teachers to raise their expectations for poor and minority students—a challenge to which those in high-performing districts have risen. Cindy Rogers, a language arts specialist at MacArthur Senior High School in Aldine, Texas, told us that initially she was skeptical about whether her students could master difficult state standards. Now, having seen them succeed, she is looking forward to state standards being even tougher. And when test scores come back indicating that even the poorest students can meet those standards, teachers feel they are making a difference. Morale improves, and they’re willing to work even harder to bolster student achievement.

I no longer think of standards and testing as a necessary evil. I now understand what a positive force these tools can be: They have the potential to spark an extraordinary revolution in the teaching profession.

In the prize-winning Garden Grove district, some educators have complained about a loss of creativity, but the vast majority realize “they can still use creativity in how they teach the standards,” said Dave Brown, a former president of the Garden Grove Education Association. Lou Podesta, the English department chair at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove and a former member of the union’s collective bargaining team, said that standards and testing have encouraged collaboration within his department. “It challenges and invites teachers to work together,” he explained. “Some of the teachers who were the loudest resisters have come back to me and said, ‘Hey, this thing works.’ ”

Of course, this isn’t the entire story. Despite believing in standards and testing, some of the teachers we met were critical of elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government’s effort to apply the lessons of accountability to the nation as a whole. And as standards evolve, states will have to ensure that they provide for the education of the whole child—including physical education and the arts.

But the value of these tools will expand as states work to improve their own assessments and standards. Rogers observed that Texas’ original TAAS test played an important role in raising expectations for students, despite its flaws. But a new test, the TAKS, is considered more credible, she added, and may have an even greater impact in Texas classrooms.

The implementation of standards and testing has been contentious at times. If the Broad Prize districts are any indication of the future, however, teaching will become a more rigorous—and more rewarding—profession as educators learn how to use these tools. As Rogers told me, “Now we just wonder how much further we can go.”

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Pages 45-46

Published in Print: March 1, 2005, as Beyond Good and Evil
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