Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Standards and achievement

Karin Chenoweth argues in her new book that American education has been organized around teachers deciding in isolation what students need to know. As a result, too many students arrive at college unready to succeed, and students who are "pegged by their schools as non-college bound" get even worse preparation:
These are the classrooms that have inspired the teacher-as-hero body of work such as Blackboard Jungle; Up the Down Staircase; To Sir, With Love; and Stand and Deliver.... The important point to note about all of them is that their plots turn on the fact that if individual teachers hadn't been willing to buck the prevailing institutional culture to hold their non-college-bound students to high standards, their students wouldn't have been expected to do more than log what is known in the education world as "seat time."
Since the 1980s, the education standards movement has tried to change that, pushing states to define what all students should know and be able to do and institute assessments that check whether the standards are being met.

In How It's Being Done, however, Chenoweth argues that some standards are more effective than others. To change classroom practice, standards must be high, clear, and short. Longer, vaguer documents mean that teachers still have to pick and choose which fractions of the total will get classroom priority. Massachusetts has become a national leader in student performance in part by providing standards brief enough to be a firm guide to instruction.

Chenoweth also argues that standards alone are not enough. School practice has to change to use formative assessments, analyze data, and plan effective instruction. All of her success stories involve educators figuring out how to do that work collaboratively, with school leadership playing a pivotal role in keeping that collaboration going long enough to produce major student growth.

In that analysis, I see two factors that are important to understanding Kentucky's experience since 1990. Though we have some important growth in student achievement, we don't have the scale of growth we expected, wanted, and needed from those years of effort.

First, our standards have been too long and too loose, making it unnecessarily hard for our teachers to organize standards-driven work. Senate Bill 1 and the new Common Core standards movement gives us a fresh start on that issue.

Second, we thought that if the state set standards and consequences, schools and districts would quickly figure out how to make effective changes. Some did figure that out, but too many held on to old approaches or implemented quick-fix changes too weak to create the needed student growth. What we missed was the need for direct statewide attention to teaching quality issues. We must take care not to miss that need again.

As we implement Senate Bill 1 and pursue Race for the Top, strong standards and assessments must be backed up by strong work to to build consistent teaching quality in all our schools.

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