Senate Bill 1's new content standards can be an important part of the teaching quality agenda I discussed on Thursday. I've been taking that connection for granted, but it seems worth spelling out how the strategies are so deeply linked that they really are parts of a single push forward.
Clearer standards are clearly better. It's easier for teachers to check student progress toward standards if they know what's wanted, and easier to adjust instruction to match.
Fewer standards will also be better, though the reasons may be less obvious. The connection is that if a list of standards is too long and asks for too many details, teachers can't teach the whole list well. They're forced to choose between quick, weak coverage of the whole list or selective coverage of a fraction of what the state has asked for. In How It's Being Done, Karin Chenoweth underlines that point. Massachusetts, she argues, has become a national leader in student performance in part by providing standards brief enough to be a firm guide to instruction. In her visits to schools that deliver high achievement for students who are often expected to fail, she offers multiple examples of how schools in other states identified a manageable, though still demanding, set of goals they wanted to reach with students.
Deeper standards make most sense in the context of the "assessment for learning" element of teaching quality. When teachers offer students a clear scaffolding of steps to climb, organizing classroom feedback so that each student sees how to succeed in the next round of effort, students learn more. Especially, students who learned to expect failure in traditional classrooms can develop legitimate new confidence when teachers give them an explicit sense of how to keep moving. That is, "assessment for learning" and its sunlit vision explain why more demanding expectations can be in reach for all students.
Better-aligned standards can also make it more possible for teachers to teach well. Especially in mathematics, American schools have a badly mistaken habit of going over key skills in multiple grades, each time in a way that's so quick and shallow that students never get a firm grip on the topic. We need to make the big transition to ensuring that students master some skills in each grade and are ready to move onto additional skills in the next grade. That's how the countries that outscore us do it, and clear standards for each grade will help American schools head in the same direction.
Consistent standards for multiple states can mean better support for effective teaching across the board. Private vendors who develop textbooks, instructional technology, and testing resources will be able to market better tools because they know they can sell in a multi-state market. The same logic will apply to professional development resources and to collaborative efforts to share assessment activities and instructional models. While the most important responses to the standards will be developed in professional learning communities of teachers who work together year-round, that local work will be stronger because it has ready access to a national web of support.
Overall, the new standards ought to be a more effective framework for the kind of teaching that produces higher performance for all students and that greatly narrows the gaps between privileged students and their less privileged peers.