Lesson Tutor : What Does School Reform Really Mean?

What Does School Reform Really Mean?
by Larry Wiener

The other day in my class, my students and I were reviewing some rainfall statistics from the newspaper.  We were doing mental math, estimating, and making generalizations.  They were totally into it.

Then I remembered a rather high-priced consultant telling my school a few weeks ago that we shouldn’t spend too much time on estimation because the Stanford 9, the standardized test used in California and many other states, contains only three questions on estimation.

Later that day my students were preparing to give oral book talks.  We were talking about eye contact, voice, and other important elements of public speaking.  I wonder if the consultant would have disapproved of that activity as much as estimation because public speaking is not on the test.

Just then we watched a video on Martin Luther King and I thought about how much a person can accomplish with public speaking even if it isn’t on some standardized test.

These two incidents show one of the dilemmas faced by schools and teachers throughout the nation.  As we move to more educational accountability which includes more emphasis on standards and preparing for a standardized test, many teachers feel frustrated because they say instruction in the classroom relies more on preparing for the test than on assessing genuine student needs and teaching to those needs.

Defenders of the new movement say that standards puts a fire under lazy school districts, teachers, and students.  Those who raise concerns, however, say that it leads to a very stilted, artificial type of education that neglects important aspects of education, such as public speaking, and is totally irrelevant to late bloomers, those with certain learning disabilities, students who don’t test well, and a host of other individuals.

What Exactly Is Standards-Based Education?

It varies from state to state, but the general model looks something like this:

Educators develop a set of standards for what students should learn in each subject in each grade.  These standards are to be applied statewide.  Textbooks and other materials are designed with those standards in mind.  Teachers are instructed in how to teach to the standards.

For example, in California, one of the kindergarten standards for history/social science is, “know beliefs and related behaviors in stories from times past and understand the consequences of the character’s actions.”

A seventh grade standards is “trace the growth of the African language in government, trade, and Islamic scholarship in West Africa.”

Students are then tested on those standards toward the end of the school year.  Depending on the state and district, those tests may be an off the shelf test, such as the Stanford 9 in California and Texas, or a state-made test.  Some states supplement the multiple choice tests with writing samples and other assessments.

The results of those assessments are looked at very carefully and often consequences, positive and negative, can be assigned to school districts, individual schools, teachers, and students.

The nature of the consequences depends on the state.  In Florida, for example, students from failing schools can receive vouchers for private schools.  In California, the standardized test results, combined with other measures, form an academic performance index (API).  Schools are expected to grow in their API numbers and get special money if they do.  Schools who don’t are subject to more intense supervision.  In some states schools that do not do well in their assessments are closed or have a new staff of principals and teachers.

Some states impose a standards-based high school exit exam and will not grant a diploma to a child who doesn’t pass it.

How Does This Model Differ from Earlier Models?

The answer to this question varies by state, but here are some general statements that apply.

First, before the advent of standards-based education, school districts were free to develop much of their own curriculum based on their assessment of the students’ need.  Sometimes curriculum was different within larger districts based on different neighborhood.

Often education looked much different in wealthy communities such as San Marino CA and Scarsdale NY than it did in the inner city because educators saw different groups of students needing different types of programs.

Also, even within a school, there would be differences.  The goal often was to take a student from where (s)he was and go as far as you could.  A sixth grader, for example, who could read at the second grade level at the beginning of the year would be considered successful if at the end of the year (s)he could read at the fourth grade level.

Earlier models were also greatly influenced by the idea that a student could not learn any content unless (s)he was ready.  For example, it was thought that not every thirteen year old was ready to learn to solve simultaneous linear equations by the substitution methods no matter how hard the student or teacher worked on it.  Some would be ready in a year or two and might be doing some preparatory activities and others never would and would be going in a different direction.

Today in California it is mandated that all students take algebra in eighth grade.  Critics of this decision say that many students who would be perfectly capable of mastering algebra in a year or so just aren’t ready.

Why Were Earlier Models Abandoned in Favor of Standards?

Critics of the earlier methods suggested that education without high standards and accountability left a large number of students behind because they allowed school districts, teachers, and students to be lazy and make excuses.

Some critics contend that pre-standards education allowed schools in lower socio-economic areas to blame the students’ environment if they did not do well.  Others contended that a lack of accountability enabled some educators to be just plain old sloppy and lazy.

Another commonly-criticized component of some former models was social promotion–allowing a child to go on to the next grade without mastering many of the skills and concepts appropriate for that grade level.  Defenders of social promotion say that a child who is unable to master concepts should not be punished while those opposed to social promotion say that it is often an excuse for laziness on the part of students and teachers.

What Do Critics of Standards-Based Education Say?

As previously mentioned, many critics of standards-based education suggest that the emphasis on the test leads to so much test preparation that many important aspects of education are either ignored or relegated to very low priority.

In some states, all of the assessments are multiple choice.  That means that while it is important for a student to recognize adverbs and preposition phrases or to say which sentence is more precise, the student doesn’t need to emphasize that (s)he can actually write anything.

Depending on the state, assessments may totally ignore public speaking and cooperative skills.

They almost always ignore the arts, a component that many educators contend is important not only for developing cognitive skills, but for general education.

Advocates of standards-based education say that they are for it so that no child gets left behind, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush.  Critics contend, however, that large numbers of students get left behind.

Some children are late bloomers and learn just fine, but a little later.  Others will always have difficulty mastering certain concepts.  Indeed, educators used to say, some students will never learn to extract a square root without a calculator and one can live a great life without that skill–maybe even making more money than a teacher.

Schools used to provide more differentiated curriculum and vocational education for those students.  In my district, for example, we used to have leveled high school classes in key subjects such as English and social science.  Students would be grouped according to their academic levels.  All that is gone.  There is now much less emphasis on vocational education.

What About Home Schoolers?

I know a lot of Themestream readers are home schoolers.  The law varies from state to state about the role of the standardized test.

Some advocates of standards suggests that the emphasis on standards might motivate some home schoolers who aren’t taking their responsibilities seriously while critics say that too much emphasis on the test will ruin the flexibility inherent in home schooling.

Many home schoolers suggest that their children will really thrive under the system because the efficiency and the one-on-one of home schooling will allow time to cover all the material in the standards and still have time for the enrichment activities.

Is Standards-Based Education Here To Stay?

One thing I have learned in all by years of teaching is that models are in constant flux.  While adherents of standards say they are an idea whose time has come, many have their doubts.  Only time will tell, but if I were a betting man, I would say that we will see some serious modifications in the coming years.