The 21st Century School System Demands Higher Levels Of Performance From Everyone

The 21st Century School System Demands Higher Levels Of Performance From EveryoneWhat are the main lessons the country should draw from the present condition and future prospects of standards-based education reform? In education reform, as in politics, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Standards-based reform is the most promising – and most demanding – education initiative of the century. In addition to prodigies of effort to bring about, it will require continuing, external oversight.

First, it is the most promising education initiative because, taken seriously, it can undo more than fifty years of mischief caused by life-adjustment education. The hard truth is that personal accomplishment and economic well-being are the product of disciplined intelligence. So, too, is self-esteem (a desirable state to be sure); it is earned, not conferred, and demanding schools are a crucial part of the process. What people know and are able to do determine what they do, how well they do it, and how well off they are. Emphasizing academic performance, then, restores the historic mission of the schools and positions them and their graduates for the knowledge-based world of this century.

Second, it is the most demanding education initiative because it requires a complete transformation in thinking and doing when it comes to schooling. To use an overworked term, it calls for a “culture shift.” In a standards-based system, students become workers, teachers become managers of instruction, and mastery becomes the school’s metric. No longer will time in the saddle suffice; in a standards-based system, diplomas will be earned the old-fashioned way, by hard work.

But working harder, important as that may be, is not sufficient. Schools, and the people in them, must also work smarter. Just as time must become the flexible variable, technology must be used to gain intellectual leverage; it must be treated as a productivity enhancer, not as an end in itself. And as the uses of time and technology change, teaching and learning will change as well. A new triptych must emerge: Standards set, standards met, consequences. All healthy organizations have standards for performance; the standards are subject to even-handed measurement, and the organization is held to them.

Third, it will take prodigious effort to bring about because schools are supremely lethargic institutions. As protected monopolies and bureaucracies, they are extremely difficult to change, from either the inside or outside. Indeed, they will only change when they want – or are obliged – to change, the result of both external pressure and internal resolve.

Finally, the national oversight is essential to success because it provides a common yardstick to measure progress (or lack thereof) that both insiders and outsiders must use. When thoughtful and useful oversight mechanisms are available to the public, schools can run but they cannot hide. When they are available to educators, expectations will be clear and professional satisfaction high. When students have them, there will be no more excuses.

When the educational debacles are listed, national standards in history, English, and mathematics will surely go near the top, and this, it seems to me, is the proper context for understanding the reports on state standards. The focus should not be on how many states are doing badly, but on the fact that some have done so well, managing to bring off what bevies of scholars and education professors, often spending bushels of federal money, could not accomplish at the national level.

No doubt there are many explanations for this excellence, but let me suggest just one: that parents concerned about what their children are learning (or, more likely, not learning) have greater ability to influence public opinion and to persuade policy makers at the state level than they do in the national arena. They thus become a force for common sense that is too often lacking in national debates.

In standard setting, as in so many other areas of educational reform, the states are leading the way. We should do nothing to interfere with their progress, as national standards and assessments would surely do.

Public education has improved modestly since its nadir in the early 1990s. More high school students are completing a basic academic curriculum; increased choice – especially through charter schools – has begun to spur innovation; and most states are setting new content standards in core academic subjects.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a decade after the drive for standards attained national visibility, progress toward world-class standards is halting at best. Too many reflect a deliberate refusal to establish clear priorities and make hard choices. Some even conflate educational inputs and outputs, a distinction fundamental to the standards movement.

Still, there are grounds for hope. More than half the states managed a B or better in at least one subject. For every subject studied, at least one state has created model standards. The level of overt politicization is low. And most important, it appears to me that state-level resistance to sound standards is not so intense as to preclude further progress.

The standard-setting process is governed by a myriad of small local factors rather than any single dynamic that determines success or failure. Over time, this loose-jointed situation may well offer opportunities to promote better outcomes.

One strategy would be to select model standards in each of the five subjects and publish them, in full, in a single volume accompanied by a clear exposition of the criteria by which these standards are judged exemplary. Those of us who care about better standards must keep reminding ourselves that success is indeed possible. These reports should reinforce the public’s growing conviction that the key to fixing our schools is not spending more but raising standards and insisting on real consequences for those who fail to meet them.

The education too many of our kids receive is virtually “content free.” Many states’ standards are exceedingly vague about what students should learn, either out of fear of sparking ideological battles over curriculum or of violating the sacred tenet of “local control.” Others confuse educational means and ends, stressing ways students can find information rather than specifying the actual body of knowledge they should acquire. Only a handful of states, for example, have English standards that require students to delve deeply into American literature. This means that many of our public schools, in thrall to pedagogical fads and cultural relativism, are depriving our children of their cultural inheritance.

Still, the fact that most states have created standards that can be subjected to rigorous scrutiny represents real progress. The school reform debate, after exhausting almost every conceivable alternative, seems finally to have lurched to the conclusion that everything depends on measuring outcomes. This is a welcome departure from the education establishment’s self-serving fixation on such inputs as per-pupil spending, higher pay for teachers and, the bipartisan fad du jour, smaller class sizes. Without the ability to measure actual student performance, there’s no way to tell if any approach to reform is working. And without common standards and assessments based on them, we have no credible metric for judging how well our students and their teachers are doing.

Information is a powerful stimulus to reform. The results could spur healthy competition among the states to raise their grades by making their standards clearer and more challenging and by developing rigorous standards for all five core subjects. By identifying the specific attributes that distinguish strong from weak standards, these studies give laggards models to emulate.

Lifting state standards, however, is not the end of the matter. Implicit in finding of wide variations in the quality of state standards is the need for a common yardstick for evaluating student performance anywhere in the U.S. That is why we need national – not federal, but nationwide – benchmarks against which to measure and compare the performance of students across state and even district lines. And, because Americans today must compete in a global marketplace, it is essential that our education standards be at least as demanding as those of other advanced nations.

Rigorous, measurable standards for what students should know and be able to do are the centerpiece of the state education reform agenda. After nearly a decade of effort, the resulting state standards are disappointing. But before we abandon standards and the associated reforms that will be based on them, let’s acknowledge many encouraging signs. The process of developing both national and state standards focused attention on academic content and academic expectations in states and communities across the country. It involved a wide range of citizens in discussing priorities for academic learning. And there is evidence in some states and districts that setting high standards, teaching to them, and holding students and schools accountable for reaching them, produces measurable improvements in student achievement.

Standards, however good or mediocre or bad, are not what counts. What makes a state’s standards real are the content and performance expectations that actually get included on state tests, especially tests with consequences for schools and students.

States can now quickly analyze their own standards against the reviews and determine the extent to which they agree or disagree with the various critiques. In addition to this mix, they should look as much as possible at academic expectations in those countries that outperform the U.S. on international assessments. Governors also should take advantage of a new service to benchmark their standards and assessments. Business leaders must press for quick action and guard against two possibilities. First, many states invested so much time and energy in gaining consensus for their current standards documents that they are reluctant to go back to the drawing board for fear of re-opening Pandora’s box. Second, states that do attempt to revise their standards may lose sight of the fact that our goal is achieving standards, not setting them. We must cultivate a culture of continuous improvement which assumes that both standards and assessments will change and improve over time.

To those who waver about the prospects of standards-based reform after reading disheartening reviews of state standards, I ask two questions: Are we better off with the standards states have produced thus far than the minimum competency requirements that preceded them? Are they an improvement over the eighth-grade expectations on which the high school diploma is based for most students? There’s no doubt that the current course of standards-based reform, however bumpy, is the correct one. Recall any defective products, but repair them quickly. Move on to measure progress with high-quality assessments. Although the present condition of state standards may be flabby, future prospects for fitness are good.

Too many standards are vague. Too many are hostile to knowledge and infatuated with “cognitive skills.” Most are entranced by “relevance” to students’ lives, effectively subordinating education to current events and contemporary culture. And many confuse classroom means with educational ends – drifting too deeply into curricular and pedagogical waters and neglecting clarity with respect to the necessary results. Scores of states have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours to create shabby – and in some cases utterly useless – documents.

Does this mean that the standards movement has failed? Absolutely not. There are strong signs of hope, signs that American education is finally awakening to the need for rigorous standards, real assessments, and tough-minded accountability systems.

In every subject we found a few states that produced excellent standards. These can and should serve as exemplars, as models for other states seeking to improve their own standards. They prove that clear, rigorous, challenging standards can be written. In this sense, the state standards movement has a leg up on its national counterpart.

Several of the documents reported on herein have already been superseded, and usually strengthened. States will learn from each other. They can also use national, international, or commercial models.

Critiques of existing standards are essential to their improvement. Like report cards for students, appraisals of state standards close the feedback loop and provide guidance for improvement. Some readers profess to be “confused” by the different ratings – and some have explained low marks from one rater by citing the more bullish findings of another. Still, we’re convinced that multiple analyses are mostly good for the standards movement, just as multiple reviews are good for the consumers of motion pictures or textbooks. We are neither disappointed nor surprised that people reach different judgments about what makes for good academic standards. Such differing opinions, though perhaps confusing, are necessary for vigorous democracy and for the free play of ideas. States that want some “consensus” magically to emerge from “the field” are engaging in wishful thinking. States need to decide what’s important for their children to learn. And they must be ready for disagreement. As the standards movement grows beyond its infancy, perhaps greater unanimity will emerge, at least with respect to the appropriate criteria for state academic standards. We look forward to that, and intend to stay involved.

Getting the “content standards” right, of course, is just the beginning. The difficult and essential work lies ahead: in setting the performance standards, writing the assessments, and creating the accountability architecture. Standards without teeth are platitudes, not engines for reform.

How will states know if they are improving? How will we know if we’re on the right track? The governors have begun to wrestle that beast. And yet the most important evidence is in student achievement. Are kids learning more? Which states are making the greatest progress?

The only way to answer those questions is with an independent audit, a national yardstick, a gauge that enables states’ performances to be compared with each other, with the country as a whole, and with the rest of the world. Yes, we’re talking about some form of national – but not federal – standards and tests. We cannot know if we are making progress as a nation if we don’t know where we are starting from and where we are going. Similarly, states will not know whether they are on the right path unless they have objective measures of their progress.

We’ve learned a lot over the past five years about how to do it right (and wrong), and several states have already given us models of excellence, as have several other countries. There must, however, be a firewall between the standards-setters, test-givers, and data analysts, on the one hand, and politics, curricular fads, and interest groups on the other hand.

Writing good national standards, just like good state standards, takes vigilance. National tests, too, are tricky things to do right. But yesterday’s failures do not warrant despairing about what might be done tomorrow. It took Salk years of painstaking research before he created the polio vaccine. Lincoln was defeated for state legislator, Speaker, nomination (and renomination) for Congress, U.S. Senate (twice), and nomination for vice president before he was elected president.

False starts and stumbles are inevitable. Democratic government implies such risks. We think it’s worth the risk, and we hope that our children will not have to endure more half-hearted or misguided attempts before we get it right. Meanwhile, the old national standards are floating around out there, affecting classroom lessons, textbooks, teacher training programs, and state standards, mainly for ill. Isn’t it time to replace them with world-class standards of excellence?

We think it is, and we offer three recommendations to make this happen:

–    Use the best state (and international) standards available as models to write rigorous, specific state standards of learning that delineate essential knowledge and skills;

–    Create and adopt national standards – under the auspices of an organization independent from politics, fads, and interest groups – as well as voluntary national tests keyed to those standards;

–    Remain vigilant about the standards-setting process and include citizens at all stages.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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