With rancor over performance pay, testing and accountability erupting everywhere, it’s easy to forget that school reform doesn’t matter in the least if it doesn’t change what happens in classrooms between students and teachers. Writing with two co-authors, Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the important figures in standards-based reform, made this point powerfully in an Education Week commentary earlier this month.
This week, in the New York Times, we see two stories that illustrate both the challenges achieving this goal and the importance of doing so.
First, a front page story by Fernanda Santos takes us inside classrooms where teachers are experimenting with lessons designed in response to the Common Core standards real for their students. (This is the kind of journalism, by the way, that will be critical for helping the public and the field understand the classroom changes that will have to occur.)
“The new standards give specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources; the goal is to get students to see how beliefs and biases can influence the way different people describe the same events.”
Teaching this way is far more difficult than just giving kids worksheets or rote exercises. Not only is mastery of subject matter extremely important, so is getting students deeply engaged in their learning. As the article notes, teachers and schools also have to create conceptually rich and demanding curricula that will help students learn at a higher (and deeper) level. Experts say standards-based instruction rests on a three-legged stool that includes standards, appropriate assessments and curricula. Curricula tends to be weak and uneven and the most difficult to influence with state or even district policy. As a result, many teachers default to teaching to the test to ensure that their students do well. That’s fine, if the standards and college-readiness form the foundation of the assessments. Two consortia of states are working on new assessments, which are supposed to be in use in 2014. We’ll soon begin to see whether their work will measure up.
The other Times article, by national writer Sam Dillon, shows why the standards movement was necessary in the first place. The 1983 Nation at Risk report called on states to require students to take more advanced classes to graduate. And, so they did. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests don’t show that students are learning any more. Classes might be called Advanced Placement English or Pre-Calculus but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what students are learning will prepare them for college. Where’s the rigor? (For an in-depth look at this vague but omnipresent term in education, see The Hechinger Report.)
“Schools apply vaunted names to courses in part, researchers said, because administrators want to help students satisfy tougher requirements for high school graduation in many states. They point to parents’ interest in rigorous-sounding coursework for their children, and to administrators’ vanity in offering ambitious coursework…
Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes of Research who headed the Education Department’s research wing under President George W. Bush, said the disconnect became apparent a decade ago, after two nationwide surveys showed that the proportion of high school seniors taking trigonometry, precalculus or calculus more than doubled from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.”
Forty-four states and jurisdictions have adopted the new standards. Most of the states have joined one or both of the two consortia working on assesssments. But neither will make much of a difference in what gets taught or learned unless teachers get the support, resources and encouragement they will need to incorporate them into their daily practice.