Standards-based educational reform goes back to the early 1990s. Since then, test scores have see-sawed a bit, but for the most part we are doing about as well as we’ve been doing since 1970 (when we first started collecting national reading data).
That means standards-based reform has not led to higher achievement. Establishing educational goals and aligning teaching to those goals to ensure kids succeed has not happened.
Diane Ravitch and others claim to know why standards have failed. They believe that if teachers were just left to their own devices, American kids would excel in school.
I’ve spent much time in classrooms and working with kids over the past four decades or so — as teacher, lunch room supervisor, park supervisor, student teacher, tutor, researcher, remediator, teacher educator, observer, evaluator, school administrator, textbook author, test designer, parent, grandparent, and uncle. My take on the problem is different, but I do agree that it is a problem.
I have come to believe that standards-based reform will NEVER work unless educators come to understand the idea of standards-based teaching, something that has not happened during the past 25 years.
To illustrate my point, I received the following two notes from teachers last week:
I teach 4th grade in a Daily 5 Cafe school. We have NO curriculum or requirements other than … two mini lessons, conferring individually and maintaining strategy groups with students. Do you have any advice or thoughts on the organizing and planning within these four areas?
I am working on a district committee that is developing a universal literacy framework for our elementary schools. One of the recommended components is shared reading, which is not currently a formalized daily practice at our highest-achieving schools. Is there an argument, based on research, for this component to be mandated for all classrooms as part of an excellent literacy program? The research that I have found seems to mainly focus on pre-schoolers.
What sense do I make of these queries? They reveal that their schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices — not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particular focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read.
Instead of focusing like a laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, and to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes. It would be like a surgeon deciding what kind of surgery he wanted to conduct and then hoping to stretch it to the patient’s needs (“Sorry Mr. Jones. I know you have prostate cancer, but I like to do hysterectomies.”)
Until we actually focus on teaching the standards — that is, until we decide that our job is to ensure that kids learn what we have agreed to teach them — then it will continue to look like our kids are failing. (And, no, “test prep” is not teaching to our standards, it is just one more example of educators focusing on particular activities rather than on reaching particular outcomes).