Standards and the Lifeworld of Leadership

Superintendents have a responsibility for influencing the organizational climate at a time of state mandates and high-stakes testing by THOMAS J. SERGIOVANNI

No movement in recent history has greater potential for improving teaching and learning than the push for rigorous and authentic standards linked to quality assessments. But too much of even a good thing can be harmful.

Think of today's mandated standards and high-stakes tests as chlorine bleach in the laundry room of learning. Bleach can be effective as both an antiseptic and whitener. When used in moderation, it works. When used excessively, it hurts. Added to the wash alone, for example, bleach burns the life out of clothes. But when mixed with the right amount of soap and added to properly heated water, bleach can work miracles.

Similarly, when state-mandated standards and high-stakes tests are part of a larger system of accountability that includes local standards and local assessments, they are more likely to be helpful in holding schools accountable and in helping schools get better than is now the case. Used alone, I fear, mandated standards and tests provide a dangerously narrow approach to accountability.

Today's standards advocates care about schools, want to do something constructive to help and are onto something important by supporting standards. But their enthusiasm is fraught with blind spots that lead to consequences for students and schools that are not intended.

A Realignment Stance
What should superintendents do? I believe the proper response is to work to improve the validity of the standards movement rather than oppose it. Superintendents should join with standards advocates to make this movement less a crusade that clouds rationality and more of a well-conceived and carefully thought-out strategy for school improvement. The question is: How can our present emphasis on state-mandated standards and assessments be realigned so that unanticipated negative consequences are moderated and strengths are reinforced? How can states achieve their goal of raising standards and holding schools accountable while at the same time putting into place a system of accountability that is responsive to local needs, is developmentally sound and is authentically rigorous?

Taking a realignment stance is consistent with a fundamental principle of organizational learning: In order for schools to survive, their rate of learning must be greater than the rate of change in their environment.

Two kinds of leadership from superintendents can help schools accelerate their learning curves and thus cope more successfully with the push for standards:

  • Leadership that encourages and enables schools to be more adaptive to changes in their environment; and

  • Leadership that seeks to change the environment itself.

  • Public Engagement
    Right now superintendents seem preoccupied with the first kind of leadership. They concentrate on pushing schools to learn more and become better at standards, assessments, alignment, data disaggregation and use and the development of backup systems for students who do not do well on assessments.

    But unless school system leaders concentrate as well on the second kind of leadership--unless they work hard to change the standards and assessment environment itself--I fear rates of change will outpace rates of learning, threatening the viability of our system of locally driven public schools.

    Responding to change while at the same time working to change the environment may seem a little like the proverbial flying an airplane while building it. How do we do this when faced with the fervor of today's standards movement? Through superintendent-led public engagement, both within the school district and within the larger community.

    I believe that starting broad-based conversations about standards and assessments that are intended to make them more effective, more responsive to local values and needs, more democratic and more developmentally sound for both the state and local communities is a platform with wide appeal. Average citizens, local public officials and even state government officials are likely to respond favorably to a definition of local control that does not end just at the statehouse door but rather at the local community square.

    In today's standards world, local control has not so much been abandoned as redefined. Most citizens in your community are as committed to this value as ever. But the language state officials use in pushing the standards movement changes (unintentionally I believe) the meaning of local control. Governors, for example, routinely tout their standards-based reforms as examples of high expectations with local control involving shifts in power from Washington, D.C., to their respective state capitals.

    The only way to restore some sense of balance to all of this and especially to restore the original meaning of local control without neglecting legitimate state interests is to add the voices of superintendents to all levels of this debate. And the place to start is in each local community.

    Teachers College Professor Thomas Sobol, in a speech earlier this year to California superintendents, summed up the importance of superintendents' voices as follows: "I think we need to speak out more. Many people still look to you for leadership. They may not always agree with your decisions, and they may even question your right to make decisions. But they need and want your stability, your strength, your skill in bringing people together, your capacity to articulate a vision and keep things on course. They may not always love you, but most people know it can't be done without you."

    Talking Points
    Here are my suggestions for talking points that may help superintendents as they begin the conversations we need.

  • The ends determine the means.

    Many states have come to view local control as giving school districts and their communities more control over the means of education but less control over the ends. States set the standards that schools are to meet and then tell schools they are free to use virtually any means to achieve the standards.

    But since standards and assessments determine the curriculum, how time is spent, how financial and other resources are deployed, how teachers teach, who gets promoted and even how a good school is defined, the ends of schooling wind up determining the means, leaving schools with precious little real discretion over the policy process as it affects teaching, learning and assessments.

    George Madaus, a testing expert from Boston College, identifies five principles that emerge from practice as a result of the ends-determining-the means problem:

  • If important decisions such as who gets promoted, how schools are rated and which teachers are rewarded and punished are related to test results, teachers will teach to the test, thus narrowing the curriculum by omitting other, often more important outcomes.

  • When high-stakes tests operate, passed exams come to define the curriculum, placing curriculum development as a field of study and practice and educators as curriculum developers at risk.

  • Teachers pay particular attention to the types of questions (short answer, multiple choice, essay and so on) on high-stakes tests and adjust their teaching accordingly. (Madaus tells the story of school reformer Deborah Meier testifying before a minimum competency hearing that reading instruction in many New York City schools resembles the practice of taking reading tests. She pointed out that when synonyms and antonyms were dropped from the tests, teachers immediately dropped the material that stressed them.)

  • When tests are the only determiner of future education choices or future life choices, society tends to treat test results as the goal of schooling rather than as an indicator of achievement.

  • Mandated standards and high-stakes tests transfer control over the curriculum, teaching and learning to the agency or group that controls the exam. In today's environment, control over what is taught, how it is taught and what is learned is being increasingly transferred from parents, teachers and local citizens in the schoolhouse to legislators and other elites in the statehouse.

  • Affecting Character
    Schools with character are unique in important ways. They know who they are, have developed a common understanding of their purposes and have faith in their ability to celebrate this uniqueness as a powerful way to achieve their goals. Key to the success of schools with character is for parents, students and teachers to have control over their own destinies and to have developed norms that guide approaches for realizing their goals.

    Both control and distinctiveness distinguish these schools from schools where character is less developed. Both control and distinctiveness enhance the sense of purpose, identity and meaning for school participants. A school has character when there is consistency between that school's purposes, values and needs and its decisions and actions.

    A school without purposes of its own, without a sense of how to achieve those purposes and without homegrown commitments to those purposes places its character at risk. This risk increases when excessive mandated standards and assessments from afar replace a school's unique goals and purposes.

    Finding the right balance between legitimate mandates and school autonomy is an important condition for organizational character to flourish.

    School Culture
    Why is a unique sense of what a school stands for and a unique commitment to this sense so important? Because these qualities help to protect and grow a school's lifeworld. We might think of the lifeworld as a school's local values, traditions, meanings and purposes.

    In the best of circumstances the lifeworld determines what local strategies and initiatives will be used by schools to achieve their own destiny. The lifeworld includes the traditions, rituals and norms that define a school's culture. Lifeworlds differ as we move from school to school and these differences lay the groundwork for developing a school's unique character. As character builds, the capacity of a school to serve the intellectual, social, cultural and civic needs of its students and of its community increases.

    School character is also important because it is linked to school effectiveness. School effectiveness can be broadly defined as achieving higher levels of pedagogical thoughtfulness, developing relationships characterized by caring and civility and achieving increases in the quality of student performance as measured by traditional tests and alternative assessments.

    The relationship between school character and this definition of school effectiveness has been well documented in the works of such researchers as James Coleman, Anthony Bryk, Mary Driscoll and Paul Hill. The bottom line is that character adds value to a school by contributing to the development of various forms of social and academic capital. Together the two are prime contributors to the development of human capital--the standard for assessing the results of school improvement efforts.

    Social capital consists of norms, obligations and trusts that are generated by caring relationships among people in a school, community or neighborhood. When students have access to social capital, they find the support they need for learning. Social capital builds as schools become caring communities. Academic capital consists of the rituals, norms, commitments and traditions that cultivate and maintain a deep culture of teaching and learning in a school.

    Schools develop academic capital by becoming focus communities. In focus communities, teaching and learning provide the basis for making important school decisions. Leaders in focus communities, for example, are committed to the principle that form should follow function, with function being defined by the intellectual life of the school and its goals of student achievement.

    It is hard for a school to become a focus community without parents, students and teachers having a heavy hand in deciding what the focus should be. It is no accident, for example, that a number of researchers report Catholic schools now find it easier to become focus communities. Largely exempt from state mandates and assessments, these schools are free to determine for themselves who they are, what their purposes shall be and how they will achieve them.

    A key part of this focus comes from religious traditions that provide a rallying point for bringing everyone together in a common cause. What will happen if Catholic schools are offered and accept public money is anybody's guess. Mine is that acceptance will place them under state accountability systems that will seriously threaten their lifeworlds.

    It is much easier to identify the lifeworld qualities that are common to effective schools than to develop a one-best list of characteristics. Effective schools often differ in the standards they pursue, the way they organize for teaching and learning, the curriculum they teach and in the pedagogies they favor.

    Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot documented these differences in her seminal book The Good High School. She provided portraits of six very different but still very good schools. What emerged from her study was that a single list of indicators for a good school is not so easily identified. Good schools are unique and good schools are diverse. They serve different neighborhoods, contain different mixes of goals and purposes, use different ways to achieve these goals and purposes and have principals who provide their own unique blend of leadership strategies and styles.

    Goodness builds from and grows from what a particular school and its community values. The lifeworld of a school, not externally imposed organizational structures or outside mandates, is what counts the most.

    Standards as Values
    Standards can be intimidating. Many ordinary citizens come to think of a learning standard or a school standard as something similar to the gold standard--a scientific and objective measure of something valuable that ordinary people had better not challenge. Thus, parents and other citizens rarely ask what a standards-based, state-assigned school rating such as A, B, C, D or F means. They just assume that whatever is being measured should be measured and whatever the ratings are they must be scientific ones.

    But standards are neither objective nor scientific. Some standards are good and some are bad. Some standards are measured properly and some are not. In some cases the rating schemes designed to measure standards are set too high. And in other cases the rating schemes are set too low.

    Superintendents and other school leaders have an important responsibility to keep the standards record straight on the objectivity issue. Setting standards is a process best served by broad-based, reasoned consideration and deliberate action, neither of which is possible when parents and other citizens are moon-struck by images of standards as infallible and unchallengeable. Our message must be: Standards are set by people who make human decisions about what they believe or think is appropriate or is not appropriate.

    Not surprisingly these people often differ. One group, for example, might prefer some standards, accept others and reject still others while another group in the same room dealing with the same standards might prefer, accept or reject different ones. We have little to gain by viewing the setting of standards across the curriculum as a zero-sum game where some people win and others lose. By not considering standards and standardization as the same thing, our eyes are opened to other possibilities.

    Many citizens and government officials assume that standard setting may be values based in some areas but is certainly objective in the hard sciences such as mathematics or science or the basic skill areas such as reading. After all, 2+2=4; H2O is water; and cat is spelled C-A-T. But the evidence indicates otherwise.

    In California, the setting of science standards by a state-appointed committee turned out to be a nightmare. The committee splintered into two groups: one group favored an inquiry approach and the other group favored a content-acquisition approach. The first group pushed for standards that would help students think like scientists, experience science firsthand, learn general scientific principles and be able to solve scientific problems. The second group pushed for standards that were more graded and content oriented. In the end the committee members reached a compromise. The California State Board of Education refused to accept the compromise package, deciding instead to approve the second group's version of science standards.

    What about the skill areas such as reading? By law, the state of Texas requires that most of the words in 1st-grade reading textbooks be phonics based or decodable. In the past, the Texas Education Agency has interpreted "most" to mean 51 percent of the words. Recently the Texas State Board of Education, which oversees the agency, ordered the agency to raise the percentage of decodable words to 80 percent. Different percentages of decodable words mean different reading standards will be set. Though one could argue evidence justifies increasing the percentage of words to 80 percent, ample evidence points to the other direction as well. The issue of phonics is about more than what research says--it's about values.

    Imagine passing laws and other regulations that require physicians to prescribe aspirin (for example, Bayer) over acetaminophen (Tylenol) at least 80 percent of the time. It just wouldn't happen and it shouldn't happen in education either. Yet even in the basic skills areas, such as reading, different ideologies lead to different conclusions.

    Standards setting in the real world resembles a game of winning and losing rather than a process of scientific inquiry into a discipline in search of some sort of truth. Simply put, standards are subjective reflections of those who set them. Different people set different standards. Thus the process is as much political as it is anything else. If you want standards that you like, make sure the people who set the standards are people with whom you agree.

    Subjectivity should not scare us. Politics in a democracy should play an important role in setting standards. But the schooling of one's children and other lifeworld concerns are so important that hardball win/lose approaches to deciding which standards to choose should be avoided. It should not be a matter of all or none. When 60 percent of the people prefer one set of standards and 40 percent another, instead of forcing everyone to accept the standards of the majority we should consider legitimizing two different sets of standards.

    One way that more people can win is by having different standards. With different standards some would be common for all but most would be diverse. Some would be decided centrally, but most would be decided locally. One thing must be certain: All of the standards must be rigorous and authentic, challenging and meaningful.

    The issue here is not standards versus no standards nor is it quality standards versus weak standards. The issue, plain and simple, is that standards need not be standardized to be rigorous and authentic, challenging and meaningful. Indeed our present system of standards and assessments may get average marks for rigor and for challenge, but it gets low marks for authenticity and for meaning. We need a plan that gets high marks in all four areas.

    Layered Standards
    I believe we can create a responsive system of rigorous accountability that includes testing and other assessments and that includes public disclosure of results if we are willing to adopt a layered approach to standards and a shared approach to accountability with a strong local component.

    Moving in this direction will require that schools make known what their purposes are, make promises to the public as to what they hope to accomplish, engage in rigorous inquiry to ensure that promises are kept and invite public scrutiny of their intents, actions and results.

    Before describing what a layered system of standards and assessments might look like, let's summarize with some assertions:

  • States should participate in setting standards for schools.

  • School boards, parents, teachers and even students at the local school should participate in setting standards.

  • When standards and assessments are set by the state alone, standardization is likely to emerge with schools becoming more and more similar as a result.

  • When school boards, parents, teachers and students at the local level participate in the setting of standards and in determining assessments, schools become standardized in some areas but diverse in most others.

  • Letting parents choose the schools their children will attend only has meaning when students, parents and teachers are provided with real options from which to choose.

  • The state should assume responsibility for developing standards and assessments for all schools in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics and perhaps civics.

  • Citizens, parents, teachers and students at the local level should share in the responsibility for developing standards and assessments in all other areas of the curriculum.

  • Because school districts and schools within them differ, it should be expected that many standards will differ as one moves from district to district and from school to school within the same district.

  • The state has a responsibility to provide both technical assistance and professional development for helping schools set standards and develop assessments.

  • The state has a responsibility to provide a centralized standards bank from which local authorities might draw as needed.

  • Students should participate by setting standards for themselves and by assessing their own performance.

  • Student assessments should count along with state, school district and local school assessments in evaluating a school.

  • The state should provide constructive oversight by ensuring that the standards set locally and the assessments developed locally are defensible and trustworthy. Developing standards for standards and standards for assessments would help.

  • No single set of standards and no single assessment system should dominate the other.

  • Five Prongs
    In developing a system of layered standards I propose that there be standards in five areas:

  • Uniform standards for all schools in basic reading, writing and mathematics (and possibly civics). These standards would be set by the state.

  • Varied standards in key curriculum areas such as history, advanced mathematics, English, art, music and social science. These standards would be set primarily by local communities.

  • Varied standards in social and emotional learning areas including character development. These standards would be set jointly by the state and local community.

  • School standards in noncurriculum areas such as teacher development, use of resources and sense of community. These standards would be set jointly by the state and local community.

  • Teacher standards in such areas as professionalism, collegiality and professional growth. These standards would be set primarily by the state.

    Though standardized tests would dominate in assessing uniform standards in basic reading, mathematics and writing, they would play a much less important role for the varied standards in key curriculum areas, a negligible role for assessing the varied standards in social and emotional areas and no role in assessing school standards and teacher standards. In these areas the dominant assessment vehicle would be a whole-school quality review process.

    This process would involve both an internal self-study conducted by the school and its community and an external study conducted by an external visitation team from a neighboring community (the whole-school quality review team) that would engage in an intensive examination of each school. Members of the team would include educators, parents, representatives of the corporate and civic community and perhaps a representative from the state education department. Visits might take place every four years.

    What data would be examined? In the social and emotional areas, performance exhibitions, portfolios and possibly a service requirement would make sense. For school standards in noncurriculum areas, the state should develop an indicator system that the whole-school quality review team would have to consider along with local self-study data.

    A similar approach might work for teachers' standards if no independent teachers' standards board exists in the state. The state would be responsible for assessing standards in basic reading, mathematics and writing. Its findings would have to be considered by the whole-school quality review team as it brings together information from a variety of sources to reach conclusions about the school.

    The whole-school quality review team would be the major player in all other assessments. This team would develop one report that provides an in-depth study of the school and a summary rating that takes into account all layers of standards and their assessments. No one source of data would be used alone in reaching a summative evaluation.

  • Localism and Disclosure
    Though local in origin, the school quality review process would have to be opened widely to the public. Beginning with a self-study that inventories the promises a given school is making to its local community, its students, its teachers and to itself, the school then would detail how it expects to keep those promises and the evidence it is providing for having kept those promises.

    External reviews would be grounded in the school's promises and school improvement plans, in some minimum requirements set by the state, as well as widely accepted standards for teaching and learning, teacher development and school effectiveness.

    The review team would have to take into account student results on state-mandated tests in the basic skills of mathematics, reading, writing and perhaps civics in its write-up. The write-up should be distributed widely at the local level, to the state, maybe even summarized and published in the local newspaper and made available in its entirety on the Internet.

    This sort of public disclosure has its disadvantages as well as advantages. But I believe a good accountability system is based on trust. A system that is locally oriented must be viewed as trustworthy by local citizens, the state and other legitimate interests. One way to earn trust is through public disclosure. Thus my vote, at the moment, would be for full and wide disclosure of the report.

    School visitations are not a new idea. Most, however, bring with them externally developed detailed frameworks in the form of lists of standards that schools being visited must provide evidence they are meeting. If the school quality review process evolves in this direction, then it probably will not work.

    Needed is a system that is local in origin, that is anchored in some overarching conceptualization, but that allows the majority of standards to be generated by the local community. Further, though it is likely to be a challenge, emphasis needs to be placed on the real thing rather than on the accumulation of paperwork. Thus, visiting teams would spend a good deal of their time interviewing students, teachers, parents and others, shadowing students, examining student work, visiting classrooms and paying particular attention to the sorts of standards for quality intellectual work suggested, for example, by Fred Newmann and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin.

    Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor and former superintendent, has argued that successful schools come in many different shapes and styles. Some are traditional, some are progressive and others are somewhere in the middle. But regardless of their form, successful schools share three characteristics: parents, teachers and students are satisfied with them; they are successful in achieving their own goals and objectives; and their graduates exhibit democratic values, attitudes and behaviors.

    This unique focus and the support that parents, teachers and students give it are key. To use the language of this article, successful schools have character. Local passions, local beliefs, local participation and local support are key to their effectiveness. We are not likely to get very far in cultivating these virtues of localism unless we rethink our present course in developing standards and assessments. This rethinking, I believe, is key to the future of school leadership and school success.

    Thomas Sergiovanni is a professor of education at Trinity University, 715 Stadium Drive, San Antonio, TX 78212. E-mail: tsergiov@trinity.edu. He is the author of The Lifeworld of Leadership: Creating Culture, Community, and Personal Meaning in Our Schools, published by Jossey-Bass.