Standards Set: So What Now?

The hard part is measuring performance and applying consequences for failure by JOHN MURPHY and DENIS DOYLE

Ten years ago standard setting was no more than a gleam in the eye; only visionaries talked about it. Five years ago it was tough work; a few risk takers took standards on. Today dozens of school districts, large and small (and most states), have confronted the task of setting standards.

Although standards setting still requires some heavy lifting, the process is no longer threatening. And while it still is not easy, at least it is straightforward.

What is not routine is how to measure performance against the standards and identifying consequences for failing to meet them. The issue today is knowing what to do with standards once you have them. This is as it should be: Measuring performance and holding people to consequences is the hard part. It also is the most useful aspect of the exercise.

Record Setters
Conceptually, the task is not complicated. Properly designed standards are designed to be measured. Indeed, in the world beyond school, standards and measures are nearly indistinguishable. In both amateur and professional athletics, for example, standards are measures. A four-minute mile, 60 home runs in a season, a .400 batting average--those are the standards competitors use to measure their own (and others’) performance. Note that they are self-measuring. They were set by the greats, not an independent third party. The best of the best is as good as it gets. No one claims to be as good as Ted Williams without hitting .400 over a season or as good as Babe Ruth without 60 home runs. But neither is anyone diminished when he or she exerts maximum effort and plays by the rules.

An example closer to home is that favored by light plane pilot (and Colorado Governor) Roy Romer. More important than the fact he holds student-pilot class standing is whether or not he knows how to take off, navigate and land. What’s important is how the pilot performs.

So too in modern schools. Standards are instrumental, but they are not an end in themselves. More important than class standing or distribution on a bell-shaped curve is performance. Can your students measure up to world-class standards? Can they perform as well as or better than the competition?

Most schools have not reached this point. The reason is not hard to fathom. Most schools and most educators still are not sure what standards are all about, what their overarching purpose is and what they should be used for. In many cases, people fear standards. They are afraid standards will be used as a bludgeon to change the system.

Value Added
The first order of business, then, is to describe what standards (and their measurement) are all about. They are not about ridicule, shame or embarrassment. Standards are not a modern incarnation of the dunking stool or stocks. To the contrary, high standards, when they are met and when people strive to meet them, are a badge of honor.

To expect students to reach high standards is a vote of confidence in their capacity for hard work and enterprise, the two traits most in demand in the bigger world beyond school. Standards should be a tool to fine-tune performance and report results.

Standards are the tool of choice to identify and measure the "value added of schooling." Standards are the way we measure what difference going to school makes. Does Johnny know algebra, can Suzie understand Shakespeare, does Mark know Latin, does Juan understand chemistry? (Only rarely are these subjects--and most of what we learn at school--mastered at home. School is where rich academic content is acquired.)

Rightly understood, standards also permit us to ask tough questions about groups of students, teachers, schools and programs, not just individuals.

How many black males are taking algebra, for example, or how many Title I kids go on to demanding course work in high school? How are ESL students doing in the program configuration used in this district? What do we know about similar kids in different programs? What bearing does a teacher’s preparation have on student performance? Do teachers with master’s degrees in math do better with AP math students than those without? Do absences cluster among certain students, and if so, among whom?

The list of questions is quite literally endless, and the ones that are appropriate depend on the circumstances and resources of each district. A low-wealth school district with large concentrations of minority students should be concerned with basic skill development. But so too should any district with a measurable number of youngsters--no matter how small--who are not keeping up. And no district is so well off that it will be problem free.

Indeed, that is the most important lesson that a standards-driven system has to offer. There is no finish line. Getting better in one year should be an incentive to get even better the next. Perfection is an endlessly retreating goal, just out of grasp.

Constructive Comparisons
Why do we stress this obvious point? Because of the (understandable) tendency of organizations to rest on their laurels, particularly when they have the opportunity to compare themselves to someone who is not doing as well as they are. Thus, Montgomery County Md., one of the nation’s premier school districts, is typically compared to Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s most troubled districts. If such a comparison is designed to make Montgomery County residents feel better, it is a fool’s paradise. Their competition is with Tokyo’s and Bonn’s best schools, not low-achieving schools at home.

If such a comparison is used constructively, to help District of Columbia schools, teachers and students do better, it can be worthwhile. But the comparisons cannot be broad brush, district to district. They must be targeted and focused, used to develop insights into program and school improvement. Again, comparisons are not designed to embarrass people but to provide a framework for improvement.

To be useful, comparisons among students, teachers, schools and districts must first compare like to like. For example, a district with large numbers of low-performing youngsters should find a district with similar students who are doing well and ask tough questions to find out why. What is the successful district doing that we are not? How can we improve our performance? How can we redeploy our resources to get more bang for the buck?

In many respects, the last question is the most important, for embedded in it is the notion that more money is not always the answer. Indeed, how you spend what you’ve got is more important than how much you have.

To be sure, more money is always welcome, but its absence cannot be used as an excuse for low academic performance. And from the standpoint of public support, there will be more money for education when there is more education for the money. The public--by and large--is generous, and the surest way to gain and hold public support is to commit to a program of high standards and honest reporting of results.

A New Imperative
Put simply, what every school district in America needs is an academic audit, a systematic way to examine and analyze academic performance by relevant categories. Its purpose is to improve the allocation of district resources, both tangible and intangible, to increase academic performance for all children.

At issue is not the old bromide, "all children can learn," but the imperative of the standards-driven district: "all children shall learn."

How to do this? First, every district must have a vision for itself. It must build a culture that encourages and rewards high standards. To do so, it must take an objective and realistic look at itself. Once the vision has been set, conduct an audit of the instructional program delivery system and student outcomes.

Review instructional and management services and survey the community to gauge perceptions of parents, employers, political and civic leaders, higher education representatives, students and teachers. All of this data can be used to establish the reality base, which then should be compared to the vision. If a gap exists between the vision and the reality, that determines the next step.

Step two involves a cause-effect analysis to determine what factors are contributing to the gap. The school system then can develop long- and short-term plans to address the contributing factors and create a culture conducive to success for all students.

An Outside Stimulus
As we go about the process of creating that culture, schools must abandon most of what they have done for the past century and a half. As Prisoners of Time, the 1994 report of the National Commission on Time and Learning, noted, historically schools have held time constant and let learning vary. You learned what you could in 12 or 13 years, dropped out or graduated and went on to college if your grade point average (and family finances) permitted.

Schools of the future, Prisoners of Time argued, had to hold all students to high and rigorous standards and let time become the variable. Study till you master the subject. That is the logic of a standards-driven system.

Students must be grouped by achievement levels, not tracked, as they are in college (French 1 precedes French 2, no matter if you are 18 or 88). Age and time in the saddle is no longer relevant. Mastery is. Social promotion must end. Routine and mindless teacher and administrator evaluations must be replaced with finely calibrated procedures that enjoy the confidence of educators and the community.

School must be open for longer days and a longer year--no modern business could afford to keep the hours schools keep. Articulation between high school and life after high school must be rationalized and streamlined.

Talk is cheap. It is easy to spin out a scenario of school reform and improvement on paper, but hard to execute in practice. The difficulty is captured in the famous Machiavelli quote from nearly 500 years ago: "It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one."

For this reason it is nearly impossible for lasting reform to appear spontaneously, from within the institution itself. Outside stimulus is necessary. Put more graphically, the epitaph for reform in any institution should be as such: Organizations don’t change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat.

John Murphy is president of Education Partners Inc., P.O. Box 100, Boca Raton, Fla. 33429. E-mail: john_murphy@arvida.com. He is the former superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools. Denis Doyle is an educational consultant in Chevy Chase, Md., and co-author of Raising the Standards, published by Corwin Press.