A Standards Base and the Three New R’s

Schools have a duty to emphasize the skills and values children need for lifelong learning and participation in American democracy by Marya R. Levenson

Standards-based education, including over-packed curricula and high-stakes assessments, is here to stay — at least for the next decade or so. If this approach to teaching and learning is a reality that all of us must deal with, how can we leverage what is positive and reduce some of the negative aspects?

I would recommend we consider the usefulness of three new R’s: Responsibility, Reflectiveness and Resilience.

A Shared Duty
Responsibility. Many educators agree that a shift to standards-based education has been helpful. We have accepted more responsibility for student outcomes and have focused our efforts on how to narrow the gap in achievement. Yet even as teachers and administrators are honestly grappling with the challenges of how to educate all children to the best of their ability, they are increasingly working in a world where they feel infantilized by top-down directives.

No Child Left Behind’s paradigm of accountability is that only if children are tested will teachers teach what they should teach and children learn what they should learn. As a result, although there has been progress in developing standards-based curricula and some progress in meeting the academic goals that are being assessed, standardized tests are increasingly narrowing and driving the curriculum.

At the same time, although some conservative commentators and columnists blame educators’ resistance to changing their ways for the persistent achievement gap, others are beginning to argue it is unrealistic for educators to assume total responsibility for overcoming the significant effects on children of poverty, homelessness and poor health.

What if instead of this hierarchical and punitive accountability system, where the pressure and consequences are focused solely on testing teachers and students, we envision and develop a standards-based world of shared responsibility for student learning? Shared responsibility means that if some part of this necessary context for all students reaching mastery is missing, educators, community leaders and advocates need to figure out together how to put it into place.

Allan Alson, who served as superintendent of the Evanston, Ill., Township High School District from 1992 to 2006, and Laura Cooper, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, created a model of shared responsibility. Working with a committed core of faculty and university researchers, Alson and Cooper focused on improving the teaching and learning through high expectations, rigorous content and a nurturing support system.

Community members were extensively involved, even though some parents of color at first worried about the publication of data about the gap in achievement because they feared the information would be used as a message that African-American students aren’t achievers.

Since those first years, however, groups of academically successful high school students of color have been reaching out to mentor 8th-grade students through QUEST (Questioning, Understanding and Educating Students Together) and Latino QUEST.

As Alson reflected in a 2006 essay, “Attacking the Achievement Gap in a Diverse Urban-Suburban Community: A Curricular Case Study,” long-term, consistent, focused leadership has created a context for change and led to structural reforms and gains in student achievement in Evanston Township. Moreover, there has been a ripple effect beyond this high school as Alson and Cooper have worked with 24 other school districts to create the Minority Student Achievement Network. In the network, students, teachers, administrators, board members and university researchers have been examining issues of student achievement and structural reforms. In his work on the Tripod Project with MSAN, Harvard University researcher Ronald Ferguson has addressed issues relating to community culture that may be obstacles to student success in school.

As Ted Sizer says, if we want our children to learn well, we need bi-focal vision not only to see what children need inside a classroom, but also to address the larger context in which they function. Many schools and communities are increasingly recognizing the need for establishing good after-school options when parents cannot provide such supervision.

Sound utopian? Not only are most of these options available in many suburban and private schools, some charter and rural schools and a few urban schools, we also know these are necessary conditions, especially for many urban students, to have optimal learning. Educators, parents, community and business leaders and legislators need to advocate together for a vision of shared responsibility where the schools are an essential part of a multipronged initiative to eliminate the negative impact of poverty and racism on children in our country.

A Sharing Approach
Reflectiveness. Researchers affirm that decisions made every day by individual teachers, as well as by faculty members working together, make a big difference in children’s learning. Thus, we need educators who are well prepared, have their own internalized goals that are congruent with school and district goals, and are able to reflect on and modify strategies with colleagues as they work to accomplish the shared goals.

Once upon a time, teachers felt that professionalism meant they had the autonomy to close their classroom doors and do what they wanted to do when teaching their classes. The new world of standards-based education has challenged educators to share with each other how their instruction is effective in teaching the diverse students in their classrooms. We recognize now teachers’ professional work takes place both inside and outside of their classrooms.

The Richard J. Murphy School, a K-8 public school in Boston for 962 students (69 percent of whom qualify for the federal lunch program) is a place where administrators and teachers have worked for the past six years to build capacity for continuous instructional improvement in mathematics. Working in classrooms, the school-based math coach organizes Collaborative Coaching and Learning in Mathematics in which all teachers take turns observing and discussing demonstration lessons by their colleagues. During debriefings after a demonstration lesson, teachers focus on evidence of student learning, raise questions and agree to try out the observed instructional strategy before the following week’s session.

At the Murphy school, teachers and administrators recognize they need to understand student data first and foremost because it delivers useful information about individual students. As Principal Mary Russo reminds everyone: “Every statistic has a name and a face.” Ongoing classroom assessments help teachers learn how and when to provide instructional scaffolding and adaptations so all students can progress along the continuum of standards. In addition, faculty members discuss how to help their students move toward self-reliance in learning.

It is exciting to take a learning walk in this reflective urban school where the students and teachers are so energized about learning. What a contrast between this school and others where teachers are hired to follow a scripted curriculum! Teachers deemed “good enough” who follow a script in the classrooms will not be prepared to make decisions about what their students need, based on where these individual students are on their learning paths. Nor will they be thoughtful about where the school needs to move instructionally.

Coping Capacity
Resilience. Psychologists tell us (and teachers know) some children are highly resilient in the face of misfortune, while others seem less flexible or more passive. How can we help children learn how to recover from a setback, such as failing a test or not achieving academic proficiency? How can they understand their own ability to affect what is going to happen to them, whether as students or later on as adults — for example, as they go through the multiple career changes that are increasingly typical?

Few schools have focused on the need to help children become more resilient, although this could make a difference in whether a child succeeds or fails academically. Yet we know that children can be encouraged to learn and demonstrate resilience as they pick themselves up from a spill on the playground or rebound from a poor academic performance. Some educators inside and outside of schools now focus on increasing children’s resiliency, with support from authors such as Ruth Charney, who wrote Teaching Children to Care, and programs such as Open Circle.

As academic pressures have mounted on children, an emphasis on content preparation, while downplaying the need for developing pedagogical skills, has produced young teachers who often feel ill equipped to cope with pressures arising from high-stakes accountability and increasingly heterogeneous and needy children in their classrooms. The results can be seen in the startling statistic that only half of new classroom teachers remain in teaching after their first five years.

However, just as children can learn to become more resilient, we can and must help adults who want to be teachers become more resilient.

For example, Brandeis University’s induction/mentoring program is helping beginning teachers become resilient by providing a context for them to process what is happening in their classrooms. When is it appropriate to laugh together about some outrageous event, and which battles are worth fighting? How do you learn not to take setbacks personally? How do you teach about controversial subjects in your classroom? How do you find colleagues inside and outside of your school who share your vision of education?

If we want bright, caring, dedicated people to thrive as teachers and administrators in incredibly challenging situations, sometimes without much positive feedback within the institution, we need to help them develop individual and communal sources of resilience and resourcefulness.

Preparing Citizens
Looking forward in this century, we can anticipate that our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will become increasingly complicated as they strive to cope with economic, social and technological changes in their nation and world. Although it is not possible for us to anticipate all of the skills and knowledge that our graduates will need, we know they must learn how to become good citizens — surely the most essential standard a democracy can set for its education system. Yet as pressure has mounted within the past couple of decades to produce higher test scores, public schools have placed much less emphasis on teaching children the skills and values needed for lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.

A national group of public school superintendents, former superintendents and other educators have created Public Schools for Tomorrow, an organization led by Thomas Sobol, former New York state education commissioner and a professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Our group’s goal is to bring about fundamental change in schools and communities, enabling us to help all children learn to high standards, nurture their personal growth and talents and develop the capacities needed for democratic citizenship.

Now is the time for educational leaders to affirm that education is more than No Child Left Behind. It’s time for us to energize our colleagues and communities with our vision of schools grounded in the three new R’s whose goal is to prepare capable and critical thinkers who are also caring citizens.

Marya Levenson, a former superintendent, is director of teacher education and professor of the practice in education at Brandeis University, MS 022, Waltham, MA 02454. E-mail: mlevenso@brandeis.edu. She also is vice president of Public Schools for Tomorrow.