Mychael Dickerson, the award-winning chief communications officer for Baltimore County Public Schools, discusses how his district engages parents, students, school staff and other stakeholders.
Standards and Accountability: A Call by the Learning First Alliance for Mid-Course Corrections
The effort to improve student learning by setting high standards for achievement began in the United States more than a decade ago. The magnitude of the effort is only now being fully realized. The progress this far, has though limited, has been very encouraging with evidence of increasing student achievement. The members of the Learning First Alliance affirm their support for high standards and public accountability as a promising pathway to improving student learning and students' capacity to be productive members of society. What is needed is to build upon this progress with important mid-course corrections. We must work together to ensure:
- alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments;
- adequate professional development for teachers and principals;
- sufficient resources and support for each child to meet high standards;
- communication about the importance of standards and accountability; and
- balanced and comprehensive accountability systems.
The Promise of Standards-Based Reform
The idea behind the standards-based reform movement is straightforward. When states and school districts set clear standards defining what students should know and be able to do, it focuses educational systems on priorities and actions to improve. States, districts, and schools can put in place curricula aligned with the standards and adopt assessments aligned with standards and curricula to measure student performance. Teachers can understand what they need to teach and need to know. Well-designed assessments can assist teachers in identifying what help students need, where teaching appears strong, and whether additional training or materials may be needed. When tests and other indicators are used in a balanced and comprehensive accountability system, they can measure progress, recognize excellence, and trigger supports and intervention for schools and school systems that fail to improve student achievement.
Ultimately, everyone must work together to increase student learning. Knowing whether their children measure up to common standards helps parents and the public hold school systems accountable and identify when additional resources are needed and justified.
A standards-based system with high expectations and accountability for all students and educators is an ambitious undertaking, and the nation is in the early stages. States and districts vary widely in their implementation of standards-based improvement efforts. To date, virtually all states have set standards in the core academic subjects; most have instituted testing programs to measure progress toward meeting the standards; and many have established accountability systems holding students, staff, and schools, and/or districts responsible for results. Only now are these efforts beginning to affect the classroom in many states.
At this early stage, some states and districts have put together comprehensive and balanced standards-based efforts and can demonstrate that student achievement is rising. Moreover, in a few states and districts, students from low-income and minority backgrounds are showing dramatic gains, narrowing the gap in achievement that historically has plagued the nation.
By providing parents, educators, and the general public with data on school and student performance, the standards movement has created both good information for decision-making and a sense of urgency about accelerating improvement efforts. There exists now in many states a shared set of expectations for all students - and strong evidence that schools and students furthest behind in meeting standards must have additional assistance to meet those high standards.
As a result, more and more school districts and states are providing students, particularly students who are struggling academically, with pre-kindergarten classes, smaller class sizes, extended learning time in summer school and after-school programs, enriched curricula, and other supports. Increasingly, states, districts, and schools are placing a top priority on ensuring that every child is taught by well-trained teachers who are experts in both subject matter and how to teach it well to all students. Educators are enlisting the assistance of parents in their endeavors, providing ideas and resources that help parents support their children's learning.
A Look at Mid-Course Corrections
Even with positive results in some states and districts, there are serious concerns about the implementation of standards-based education. In too many places, the focus is on testing rather than on learning. Assessment is an essential element of standards-based reform. Well-designed tests can provide an objective measure of student performance. But the use of tests must be as a tool to ensure that all students get the instruction and support necessary to meet high standards as well as a tool to measure progress toward those standards for students and schools.
In some cases, states and districts adopted tests before reaching agreement on standards, developing curriculum to enable students to meet the standards, allocating extra resources and supports for students and schools struggling to meet higher expectations, providing professional development to enable teachers to teach effectively the knowledge and skills laid out in the standards, or communicating effectively with parents and the public. Moreover, often the tests themselves are limited in design due to budget constraints, or they do not measure the full range of standards, including those that require problem solving, critical thinking, and building new understandings.
In any large-scale effort to improve a complex system, there must be continuous reviews of progress and of unintended consequences. The reviews must turn lessons learned into improvements. We do NOT call for a change of direction. We emphasize our ongoing support for standards-based education. But we do urgently call for mid-course corrections to ensure that the promise of standards-based education is fulfilled. If these corrections are made, our nation's opportunity for improving the achievement of all students can be realized.
Five Core Concerns:
Alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments
Once states and local communities institute standards that establish the knowledge and skills they believe students must learn, they must put in place curriculum and instructional programs that provide students with opportunities to learn the agreed-upon knowledge and skills. Appropriate tests must be used to measure student progress toward meeting the standards. Students cannot be expected to learn what they are not taught, but in too many places there has not been sufficient effort to ensure that curriculum and instruction match the standards or are aligned with the tests.
Teachers tend to teach what tests measure. Many assessments rely primarily on multiple-choice questions and measure primarily basic skills, rather than the full range of content and skills called for in the standards. It is essential that assessments measure students' ability to analyze and solve complex problems, write clearly, and synthesize information, as well as their mastery of basic knowledge and skills. Students should be tested through a variety of measurement methods, such as essays and portfolios, as well as multiple-choice questions.
Finally, while assessments have productively focused attention on language arts and mathematics, important areas that are not assessed -- such as music, art, foreign languages, science, and social studies -- may be neglected in America's classrooms. Educators should attend to and integrate these into the curriculum.
The Learning First Alliance calls for deep and rich curriculum and instructional programs that support the standards as well as high-quality, aligned assessment systems that measure student progress on ALL aspects of required academic standards, using a variety of measurement techniques.
Adequate professional development for teachers and principals
The quality of teaching has a significant impact on student learning. Higher standards require more of educators just as they require more of students. Teachers must be knowledgeable about state and local standards, about the content they teach, and about a range of instructional approaches that will enable them to help all students. Teachers and administrators must understand how to use information from assessments and student work to improve instruction for both individual students and school programs.
Meeting this challenge of ensuring well-trained teachers and administrators requires sustained and effective professional development. Both new and veteran teachers and principals need intensive and ongoing professional development with colleagues, mentors, and outside experts that enables them to upgrade and hone their knowledge and skills.
The Learning First Alliance calls for an assurance that every child is taught by well-prepared teachers who are experts in their subject matter and in a variety of teaching techniques. This will require a commitment to professional development of teachers and administrators that enables teachers to help every student learn to higher levels, and principals and superintendents to develop the learning environment in which this may occur.
Sufficient resources and support for each child to meet high standards
Comprehensive and coherent accountability systems can play an important role in helping every child achieve to high standards. Assessment information should provide a basis for decisions about changes in curriculum, existing policies, and classroom instruction. Well-designed accountability systems also inform parents, educators, and the public about the performance of school systems, schools, important subgroups of students, and individual students. This information should help educators, parents, and other community members make decisions about how best to improve teaching and learning.
To help all students -- particularly those in greatest need -- states and districts must invest in programs that work, providing deep and engaging curriculum, extended learning time, well-trained teachers, high-quality school leadership, smaller class size, modern facilities, and effective technology. Moreover, they must direct greater resources to the schools and students who are the furthest behind.
The Learning First Alliance calls for a commitment to providing children who need extra help with the support necessary to learn at high levels and to providing schools with adequate resources to make such learning possible.
Communication about the importance of standards and accountability
Parents and community members must understand and support the content, use, and purposes of standards and accountability. To make this happen, educators, civic leaders, and parents must engage in ongoing dialogue and ongoing review of how well parents and other community members understand these issues. There must be accessible, understandable, and widely disseminated information about effective implementation of standards, the opportunities provided for students to achieve them, and how to make productive use of assessment results. This level of communication is crucial to maintaining public support for standards-based reform.
The Learning First Alliance calls for a concerted effort by states, districts, and schools to explain clearly and disseminate widely the content, purposes, and consequences associated with standards and accountability, conveying fully their implications for all students.
Balanced and comprehensive accountability systems
Accountability is essential to improving education for all children. Educators are accountable to the public, who entrust their children and taxpayer dollars to them. The public and elected officials are accountable for providing the long-term support and resources necessary to make higher levels of learning attainable for all students. And students are accountable for their own learning progress.
The current concern about accountability focuses largely on high-stakes testing. Of particular concern is the practice of making critical decisions about schools and/or about student placement, promotion, or graduation based on test performance alone. Student accountability and school accountability must go together. It is unfair to hold children accountable if school systems and schools are not held accountable.
No single test is a perfect measure of what a child knows and can do. Students learn in many ways and should have many ways to demonstrate what they have learned. Important educational decisions about a school or child should always take into account relevant information about student achievement in addition to test scores.
The Learning First Alliance calls for states and districts to have responsible accountability systems that couple high-quality aligned assessments providing good information on student performance with incentives for schools and students that meet standards and supports for schools and students that do not. In designing these accountability systems, states and districts should examine carefully the use of a single standardized test score as the sole basis for important decisions about students or schools. Standardized test scores should be one factor, along with other relevant information about student achievement, considered in making decisions about students. Similarly, test scores should be considered together with other factors in making high-stakes decisions about schools.
The members of the Learning First Alliance reaffirm our support for high standards and public accountability as a way to improve students' learning and their capacity to be productive members of society. Schools, districts, and states around the country have made much progress in their reform efforts. It is essential to learn from our experiences and to build on our progress so that all students receive a high quality education.
The Learning First Alliance, founded in 1997, is a permanent partnership of leading education organizations working together to improve student learning. The Alliance members supporting this statement are: the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National PTA, and the National School Boards Association.