Prerequisites for ‘Scaling Up’
© Tony Wagner, 1995 (first published in Education Week, May 24, 1995)
“Higher standards” and professional development have become unifying battle cries of school reformers. Like apple pie, few can oppose efforts to “professionalize” education, but the real questions are: which standards, decided by whom, and assessed how? And professional development for what?
At the national level, the business community has produced important documents, like the U.S. Labor Department’s SCANS commission report, that succinctly describe the workplace competencies all employees now need. But this approach is in conflict with the recent recommendations of content experts who continue to add to the list of what must be “covered” in their various subject-matter disciplines.
Among the academics, there is tremendous dissension. Historians, geographers, and sociologists fight among themselves about what social studies should be, and few can agree on what should be taught in American history. The National Academy of Sciences has recently developed new standards that are at odds with those developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in its Project 2061. And the National Council of Teachers of English has had to throw out several years of work because its new standards were considered unacceptable by the U.S. Education Department, which had been financing the project.
Many state and district-level efforts to set high standards or outcomes have not fared much better. The move to create new standards often fuels bitter debate among advocacy groups: Some believe schools should go “back to basics”; others talk about teamwork and computer literacy. The result is that the high-standards advocates at the state level increasingly are inclined to throw up their hands and settle for vague “curriculum frameworks,” or else they just add to the list of Carnegie units required of all students. New York City and Boston school administrators are now calling for all students to complete two years of algebra (as if this new high standard were really going to solve the problem of high school graduates who are unprepared for either employment or college).
Lacking agreement on new standards, too many communities resort to an increasing emphasis on educationally regressive standardized tests. Teachers must spend more time teaching to the tests (tests that tell us nothing about what students know and can do, and even less about districts’ progress toward high standards). Some school systems artificially inflate their test scores by excluding a higher percentage of students from taking the tests through increased assignments to remedial, bilingual, and special-education classes (thus further demoralizing students) and increasing the dropout rate. According to recent research conducted by William Zlatos in 14 cities he studied, the percentage of students actually tested varied from 66 percent to 93 percent. On the other hand, schools that focus on retaining at-risk students often see their test scores actually decline, and community support is quickly eroded. Departing Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones of Boston lowered the dropout rate, but test scores came down as well, and so she has been pressured to leave.
Better, performance-based tests will take a great deal of money, patience, and public support to develop. Thus far, most communities show a significant shortage of all three. In the meantime, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests of basic reading, writing, and math proficiency may be all we can or should agree to use to gauge students’ proficiencies.
Thus far, then, the higher-standards movement may have actually set back efforts to improve learning by adding to the already overlong list of what teachers must cover, increasing the emphasis on standardized tests at the expense of real learning, and making the curriculum even less engaging for students. Worse still, the time and energy consumed in the high-standards debates keep communities from dealing with the really tough questions that must be answered if we are to significantly improve our schools: How do we create a curriculum that prepares all students both for future work and for further learning? Can we do both in the same curriculum? How will we educate students for citizenship, personal growth, and health, in addition to the other goals touted by business and education experts? How do we motivate students who seem increasingly passive? And how do we deal with the rising tide of violence in neighborhoods and the needs of students whose families are in distress?
This is not to suggest that we should not have higher standards for all students, but rather that our strategy for setting and assessing these higher standards is seriously flawed. Experts’ attempts to establish one single set of high standards (whether as guidelines or as mandates) for all the diverse communities in America appear increasingly to be unrealistic, as well as undesirable.
We are legislating expert-driven, top-down policies aimed at forcing change in the worst schools in our country, without paying sufficient attention to new “best practices.” In doing so, we may be stifling the very qualities most needed to improve schools: a spirit of local initiative, active inquiry, and shared enterprise. We need to study what’s working in the very best public schools and how these practices might be adapted for other schools in order to “scale up” meaningfully.
Central Park East Elementary and Secondary Schools in Harlem are nationally recognized as outstanding examples of “best practices,” but only recently have several studies shed light on what they have done that has made them so successful. Central Park East’s very rigorous 14-element “portfolio,” which a student must complete satisfactorily to receive a diploma, points the way toward both the content for truly high standards and a method for their development and assessment.
A recent study by Linda Darling-Hammond and Jacqueline Ancess for the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching describes the series of “merit badges” Central Park East students must complete in order to graduate and how they are assessed. Teachers consulted employers and university professors to insure that these requirements match what students will need for employment and lifelong learning. Teachers also made sure the new graduation requirements were well understood by students and parents. Finally, Central Park East teachers have invited outsiders to audit representative samples of graduates’ work for quality assurance. The result of all of these efforts are high-school-graduation and college-acceptance rates (99 percent and 90 percent respectively) that many elite suburban public schools might envy.
Setting higher standards was essential for insuring meaningful learning, as were the corresponding changes in the curriculum content and structure of the school. Equally important, though, are changes in the school culture which help motivate students to want to achieve these higher standards. In a recent study of Central Park East Elementary School’s first six graduating classes, from 1978 to 1983, conducted by David Bensman, graduates identified three school factors that contributed the most to their later success (95 percent went on to graduate from high school or complete a General Educational Development program). The factors were: teachers’ efforts to connect all learning to students’ life circumstances, interests, and needs; the creation of a close-knit, caring, respectful community; and strong parental support and involvement.
The real question we must address is this: What training and resources do teachers and school communities need to develop and implement their own meaningful high standards? The current focus of most professional-development efforts (merely to increase teachers’ content expertise) is not the answer. Learning from the Central Park East model, “action research and relationship skills” may be what teachers need most (more than content upgrades) in algebra or chemistry.
Teachers need to learn how to gather the information that will enable them to make tough choices about curriculum priorities for their own schools and then assess the results of changes in curriculum. They need coaching that will help them work more collaboratively. This kind of “action research” is best done in teams with other teachers across grade levels, as well as with parents, community members, local employers, and older students, so that everyone’s concerns are heard and all understand the need for and the goals of change.
Such a team effort must also include social-service providers in order to better understand and respond to the needs of students and their families. Finally, teachers need encouragement to try new approaches to teaching and curriculum that make all learning more active and personalized.
This kind of professional development does not often happen in a classroom with other teachers, and rarely can it be facilitated by university professors. It is best done in the field through “research and development,” where there is engagement with real tasks, on-site coaching, and time to reflect.
At the nonprofit educational group I head in Boston, we are finding that training groups of educators from elementary, middle, and high schools, parents, community members, representatives from social agencies, and older students together to undertake school and communitywide focus groups and a self-assessment (as first steps toward setting high standards, improvement goals, and priorities) begins to create a school culture that is more thoughtful and reflective. It is a process that promotes genuine collaboration and mutual respect, as well as higher standards. Such changes in a school’s culture and in relationships are the starting point for lasting school reform.
We are also working with these teams of teachers, parents, and community members first to help them decide their benchmarks or criteria for qualitative improvements in their schools, then to gather the data that will give them a clearer view of how they are doing, and finally to use this information for continuous quality improvement. Our next step is to establish a network of “visiting committees” (consisting of educators, parents, community leaders, and even local policymakers) who have learned how to do their own local “quality audits.” Teams will spend time in each other’s schools to provide an outsider’s perspective on how each school is doing relative to its own stated goals. This is peer supervision on a larger scale and is likely to have far more impact than any kind of top-down reviews. Individual schools will then be encouraged to discuss the resulting written reports and recommendations with their local community members.
Over time, we believe that regular “peer-school audits” (perhaps coordinated by state education agencies) can go a long way toward defining the characteristics of truly good schools and helping all communities create and maintain a set of standards far higher and more meaningful than what exists today.
These kinds of efforts will also help policymakers and parents understand better what good schools look and feel like (what to look for in a school beyond the test scores, attendance, and dropout rates). In partnership, thoughtful citizens and educators across the country can contribute significantly to the creation of high standards and the reinvention of American education in their local communities.