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November 19, 2002
Section: Opinion

Arrival of education standards doesn’t end debate

Our educational history has been marked with debates about who should be educated, what those who are educated should learn, and how what has been learned should be measured. The debates reflect our democratic roots.
Education had been a local matter. Early in our history, local communities established schools, governed the schools, established the curriculum, made the rules for student attendance and student performance, and funded those schools through local taxes. Schools were organized into school districts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and states began to exert control over educational matters and provide funding. Now many states label school districts as entities of the state.

In 1983, Secretary of Education Terrance Bell released a report, “A Nation At Risk,” and called national attention to the low performance of our students. Since that time, many reports have followed, and concern has been expressed that not enough students are performing well, graduating from high school or going on to some form of higher education. Many are alarmed that if overall student performance doesn’t improve, our economic viability is threatened. National funding has been provided to help schools perform at higher levels.

As a nation, we have well-established habits with regard to solving problems. We acknowledge the problem, set high goals and try alternative solutions. Education is not different. We have set high goals. We have tried various forms of instruction, special programs designed to address special needs of some students, distributing leadership to the schools and teachers, and new designs for organizing schools, including various forms of school choice with charter schools and vouchers. Beneath all of this experimentation is the belief that all students can learn at high levels and that if we find the right combination of instructional strategies, programs and school organization, we will hit the target of having all students perform well.

Sometimes the debate gets heated. Critics assert that the belief that all students can learn at high levels is a banal concept, one among many educational platitudes that ignore individual differences. Some answer the critics by saying, “We can’t afford to subscribe to that point of view if we are truly going to educate all of our students.” Or some get stronger and exclaim, “What if someone thought that you couldn’t learn at high levels?”

Recently states have adopted standards to make sure that all students learn at high levels. Some say, this is a good thing because our expectations for student success should rise if we all want our children to have possibilities in the future.

The adoption of standards ends the debate about what should be taught. Or does it? Some argue that the standards are not high enough to challenge gifted students, and others state that the standards should be different for students with learning challenges.

And the debate continues. How should we measure that our children are learning? Or should we assess their learning? What should we do if the children are not learning? If we don’t quantify the students’ learning, how will we know if they are not learning, so that we can give them the help they need? Some assert that if we use standardized tests to calculate learning, the result is pre-determined by the nature of the test that sorts performance into 50 percent above the mean and 50 percent below the mean.

It would seem that the debate about testing may now have defined limits. Soon every child will be tested in reading and math in grades one through eight to see if he or she is learning the standards. If the students are not learning, then the school they attend suffers specific consequences under the federal January 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

But the debate continues. What we seem to be debating is whether or not rules can force improvement in schools. We seem to worry that if we don’t make enough rules, we will not guarantee a good education for all students. But, we haven’t had much luck with rules — folks find ways to bend them through reinterpretation or hope that they will not be enforced. As an example, some states are considering lowering their standards to avoid having large numbers of schools labeled as not making adequate progress. Other states are staying with high standards regardless of the consequences for schools.

What isn’t debated is that high-quality teachers make the difference in creating a great educational experience for students. Good teachers know how to teach the required standards to all of the students in their classes while challenging each student to reach and stretch higher. Imagine connecting engaging instruction to student performance. Imagine tracking instruction to see if that instruction is effective. Each of us can remember those outstanding teachers who made a difference in our early education. They helped us learn challenging material and they helped us to see that we had potential that we didn’t recognize.

But we are currently debating how we should develop new teachers, how we should keep them in the profession, and how we should measure their performance. Often the rules we are making are not connected to classroom instruction.

All of these debates and the actions we are taking to raise student achievement may have some unintended consequences. Recently this author had the opportunity to view instruction in a second-grade classroom in the Los Angeles Unified School District. All of the instruction was “scripted” through the use of a prescriptive curriculum. This teacher did not have time to check the understanding of his students. He needed to move on to teach the required high-level vocabulary, reinforce the lesson from the previous day and so on. Was this teacher following the rules established for instruction in the school district? Yes. But were he and the students experiencing the joy that comes from learning new things? No, there was no time. This result is probably not what was desired.

And so, we need to be careful as we continue the debate. Yes, we need to be accountable for the student performance results. Yes, we must graduate more students ready to continue their learning. Yes, we must strive to increase student achievement. But as we go about debating how to raise student achievement, we must include what we know about learning, and we must allow our teachers to use their creativity to help find ways to raise student achievement.

Happily, student achievement is rising in all school districts in Stark County. Some of the examples are noteworthy.

Jackson has been labeled as an excellent school district for the second year, Fairless has increased its graduation rate from 58 percent to 94 percent, and Canton is raising student achievement in all categories. All of that progress happened before No Child Left Behind was passed. Obviously Stark County educators recognize the importance of raising student achievement, think that all students can learn at high levels and have found a way to balance the rules with creativity. This author hopes that this balance continues as the accountability rules become more stringent.

Adrienne O’Neill is president of the Stark Education Partnership.

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