Standards-Based Education

Currently in education there is a lot of talk about standards-based education and the need for high standards. I will discuss in this column where that concept came from and how it has been distorted from its original use.

The idea of a standards-based educational system came from the work of Ted Sizer (1932–2009). In the early 1980s he was involved in a nationwide study of high schools that resulted in his book Horace’s Compromise (and later Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope). In Horace’s Compromise, Sizer describes the work of a typical teacher, and how no matter how willing, well-meaning, and hardworking, the teacher cannot meet the needs of the over hundred students he sees everyday, and how students by the same token cannot do deep quality work while jumping from one subject to another each with a different teacher and mostly sitting there being expected to soak up facts and concepts. In other words, the lack of real quality learning going on in schools was not the fault of teachers or students, but the design of the institution and the compromises teachers and students made with each other to survive in such an institution.

Sizer proposed that instead of students being rewarded for successfully passing a certain number of courses, and being in school a certain amount of time, they be required to demonstrate the knowledge and abilities of a successful high school student through some sort of performance assessment where students actually showed they could apply what they had learned. He also posited certain attributes that schools would need in order to carry out such an education. What came out of that directly from Sizer and likeminded educators was an organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools, which holds a set of ten common principles that schools doing such work adhere to. This organization supports schools in trying to make the changes to move toward applying these ideas. According to Sizer, how schools would measure this success, and how each school would carry out those principles in practice, needed to be locally decided.

This idea of Sizer’s that students should graduate by being measured against a set of standards rather than just seat time became popularized in the 1990s. However, in many ways the concept got turned on its head. For one thing, the term “standards” took on a new meaning from its usual everyday meaning of a level of quality. Instead “standards” became laundry lists of facts and concepts, both broad and discrete, to be learned, as well as levels of performance. These standards, rather than being locally decided as Sizer proposed, have been mandated by State authorities (and now we are moving to National mandates). In most states these laundry lists of standards are typically so long that one expert declared that it would take over 20 years if students were just exposed to the material for each standard, and much more if they were really expected to master them.

The other distortion is that meeting these standards is measured by standardized tests. Performance has come to mean not what Sizer had in mind—the ability to carry out real world tasks that used the knowledge and abilities that schools decided were important—but how one “performs” on a standardized test. These standardized tests are designed to test students’ recall of a random sample of what is on that laundry list of facts and concepts. High standards have come to mean high scores on such tests.

Sizer’s idea was that graduation by standards should free up schools to look and act differently, and free up students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways. The current practice of “standards” has meant the standardization of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of the students, as well as their teachers, schools, districts and states by the use of standardized tests.

So far there is no evidence that the current use of standardized curriculum and the high stakes use of standardized tests has improved the quality of education. The achievement gaps these so called reforms were to solve are as great or greater than before these changes. Graduation rates are overall no better, and we do not hear high school teachers claiming that students are coming in more prepared than they used to be. So far the only response the education establishment has offered to this lack of results is that we need more standardization, more tests, and higher stakes.

On the other hand, Sizer’s ideas of standards without standardization have also been tried out, at times with astounding success. One of the first schools to implement Sizer’s ideas was Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) a public school of choice in New York’s East Harlem. Deborah Meier, building on her work at Central Park East Elementary School, collaborated with Ted Sizer on how to meld his ideas and hers to develop a secondary school on the Coalition principles. They came up with a school where students studied fewer topics, and worked with fewer teachers more intensively. All faculty and administrators worked as advisors who stayed with students over time and met with their advisory group daily. Students took part in internships in real world professional settings. The standards of the school were upheld through a series of portfolios and defenses of those portfolios in front of a committee. Students graduated, not after a prescribed number of years or prescribed number of completed courses, but when they had successfully passed and defended those portfolios. The standards of Central Park East were built around certain “Habits of Mind” that the faculty believed were important in all facets of life and in all disciplines. To a large extent, the demonstration of the use of those habits was the rubric used to decide if the portfolio or defense of the work met the schools standards. The students of CPESS had success at graduating high school and going on to, as well as succeeding in, college far beyond their demographic equivalents in other public high schools in New York (see David Bensman’s fascinating book Central Park East and its Graduates which documents his study of CPESS alumni).

After CPESS, a whole network of such schools sprung up all over New York City, and to some extent nationwide. Schools such as Urban Academy, the International High Schools, the Met schools, High Tech High, and Boston Arts Academy, to name just a few, continue in this tradition of high standards without standardization, of depth of knowledge over coverage, and of the importance of relationships with students as essential to successful education. While each of these school looks very different, in each school one will see students who are passionately following their own interests while being held to a common set of high standards in a non-standardized curriculum. These schools have shown that they help students beat the odds in terms of graduation and getting into college. Even more importantly, these schools produce graduates with positive attitudes toward learning and their ability to shape their own futures and contribute to the larger society.


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