Raising the Bar: The Promise of Standards-Based Education Reform

Raising the Bar: The Promise of Standards-Based Education Reform
Raising the Bar: The Promise of Standards-Based Education Reform


The standards-based movement has had some time to develop in state and federal education policy and has come under fire from various critics along the way. In this forum, two proponents, Marc Tucker, co-director of the New Standards project and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and Patricia Harvey, superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools, MN, have come to respond to the critics and reflect on the current status of the standards-based movement.


Forum Brief

According to Marc Tucker, there are three principal sources of the standards movement. First, in 1990, a report was released, America’s Choice: high skills, low wages in which research was done in Japan, Denmark, Singapore and Germany to look at the common characteristics of high performing education systems. Each country has a Ministry of Education that organizes a process of producing standards for academic subjects as well as a system of assessments that are intimately tied to the standards. There is a standard curriculum that all students take, no exceptions. Teacher training in these countries reflects the standards, the assessments, the curriculum framework and instructional materials—producing a highly aligned system. The second impetus for standards is that as our economy has become more globally connected, many Americans have become dissatisfied with the education system and believe that it has not been performing well enough so that our children can be competitive in the world market. Third, the business world demands that employees on the front line have skills, knowledge, schooling and information needed to get the job done. America, while admiring high performing educational systems in other countries, lacks a Ministry of Education, or a national office that performs the same functions. Here, as Tucker asserts, there is no standard standard or standard curriculum that runs coast to coast; the states do not do this, nor do the districts.

Tucker described the key components to a standards-based school system. To work properly, the standards movement needs to have recognized, internationally-benchmarked standards that are fully aligned with curriculum, assessment, curriculum maps and instructional materials. Other components include aligned teacher training; school autonomy, especially concerning budget, program and staff; investment in staff; support from the district management to assist the schools in their implementation of the standards; and a supportive school design to help schools run efficiently.

What can kill the standards-movement? “The standards movement will flounder if we can’t get a growing consensus in the country that what we need is standards that strike a reasonable balance among skills, conceptual development and problem solving,” says Tucker. “We have standards in almost every state in America, but they are, in many ways, flawed.” Very few states have standards that are designed so that they can guide the way teachers develop and implement curriculum. “What good are standards that can’t guide curriculum?” says Tucker. “If the curriculum is not linked [to the standards], there is little a teacher can do to use it to guide students toward the standard.” In schools across the country there are standards that are too high and too low. For instance, most states, by Tucker’s analysis, have standards that are set at the eighth grade, basic skills level, a much lower benchmark than what he is talking about for the standards movement. The only morally acceptable goal, asserts Tucker, is to prepare students to enter higher education without the need for remedial courses.

Assessments that are not matched to standards have a negative impact. “Assessment on the cheap,” says Tucker, is also a problem. Expect good tests to cost money, he advises. If we want a good assessment we’re going to have resolve to invest in it. Also, schools need curriculum maps. Otherwise, they are forced to purchase textbooks that offer much more peripheral knowledge beyond what teachers need for lessons that are aligned to the standards.

There is a great need for autonomy and responsibility at the school level. School principals still do not have much control over staffing, program or budget. “It’s hard to hold them accountable when they don’t have control over the things that matter most,” says Tucker. Attitudes to teacher quality and pay must change. Connecticut has seen a payoff in their investment of pay and investment in quality teachers. Investment in school leadership is also needed. Rewards and consequences in many states are set very high. “Set the bar high and allow time to get there. Do not set rewards and consequences for faculty only, set this for students as well,” says Tucker.

Tucker responded to a few common arguments from critics of the standards movement. The standards agenda reduces great teaching. “I don’t think so, I think bad tests do that,” says Tucker. “Alfie Kohn [author of The Schools Our Children Deserve] wasn’t talking about the Advanced Placement tests. Right? We’ve had those tests for years and years and nobody’s made that complaint.” The standards agenda reduces the curriculum. “Oh, I don’t think so. Bad standards do that. If you’ve got standards that are essentially trivial then you will drive out good teaching and good curriculum.” Standards operate to close opportunities for low-income and minority students. “What the standards have done is to focus attention as never before on the kids who are not making it. We have never had summer school programs and after-school programs on the scale we have them now, and we have them because of the standards movement,” says Tucker.

Patricia Harvey brought a successful career in Chicago Public Schools and as a director at the National Center on Education and the Economy to her position as superintendent with Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. Her school district is extremely diverse with a population breakdown of 37 percent White, 30 percent Asian, 23 percent African-American, and 8.2 percent Hispanic. Harvey offers many examples of how standards have benefited her district’s diverse student body. She explained that a lot of work was done towards standards-based education from the state level to the district level before her arrival as superintendent. The city decided to take advantage of the coming of a new superintendent to expand their vision to include the development of a standards-based education system. Stakeholders in public education were brought together to develop strategies to bring all students to higher standards, and the plan to become standards-based was to involve city, business and community leaders. Through a roundtable meeting of city and business leaders, a list of five major areas of work was created: Develop a plan for preparing all students for life; provide clear and accurate reporting so that everyone knows what the plan is and can participate; engage the public; create institutional change; and respect and include all cultures and differences.

Harvey’s plan, for her first year as superintendent is to focus on one standard that the entire city can support: All students must read 25 books per year. “We decided to use literacy because it was a key skill for everything.” The city is a partner in the standards movement, as are libraries and businesses. Harvey explains, “In order for all of us to reach high standards, its going to take all of us.” Lawson Software, a Saint Paul computer company developed a system to track books that students read. Every student has been encouraged to sign onto the program, and when a student’s list of books begins to build, a letter is generated from the mayor, the governor or from the business community to offer them encouragement towards their goal of reading 25 books. Billboards have been placed throughout Saint Paul that show support for the reading standard. Harvey has concentrated her time on “getting everybody working together on this standard.” The Junior League, in support of the district’s reading standard, created a program that collected used books from the curbs of residential homes, resulting in over 80,000 books collected for public school libraries. Target Stores, Disney and other businesses have given the district over 20,000 books. When the district’s classrooms were filled with books, Harvey turned her attentions to the training of primary teachers to support their ability to teach reading effectively. The district coordinated with United Way organizations, the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA and others to work with schools to improve literacy. As a result of this collaborative teamwork, students have read over one million books. “It takes a whole community, all of us working together around standards,” says Harvey. The district’s focus for this spring is to raise expectations, not just for kids, but for faculty, administration, parents, businesses and the community. “In our second year, we’re going to change the focus to student work,” she adds. Each student will demonstrate four pieces of writing. The district will continue from there to do the “deep work” that gets all Saint Paul public schools involved in standards-based education. “Standards are the key–standards for all kids, and we can get the job done,” says Harvey.

This brief for this forum, held on February 25, 2000 on Capitol Hill, was written by Sarah S. Pearson.

Patricia Harvey


Saint Paul Public Schools

360 Colborne Street

Saint Paul, MN 55102-3299




Marc Tucker


National Center on Education and the Economy

700 Eleventh Street, NW, Suite 750

Washington, DC 20001



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