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Does America Have Education Standards?

Van Schoales is the president of A+ Colorado, and the go-to on Colorado education policy and politics. He has more than 30 years of experience in education advocacy and analysis. Before his tenure at A+ Colorado began, he taught high school science and founded a number of nonprofits, including the Odyssey School, the Denver School of Science and Technology, and Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. Van will be writing about education standards, whether early-childhood-education programs deliver, and Denver's closely-watched and very expensive school board election.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the historic meeting of 49 governors to discuss the state of American education and launch the education standards movement. The United States remains one of the only industrialized nations without a set of national standards, and maybe that's OK. 

This despite the sweat and tears of educators across this country who have tried to get us closer to having a clear set of expectations about what students should know and be able to do. 

I have been there from the start of this rough road. I have vivid memories of spending most of my weekends in 1989 listening to Lou Reed while designing course standards and student projects and grading student work related to these standards. Many of my more cynical, and wiser, colleagues shook their heads at how much trouble I would go through to assess what students knew and could do when our K-12 system was designed to march students through to the next course based on seat time, rather than their readiness for what was next.

It was hard work to build a new school while running the old school. We had spurts of innovation when kids worked on projects related to their passions or real-world learning that used some common standards, but, in the end, we were pulled back into the gravitational pull of the seven-period day with traditional Carnegie Units.

The most recent reading NAEP shows that 37 percent of high school seniors are reading at grade level, yet most of them graduate with a high school diploma. While all students, including students of color and low-income students, have made some progress over the last three decades, the gains have been marginal.

Education reformers have tried to pivot from a public education system based on time to a system based on standards and competency, with the expectation that more students would reach higher levels of achievement and fewer would be passed on without the habits, skills, or knowledge to perform at the next level.

A few communities have had some remarkable progress in terms of developing schools or programs that built backwards from a set of standards. Programs like Summit or Big Picture Learning use electronic portfolios, internships, and standards-based graduation. The problem is that far too many schools still look nearly exactly the same as they did in 1989 with the exception of technology.

Unfortunately, at the state level, where most of the standards movement has been focused, there has been little significant progress as measured by NAEP and other state tests. For example, my state, Colorado, which is often in the middle of the national pack on academic performance, has 35 percent of students unprepared for higher education or work according to the Colorado Department of Education. These 19,000 Colorado students received high school diplomas last year in spite of not being ready for college or work.

We will pay significantly more for job training, remedial education, and countless other areas because our graduates do not have the basic knowledge or skills to thrive in our society.  

To move forward, we must reflect on where we've been and why the standards movement fizzled:

  • A political misread by reformers of the power of local control. Presidents and governors seem to forget that America does not have a national or even a 50-state education system. We have a system of nearly 14,000 school districts that have enormous control over teachers, budgets, and programs. 
  • A desire to scale standards too quickly. Policymakers and funders tend to find a handful of exemplars and then want to apply the successful outliers to all others, without truly understanding what has made these outliers successful. Not surprisingly, this resulted in poor implementation and angered educators or community members who felt that standards were driven from D.C. rather than their local communities. 
  • Testing companies have over promised and underdelivered. Recall the promise of Smarter Balanced and PARCC to make a quantum change in how students would be assessed on what they know and can do. Many of these assessments may be marginally better than previous state tests, but they mostly rely on simplistic multiple-choice-type questions. It is also worth mentioning that the tests have changed over time, making it hard to sometimes make comparisons and meaning much of the data in Colorado remains masked.

In some ways, American public education has the worst of both worlds: weak state or federal control of schools combined with a lack of capacity or motivation at the local level to innovate despite their legal power to do so.

So how to move forward in 2020 and beyond?

We must embrace the benefits of local control rather than fight it. It's time to encourage and support teachers, school boards, and school leaders to make change and effective schools. Let local policymakers set their own standards, build truly competency-based schools, evaluate how they are working, and stop worrying whether the whole state is moving toward a true standards-based system next year. Let's start with schools and school districts and then build back toward states.

We must improve our focus on a fewer number of standards and build better ways to assess student progress on those standards. We should stick to reading, writing, and math (most of us can agree on these in contrast to other content areas). 

And let's make sure our states provide far more information about schools that includes, but goes beyond, the simple bubble-test assessments. We need to know how students experience school and how they do in higher education and work while also doing analysis into why some schools or districts are doing better than others. 

And let's return to a time 20 years ago when there was far more hope for developing innovative schools that had strong links to community. Much of this work was driven by teachers, school leaders, and local school boards. There were bold starts along with massive failures, but we got new models and effective schools that supported competency and demonstrations of learning rather than the acquisition of seat time.

While it will be difficult to do, it is not that complicated. Philanthropists, states, and the federal government need to return to making investments over the long haul in new schools and models of learning with a heavy investment in research regarding competency-based learning.

It is time to refocus on building competency-based schools and programs that really work over time rather than trying to force scaling across a state with top-down laws that end in superficial changes in policy and no change in student outcomes.

— Van Schoales

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