Standards-Based Reform and Accountability: Getting It Right

In a survey of AFT teachers last year, two-thirds said the No Child Left Behind law was having a negative effect on public education. But, by the same two-thirds margin, they said they wanted the law fixed, not scrapped. Likewise, in a 2002 poll, two-thirds of AFT teachers said standards-based reform and accountability is the "right approach for improving education, but there must be improvements in the way it is carried out."

What needs fixing? And why, despite the problems, is there a continued commitment to standards-based reform and accountability? These questions are the focus of this issue of American Educator.

The idea of standards-based education promised high educational standards and a common, equitable curriculum for all kids; tests that measured progress toward the standards; special attention for children struggling to reach the standards; instructional materials and professional development based on the curriculum (bringing the quality of our educational system in line with those of other high-achieving countries); and an accountability system that targeted resources and attention where they were most needed. As Texas Federation of Teachers President John Cole notes in our first article, school systems unhampered by public standards and accountability can—like other institutions—act neglectfully, especially toward the least advantaged.

But, for reasons explained by authors Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky, inadequate tests, and accountability based on them, have often gotten dangerously out in front of the other elements of standards-based reform, threatening the very educational quality we're trying to build; the authors outline the attention that must be paid to the lagging pieces. As Roger Shattuck observes in his article, many communities still don't have curricula worthy of the name. And, as Richard Elmore notes, most school districts still barely understand, much less have addressed, the huge challenge of building faculty and school capacity to dramatically lift student achievement. We have no systematic way to make sure that what's known about good instruction gets to all teachers—and no systematic way to learn what we don't yet know. As for accountability, Nancy Kober explains why the adequate yearly progress formula in NCLB can (and increasingly will) identify the wrong schools as failing.

But for all the undone work and broken promises, there have been notable successes. And the new visibility of test results, which make brilliantly clear just how far behind our poorest students are, may be finally galvanizing a new understanding of just how much harder it is to bring children from poor schools to high proficiency levels—and, therefore, how much better, and better supported, these schools need to be than other schools.

Case in point: States, under their own constitutions, are typically responsible for providing their children with an adequate education—but time and again, they've battled in courts to define "adequate education" at a low level. Now, public test results showing low achievement, especially among poor students, are forcing states to grapple more seriously with what it takes to offer a decent education. The National Council of State Legislatures' recent report on No Child Left Behind acknowledged that to meet the goal of the law—to bring poor children in particular to the required achievement levels—substantial new investments will be necessary to, among other things, build teacher capacity, intervene with struggling students, and increase access to early childhood education.

The understanding that educating our poorest, furthest behind students will require enormous work and resources has been hard to come by. But it may be spreading, largely thanks to the standards and accountability movement. AFT teachers are right: There's lots of fixing to do to get it right, but standards-based education is worth the effort.


American Educator, Spring 2005