Standards-Based Reform Brings New Attention to Educational Necessities

Standards-based reform and accountability have helped bring focus and attention to key elements necessary for improved student achievement, especially among poor and minority students in schools with the lowest levels of student achievement.

Investment in early childhood education is up: Poor children come to school already far behind their middle-class peers (NCES, 2001). Policymakers who want to raise standards and require students to pass tests for promotion or graduation have realized that they will have to invest more heavily in quality early childhood experiences. State expenditures on early childhood education have increased from $267 million in 1988 to $2.54 billion (in constant dollars) in 2002–2003 (Barnett, 2005; Barnett et al., 2004). Unfortunately, as states face financial problems, they often cut these very programs.

Investment in early reading is up: Likewise, there's a growing understanding that students will not meet increased high school graduation standards unless they've received excellent early reading instruction. In the last two decades, enormous advances have been made in defining effective reading instruction. First under President Clinton, with the Reading Education Act, and now under President Bush, with $1 billion in 2005 for the Reading First Act, the federal government is bringing the new knowledge to the nation's teachers. Many states (Texas, Maryland, California, Ohio, and Florida among them) have beefed-up their own investments in reading as well.

Lawsuits requiring adequate funding are increasingly successful: For the 15 years from 1973 until 1988, only seven of 22 such lawsuits were victorious—but since 1989, 19 out of 29 have been successful (Vock, 2004). According to Michael Rebell (2004), executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, "It is not a coincidence that the implementation of standards-based reforms and the accelerating plaintiff successes in the education adequacy litigations have occurred almost simultaneously since 1989.... [T]he new state standards for defining and assessing educational achievement have provided courts with judicially manageable criteria for implementing workable remedies in cases where the courts have invalidated state education finance systems."

Public confidence in schools is rebounding: In the eighties, confidence in public schools was low, according to the annual surveys published in Phi Delta Kappan magazine. In 1983, 31 percent of survey respondents gave their local public schools an "A" or "B" (White, 1983); in 1998, it was up to 62 percent (Rose and Gallup, 1998); and in 2002, it was up to 71 percent (Rose and Gallup, 2002). According to Public Agenda, which has tracked public views of education for over a decade, "surveys suggest that attitudes about local public schools have actually improved from 1998–2002—at least in the academic arena. Both professors and employers are less likely to say that local schools ask too little of students" (Johnson et al., 2003).

Teacher frustration with lax academic standards has greatly decreased: Polls of AFT teachers conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in the early nineties showed significant dissatisfaction with low standards, including, for example, 46 percent of teachers saying that in 1994, they felt pressure to "pass students on to the next grade who really are not ready"; in the same poll, nearly one-third (30 percent) felt pressure to "give higher grades than students' work deserves" and to "reduce the difficulty and amount of work you assign." But that's changing. Between 1994 and 2002, Hart's polls found that the percentage of AFT teachers who believed that academic standards were too low dropped dramatically—from 51 percent to just 23 percent. (At the same time, there is increasing dissatisfaction with aspects of reform, including the number of tests given and the time devoted to test preparation.)

More struggling students are receiving special interventions: Where states and cities have established clear proficiency standards for promotion to the next grade and for graduation, there has often been a flow of resources and attention to providing interventions for struggling students. In Chicago, for example, when social promotion was ended, the school district created after-school and summer programs (with small classes of about 16 and a specially developed curriculum) for the thousands of students who were in danger of being retained (Roderick et al., 2003). In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, low-achieving students may be assigned to smaller classes, special tutoring, double doses of reading or math, or afterschool or summer programs (Snipes et al., 2002).

Similar efforts are in place in states such as Virginia and Massachusetts, where students must pass exams to graduate from high school. In Massachusetts, for example, in 2001, just 68 percent of all students—and only 37 percent of black students—passed (on their first try, as sophomores) newly required high school exit tests in math and English. The state, school districts, and non-profit groups have worked to provide failing students with intensive assistance to master the content included in these tests. By the time these students were seniors (in 2003), 95 percent, including 88 percent of blacks, passed both tests (Achieve, 2004). But the state resources for these special assistance programs have recently declined, leading advocacy groups to argue for more resources for pre-K, afterschool, and other programs. Further, according to AFT's Making Standards Matter report (2001), half of states either didn't require or didn't fund interventions for failing students.

The Center on Education Policy (2005) found that among school districts with schools that failed to make AYP, 99 percent (according to district self-reports) were providing "extra or more intensive instruction to low-achieving students"; 84 percent were providing "before- or after-school, weekend, or summer programs"; and 48 percent were hiring "additional teachers to reduce class size."

Across the country, the students getting these extra services are the very students who, absent these accountability requirements, were neglected in the past. However, according to CEP, just 20 percent of districts with the neediest students say they have adequate money to assist schools identified for improvement under AYP.

Knowledge about improving achievement in low-performing schools is growing: The standards movement's clear focus on achievement is pushing new investments in researching the effectiveness of specific curricula and is also spawning a great deal of new knowledge about how to help specific schools improve themselves. Examples include the press for schools to use research-based methods (exemplified by the U.S. Department of Education's recently established Institute of Education Sciences), some states' formation of school assistance teams (like the ones that North Carolina created in 1997–98), the research community's drive to develop replicable models for comprehensive school reform (see, for example, the Catalog of School Reform Models at, and some think tanks and associations' attempts to distribute reliable information on school improvement research (such as the RAND Corporation's Promising Practices Network, online at



Beaton, A.E., Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Gonzalez, E.J., Kelly, D.L., and Smith, T.A. (1996). Mathematics Achievement in the Middle School Years: IEA's Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Boston, Mass.

Grissmer, D., Flanagan, A., Kawata, J., and Williamson, S. (2000). Improving Student Achievement: What State NAEP Test Scores Tell Us. Santa Monica, Calif.:RAND Corporation.

Grissmer, D. and Flanagan, A. (1998). Exploring Rapid Achievement Gains in North Carolina and Texas: Lessons from the States. Washington, D.C.: National Education Goals Panel.

Office of Educational Research and Improvement (January 1994). "What Do Students' Grades Mean? Differences Across Schools." Office of Research, Education Research Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

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American Educator, Spring 2005