A SYSTEM OF HIGH STANDARDS: WHAT WE MEAN AND WHY WE NEED IT
The Four Essential Elements
1. Common Academic Standards
Common, publicly known standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.
Exams administered by the state that measure student progress toward the standards.
3. Explicit Rewards for Achievement
Incentives for students to work hard in school, such as eligibility for college and training programs and preference for hiring based on academic achievement.
4. Student Opportunity
A systematic effort to identify students who are not meeting the standards and provide them with early, effective assistance.
What We Can Do Now
1. Consistent Grading
Grading policies that reduce the current variation in what grades mean so that an "A" in one class has the same meaning as an "A" in the same subject/grade in any other class in the school.
2. Earned Promotions
A student promotion policy that ensures that only students who are ready for the next year's work are promoted and that students who are unprepared for the next grade get the specialized, intensive help that they need.
3. Challenging Courses
Challenging courses available for all students, and advanced courses available at all secondary schools, not just privileged ones.
4. Explicit Grade and Course Goals
Parents, students and teachers get a written explanation of what a given course or grade level expects of students.
5. Challenging Homework
Homework policies which ensure that all students will have the advantage of a high-quality, demanding homework load.
A System of High Standards: What We Mean and Why We Need It
The AFT has launched a national campaign on behalf of standards for student conduct and standards for student achievement. We believe that these two education reforms are fundamental and that without them no other school reforms can work.
But what do we mean when we say we need standards for student achievement? Do we simply mean that teachers should demand more from their students? That students should exert themselves more? Is it simply our schools' failure to expect enough from our students that has left our students undereducated?
We believe that everyone - parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers - must expect the best of students and act accordingly. But we don't believe that the highest possible standards can be achieved and maintained in schools (or anywhere else) simply by individuals acting on their own to do their best and to bring out the best in students.
In all walks of life, when quality really matters we put systems into place - with rules, practices, incentives, penalties, and supports - that help all of us to maintain high standards. We do so because we understand that individuals do their best, are the most productive, and reach higher goals when they are working in a system that supports their best efforts.
Take for example, an airline that desires a perfect safety record. The pilot plays a key role in this, but he cannot achieve perfect air safety unless a whole safety system is in place: Experts must set forth standards for what defines a safe plane. Mechanics must certify only planes that meet the standards. Supervisors must agree that the standards must be met - even if it means the plane will be late or the flight canceled and that passengers will complain. Diagnostic systems must be in place so that mechanics can identify problems before they become crises. The resources must be in place to solve the problems. Without this whole, supportive system, the airline will not realize excellent air safety, no matter how talented and conscientious the individuals on its staff.
In schools today, individual teachers strain tirelessly to help students reach their academic potential. But our schools have nothing to compare with the system of standards, monitoring and tough judgments by which pilots, mechanics and flight supervisors do their work. In many cases, the "system" - the rules, the culture, the incentives - works against top student performance. For example:
- Teachers who insist that students master challenging work by taking difficult exams, completing tough projects and doing lots of homework can find themselves under pressure to back off. In one extreme case, when Adele Jones, a Delaware teacher, failed a large number of the students in her algebra class, the school district tried to fire her. Nearly one-third of AFT teachers report feeling pressure to give higher grades than students' work deserves. Nearly half (46 percent) say they have experienced pressure to pass along to the next grade students who are not ready.
- When every teacher sets his or her own standards, those standards appear idiosyncratic and are therefore negotiable to students. Moreover, students will often regard more demanding teachers as gratuitously mean. After all, the teachers don't have to demand so much, so why else would they? Students then try to negotiate these teachers' standards down - by failing to do the homework, for example. Teachers are left to expend valuable time and energy swimming against the cultural tide, with no institutional support, trying to cajole students to meet high standards.
- Good grades were once the required currency for college admission, and a high school diploma was once a pretty good ticket to a decent job. But today good grades aren't necessary to enter most colleges and employers are reluctant to hire high school graduates for any but the most menial jobs.
What are the elements of a system that would enable educators to demand - and get - top academic performance from students? That would elicit the maximum effort from students so that they could reach their maximum academic potential? We believe that there are four essential elements: rigorous academic standards, assessments to measure student progress toward the standards, incentives for students to do the hard work that learning requires and opportunity for students to confront challenging material and receive extra help when they need it.
We present here these four elements, which are the bedrock of the world's most successful school systems and must constitute the foundation of a much reformed, improved American education system. We then offer examples of how these elements might look when implemented, and several steps that schools and school districts can take right now to shore up standards immediately as states enact the fuller systems.
I. The Four Essential Elements
Common, rigorous standards for academic achievement
The first essential element in effective school systems is the existence of academic standards at the national or state level. These specify what students need to learn - and how well they need to learn it - in each subject at each grade level. Students should be taught to the same standards in the early grades, but at some point, probably in high school, students will enter different educational programs on the basis of their achievement (not aptitude) and future aspirations. The curriculum will be different in each program, but standards will be high and challenging in all of them. And students who want to apply to change educational programs will have multiple opportunities to do so.
These common standards will enable teachers to provide students with consistent, coordinated instruction that builds on what students have learned in previous years. In contrast, teachers today face classrooms each fall filled with students who have mastered very different material and who have reached very different levels of achievement. Teachers must spend weeks and weeks determining what their students know and can do and weeks more bringing them to a common starting point.
Moreover, a single set of expectations for what students should learn also helps to reduce some of the pressures that work against academic rigor. Students won't be able to complain that their schoolmates get to study easier material or have to do less work.
Used as the basis for the system described below, common standards will nourish a culture of high expectations and empower teachers to maintain high standards. For common standards to support high achievement they should:
- be specific about what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that teachers will interpret them similarly. For example, a standard that calls for fourth-graders to "understand the processes of photosynthesis..." provides more direction than a standard that makes a vague call for students to "understand scientific processes."
- be set at the state level so that students transferring from district to district will arrive at their new schools prepared.
- be rigorous at all grade levels and in all educational programs in order to stretch students to reach their maximum potential.
The second essential element of our system is exams, administered by the state, that measure student progress toward the standards and that affect students' eligibility for such privileges as entry to college or technical schools.
Because these exams, and the rewards they elicit, will be tied to the classroom curriculum, students will know that they must study hard¾ not only in the year they take the exam but also in the grades leading up to that point. For this reason, where such exams exist abroad, peer pressure works in favor of high achievement. Students favor studying hard, because it will pay off for them; they exert pressure against "class clowns" because they see them as interfering with their chances to succeed.
Significantly, with these external exams, it is not the teacher who has decided what and how much the student must learn; it is the state or national government. The teacher is there to help the students meet these standards, much as a coach is there to help the Olympic athlete.
Explicit rewards for achievement
In all of the Asian and European school systems where student achievement is so high, secondary school students turn off the TV set and study diligently because they know that unless they pass their exams, they will not get into a college, technical institute or apprenticeship program. They may not even get a job because employers hire on the basis of school records. Students get more than one chance to pass the exams, but ultimately the standards must be met.
In the U.S., academic achievement offers far less pay-off. For most students, there is a college willing to take them, no matter what courses they took, no matter what their grades. Employers may care about whether or not a student has received a high school diploma, but they don't ask what grades students received or whether students earned those grades in the most basic courses or the most advanced.
Given the lack of reward for academic effort, it's hardly a wonder that students who study hard are derided by their peers for their unnecessary exertion and treated as social outcasts. Learning complicated material requires diligent studying and constant practice, which most students won't undertake unless there are clear, significant incentives for doing so. Incentives should include access to higher education, training, and jobs, but should also include more immediate rewards, such as prestigious citations, special trips, and scholarships - and more immediate consequences, such as required summer and weekend catch-up classes (which would also signal students that they might as well learn the material the first time, since eventually they will have to learn it).
Opportunity for students to reach the standards
When you establish clear goals for student achievement, and then attach rewards for students who meet those goals (and negative consequences for those who don't), you create powerful incentives for young people to work hard and do well in school. But still some students will struggle and fall behind, even some who work hard.
Most teachers spend time before or after school or at free moments during the day helping students who are struggling with their school work. But they are typically all alone in their efforts to help those students succeed. Students who are trying to succeed need more structured, formal opportunities to receive timely, effective supplemental instruction.
Without standards in place, it's easy for students to be passed along from grade to grade, falling further and further behind and never receiving the help they need. Once standards are in place, the emphasis can be on early identification of learning problems. Teachers can assess whether students are reaching the set standard with standardized diagnostic tests or other tools. Resources - tutors, instructional materials that use different pedagogical techniques, additional time, guides that enable parents to help students at home - can then be made available in order to systematically provide the extra, effective instruction the students need. Once rewards and consequences are in place, students will be more motivated to take advantage of the resources. For example, schools could make available summer school programs where students would not just mark time but struggle to master the material in order to pass a necessary exam.
II. What would this mean in practice?
What we've offered here is a set of elements essential to creating a system that can help students reach their academic potential. We haven't offered a blueprint for how the elements should be realized in practice. For example, at what age would students take the external exams, what rewards for high achievement would they earn, and how would they be provided the opportunity to catch up if they were falling behind? To give a sense of the variety of ways in which these elements can be implemented, we offer these four suggestive vignettes, from schools, school systems and other countries.
- In France, virtually all students take the same challenging, liberal arts curriculum through grade 9 (There is no ability grouping and no tracking for these students.) After grade 9, students can choose among a variety of specialized secondary school programs, some academic, some academic/ vocational. The academic programs include rigorous academic courses and end with college entry exams that must be passed in order to attend any college. The vocational programs include half time in a full range of academic courses and half time in vocational courses; to graduate from secondary school, students must pass academic and vocational exams. The result is that all students must work at their academic studies; all students end up with earned certificates that are highly regarded by employers, technical schools or universities. Although high school graduation requirements are so much higher than in the U.S., graduation rates are higher than here.
- In Japan, all elementary students take the same curriculum; there are no ability groups in reading or math and students are not assigned to classes based on ability. Because the curriculum is very specific and it is clear what students are supposed to know and be able to do, when students are falling behind, it is immediately apparent. Teachers' days are structured so that they have time during the day to individually tutor the students who need help. And in many cases, parents will enroll their children in special after-school programs where students can receive the instruction they need to catch up with their class.
- In New York State, all students have the option of taking "Regents" (college-preparatory-level) courses during their secondary years and then taking Regents exams before they graduate. Students who do pass the exams will have this noted on their diplomas for all to see, and New York's state university system gives preference to students who score well on Regents exams. New York is the only state in which a large number of high school graduates participate in a curriculum-based examination system. The system works; notably, when you control for family income, parental education, race and gender, New York has the highest average SAT scores of any state.
- At the Barclay School in Baltimore, Maryland, where virtually all of the students receive free lunches, teachers use a very specific, challenging curriculum. (It is the same curriculum used by the prestigious, private Calvert School, whose students come from much wealthier families.) After four years of using this curriculum, reading scores which had been under the 30th percentile are now at or above the 50th. A research report indicates that the basis for the terrific improvement is the very specific curriculum. As in Japan, the specific curriculum makes it possible to quickly identify students who need extra help. Plus, it enables teachers to devise, share and institutionalize the most effective ways of teaching each part of the curriculum.
III. What to Do Now
Enacting a system based on these elements will require tremendous input from educators and the public and will require action by state legislatures, state school boards, school districts, state university systems, private colleges and business. As the system is being put into place, what steps can be taken right now to shore up standards in our schools today? Are there initiatives that individual school faculties can undertake? Steps that we can encourage our school districts to take that don't require prior state action? Yes. We urge action in the following five arenas.
Why: Today, in most schools, a teacher's grade represents only one teacher's judgment of what an "A," a "B" or a "C" means; teachers differ about how much and how well students must do in order to earn a given grade, and they differ about such issues as how much weight "effort" should carry relative to achievement. So, when students or parents ask to have a grade changed, a teacher (or principal or district office) has little defense because there is no commonly accepted grading standard to point to. Moreover, the grading practices of the "easy grader" down the hall can undermine other teachers' efforts to give high grades only for top work.
To add to the problem, grades may be based on a curve - determined by the relative performance of students within the class, not each student's actual mastery of the material. Students know that by doing well they will "wreck the curve" and cause everyone else (including their friends) to get low grades; peer pressure encourages students to withhold their best efforts. By contrast, when grades are based on objective criteria and absolute mastery, everyone has an incentive to excel.
What: Once we have common standards established at the state level and exams that measure student progress towards them, there will be a common "anchor" for teacher grades. But now we can do the following to protect the integrity of teacher grading decisions and to make grades a powerful tool in promoting a culture of high standards and achievement.
- Teachers who teach the same subject and grade in a given school should arrange to consult regularly in order to standardize the criteria they use to grade student work (e.g. effort, improvement, writing quality, subject mastery...) and agree upon the quality of student work that will merit a given grade.
- Through such discussions, school staffs could agree to base student grades on what students have actually learned, not on a curve. In some schools, this could require a modification of a districtwide policy.
- Where they don't already, school staffs could agree to report separate grades for academic achievement and other achievements such as "effort," "conduct" and "improvement."
Why: Most teachers encounter intense pressure from parents and administrators not to fail students, whether or not they have mastered the material for a particular grade. Often teachers themselves believe it is unfair to hold kids back when other students in other classes or schools who have learned even less are passed on. And teachers recognize that simply repeating a grade is unlikely to improve the student's achievement.
But social promotion sends an awful message to students - that they can get by (and stay with their friends) without learning anything. Plus, it is unfair to the students in the next grade whose education is held back as teachers try to help the students who are unprepared for grade-level work.
What: We recommend that the following steps be taken. Where possible, schools should adopt these practices; in some cases, it may require the support of the school district.
- Eliminate arbitrary mandates for promotion such as capping the number of students who can be retained in a given grade or by only allowing students to be held back in certain grades and not others.
- Grant teachers the authority to promote and retain students based on grading criteria that reflect student mastery and are based on commonly adopted standards within the school. These decisions should not be subject to reversal by principals or other administrators.
- Provide intensive tutoring or special, high-quality instructional programs for students who are in danger of being retained or who have been retained.
Why: The evidence is clear that students learn more when they take more advanced courses. But too often, students are not required (or even encouraged) to take the more advanced courses that they could handle, and too often the advanced courses aren't even offered, especially in rural and inner-city high schools. We recommend that schools and districts move toward the following:
- Secondary schools should offer advanced courses in each of the core academic subjects; these courses could be offered through the Advanced Placement program. In South Carolina, a new state law that requires every high school to offer at least one Advanced Placement course and that pays students' AP fees has meant the number of AP exams taken in the state's public schools has quadrupled in 10 years¾ from about 3,000 to about 12,000.
- High school transcript practices should be reviewed to ensure that students who take hard courses are not penalized. For example, GPAs should be calculated in a way that gives extra weight to advanced courses and diplomas could carry a special endorsement if a certain number of advanced courses, were taken.
- School staffs and parents could lobby the school board to raise high school graduation requirements. Recently, New York City began requiring all high school students to take three years of Regents (college-prep)-level courses in both math and science. As a result, 21,000 more ninth-graders took and passed Regents level science courses last year.
- Elementary schools should review the curriculum that is offered to students in less advanced reading and math groups. While students don't learn best when they are overwhelmed with overly difficult material, there is abundant evidence that students in the lowest reading and math groups often lack access to sufficiently challenging material.
Explicit Grade and Course Goals
Why: Parents, students and teachers all need a clear picture of what a given course or grade level expects of students. Presently what constitutes success or mastery is so variable as to be meaningless. Third- grade math in one school may be second-grade math in another and fifth-grade math in yet another. Parents have little to guide them on how to help their children or to confirm the successful completion of relevant homework. Students drift without a firm sense of what they need to learn at the beginning, middle and end of a course.
- Schools should provide parents annually with a written statement describing what students are expected to master at each grade level in core subjects.
- At the secondary level, descriptions should explain each course, including its content and the skills anticipated with successful completion.
- Specific times for reports, consultations and report cards should be provided to parents at the beginning of the school year, along with an explanation of exactly what the reports and meetings mean and how parents can use the results to motivate their children.
Why: Studies show, not surprisingly, that students who do homework learn more. Homework in effect expands the school day, allowing students more practice with the material while freeing class time for more direct instruction. It also helps build self-discipline and independent work habits. When the homework load is not coordinated among teachers, the result can be too much homework (particularly at the secondary level where a student has many teachers) leading to pressure for less. Or the result can be that teachers assign uneven amounts, often leading to pressure on the more demanding teachers to lighten their assignments in order that their students not be subjected to an "unfair" amount of work.
We recommend the following:
- Establish a common homework policy for the school. Elementary teachers who teach the same grade may agree to assign comparable amounts of homework. Secondary teachers may need to coordinate their assignments so that students get a healthy dose, but not an overwhelming amount, of work each night.
- Communicate the homework policy to parents. If parents know how much work their children should be bringing home, they will be better positioned to make sure it gets done.
Homework should be well-designed, offering both practice in what's already been taught and a chance for students to go beyond the classroom instruction. Assignments should not depend on resources that students may not have access to.