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"The Standards Movement in Education: Will Poor and Minority Students Benefit?,"

by Anne Wheelock & Jo-Anne Wilson Keenan May/June 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Most students, whether rich or poor, have probably never heard of the "standards movement," but it won't be long before they and their current teachers are caught up in a web of policies grounded in a national movement in education toward defining "what all students should know and be able to do" with that knowledge. Both the U.S. Department of Education's "Goals 2000" document and the new federal Title I legislation require states to develop such standards for student learning, and currently most states are busily engaged in crafting "curriculum frameworks" that reflect these standards.

In a number of states - Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts among them - controversy has emerged over the emphasis and content of the standards and frameworks. However, for the most part, states have worked without fanfare, drawing from standards developed by respected national professional associations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Center for History in the Schools, among others, to define the content of teaching in math, science, English/Language Arts, and History/Social Studies. While not uniform, the emerging state standards indicate a seriousness of purpose about educating all children, guiding schools to move away from worksheet activities toward learning for understanding, reasoning, problem-solving and communicating.

In many ways, the promise of this work for poor and minority students is compelling. In schools where "discrimination by expectation" is the norm, where white students benefit from the expectation that their futures involve classroom success leading to post-secondary education while African American and Latino students lose through the silent judgment of their teachers that they are not "college material," academic standards can establish a commitment to high expectations for all students. Academic standards also have the potential to expand access to challenging content and to distribute opportunities to learn "valued knowledge" to all students, regardless of race or class. In this way, standards can signal that the "dead end" courses in which too many poor, African American and Latino students find themselves are simply obsolete.

Opportunity to Learn or Sorting to Fail?

The hope of the "standards movement" is that standards can be a tool for realizing equal opportunity in education. But it is far from clear that policy-makers at the national or state level are prepared to use standards in this way. The question is simple: Will standards be used to promote equity and opportunity in our schools, or will they become new means of sorting and labeling the most vulnerable students away from the educational mainstream and meaningful learning and from the chances for life success that they offer?

One troubling sign came from President Clinton in his 1997 State of the Union address. Endorsing the movement for educational standards, Clinton called for a national test of all fourth graders in reading and eighth graders in mathematics. The President linked this proposal with a declaration favoring an end to "social promotion." With this proposal, Clinton joined with many local educators and policy-makers who voice their beliefs that high failure rates are evidence of high standards, and that students must work harder for the "reward" of grade promotion.

Those who tout grade-retention as a means of helping students achieve higher standards often do not realize that this practice is not only harmful, but that it is a harm schools already visit upon millions of students. In 1988, 28,233 students were recommended for grade retention in Massachusetts alone. Massachusetts is unusual in that it has gathered and reported grade retention statistics; most states don't even collect non-promotion data.

Yet non-promotions rarely help these students succeed. Researchers have repeatedly found that students retained in grade, compared to a matched group who were promoted, do not benefit from a second year in grade; in addition, they are far more likely to drop out of school once they reach high school. In the early grades, grade retention, along with placement in special education or low-reading groups, is a major sorting mechanism, separating children from their age-appropriate peers and setting students up for repeat non-promotions and low-level track placement in the later grades. In a recent Johns Hopkins study, for example, researchers found that two-thirds of the students who repeated first grade were in low-level English in sixth grade, compared to one-third of their matched peers who had not been retained in first grade.

What's more, the harm is felt disproportionately by African American and Latino students, and by students in large urban districts. For example, data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study indicate that by the time students reach the end of eighth grade, nearly one out of five has repeated a grade; however, more than one out of three low-income students has experienced at least one retention. In Massachusetts, where data on non-promotion are collected as a result of the state's Education Reform Act of 1985, grade retention rates for African American and Latino students are three times the rate for White students, and these students are retained early and often in their school careers. In "majority-minority" districts like Savannah or Philadelphia, half the ninth graders may fail to be promoted. These same students account for the high dropout rates in these and similar districts.

Any citizen, then, who cares about educational equity and opportunity should be wary of equating "standards" with testing mechanisms -whether a national test or state assess-ment - that will result in increased non-promotions for students. The specter of millions of children retained in grade demands persistent local advocacy for alternatives to policies that rely on grade retention as evidence of high standards. That this harmful practice is experienced disproportionately by poor and minority students suggests that non-promotion data should be gathered, monitored and
reported by all states, with data disaggregated by race and grade.

Standards as a Tool to
Reinforce the Status Quo

The standards movement further reneges on its promise when states translate standards into curriculum frameworks that reinforce the status quo, elevate certain knowledge to a level of official approval and render poor, African American and Latino students invisible in the curriculum. English/Language Arts standards that call for more reading of "better" books create an aura of rigor, but if the frameworks fail to address the need for multicultural content, many students will remain on the periphery, perceiving school as another world, another culture.

The handwriting is already on The wall. Just prior to the January approval, the writers of the Massachusetts English/Language Arts Framework added two appendices of recommended books. Appendix A determines "a core list of those authors and illustrators or works that comprise the literary and intellectual capital drawn on by those who write in English, whether for novels, poems, newspapers, or public speeches, in this country or elsewhere." Appendix B, which was added in response to a public outcry about the lack of diversity in the first list, includes the works of contemporary authors and illustrators from around the world. Labeling the lists Appendix A and Appendix B suggests that the authors, illustrators, Selections and cultures represented on the H list are inferior to those on the A list. The splitting of the lists marginalizes children whose lives and heritages are represented as being of secondary importance in the literature selections.

Living within the
Pedagogy of Poverty

Likewise, History/Social Studies frameworks can confuse more stuff- facts, dates, requirements that students "identify" this or "name" that with more challenging curriculum. Martin Haberman, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, labels such practices the "pedagogy of poverty. Haberman identifies 14 specific acts that traditionally constitute the core functions of urban teaching: giving information, asking questions, giving directions, making assignments, monitoring seatwork, reviewing assignments, giving tests, reviewing tests, assigning homework, reviewing homework, sealing disputes, punishing noncompliance, marking papers and giving grades.

There are times when any one of these activities might have a beneficial effect, but, Haberman writes, "taken together and performed to the systematic exclusion of other acts, they do not work." This pedagogy of poverty is "sufficiently powerful to undermine the implementation of any reform effort because it detainees the way pupils spend their time, the nature of the behaviors they practice, and the bases of their self concepts as learners. Essentially, it is a pedagogy in which learners can 'succeed' without becoming either involved or thoughtful."

The Standards of Progressive Schools and Teachers

Progressive teachers, however, hold high standards for learning and provide poor children with a pedagogy of challenge that nurtures, rather than impairs, their development. These teachers believe that solutions to the problems of schooling for poor children begin with personal redefinition of themselves as teachers and redefinition of children as learners. Progressive classrooms value students' talk and genuinely respect prior experiences, so that all students are seen as people who matter. Opportunities for autonomy and empowerment exist within such classrooms.

Flexible agendas, active learning, cooperative projects, hands-on curriculum and social relationships are valued. In such classrooms, student work is displayed. Students demonstrate their understanding for community audiences. They lead child-parent-teacher conferences. They and their families are valued as knowers. Students focus on doing work that is worth doing, work that develops their minds. They are called on to help others. Problem solving, reasoning and reading literature that validates their perspectives and provides insight into the perspectives of others are integral components of their learning.

Effective classrooms cannot survive in isolation, however. They must be supported within school cultures of high standards founded on a commitment to helping students produce work of high quality for real-world audiences. Certain conditions must also exist to foster student work that meets high standards. These include smaller schools and an end to tracking and segregated programs. School buildings must be clean and comfortable for learning. Teachers need continuous professional development that weaves together content, pedagogy and discussion of beliefs about intelligence and how students can learn at high levels. Teachers also need lots of time to talk and solve problems together.

Accepting Responsibility for Standards

Yet with all the talk about standards, we hear little from our political leaders about supporting the conditions that could favor student work to demonstrate higher achievement.
To date, we hear no mention of a national campaign to end tracking, the practice that institutionalizes lower expectations for poor, African American and Latino students and denies them equal access to knowledge. Nor do we hear widespread calls for lower class size, sustained professional development and professional working conditions for teachers.

Poor and minority students stand at a crossroads in the history of American education. Setting standards is not enough. As a nation, we must ensure that standards are not used to further disenfranchise poor and minority students. We must accept the responsibility of replacing a pedagogy of poverty with a pedagogy of challenge. We must demand support for equity from political leaders. We need to make schools places where every child matters. When we meet these challenges, we can expect students to meet standards.

Anne Wheelock Anne Wheelock (18 Cranston St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617/ 524-7324; E-mail: is an independent education writer and policy analyst. She is the author of Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America’s Schools (New Press,1992
Jo-Anne Wilson Keenan Jo-Anne Wilson Keenan (38 Edelcy Dr., Betchertown, MA 01007, 413/323-40454, E-mail: is the School/Family Curriculum Integration Teacher for the Springfield, MA Public Schools. She has worked as a collaborative researcher with Judith Soisken and Jerri Willett, School of Education, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, since 1990.

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