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"The Standards Movement: Another Warning,"

by John Cawthorne July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Jo-Anne Wilson Keenan and Anne Wheelock's essay reminds us that standards, by themselves, will not change the educational experiences of poor children, especially those in urban areas. I want to explore in more detail three areas policy-makers must address if the standards movement is to alter radically the educational landscape. They are: using test results, tracking and professional development.

Using test results: The standards movement will be another frustrating reform effort unless we change how we use test results. Currently, most results, regardless of the test or the institution mandating it, are used to label and sort. The media constantly label our students and schools as failures. The American Federation of Teachers recently released What Students Abroad Are Expected to Know About Mathematics. This report concludes that "one reason students in other countries perform better than ours is because they are held to higher expectations." It claims that American students do poorly because there are no consequences attached to the tests they take. This report, and others like it, imply that students will not work hard unless there are serious repercussions for failure. The proponents would use test results to deny students admission to higher level courses, to college and to work.

This stance contradicts what we know about how best to motivate students and places the blame on students instead of on systems that have failed them. When we use tests only to assess whether or not students reached our "high expectations," we are doing them, and ourselves, a disservice. There are other ways to use test results. We could utilize such data to ask ourselves, "What is wrong with the adults who control our schools? What are their weaknesses as teachers and administrators? Do they know the content but not good pedagogy? Do they know pedagogy but not mathematics? Do adults organize schools in ways that help students learn most effectively? Do adults use test results to design more effective instructional strategies?"

In 1989, the Boston Public Schools planned to use standardized test results as one criterion for high school graduation. When officials learned that over 50% would be denied a diploma, the policy was quickly scrapped. The message was not about students failing school, but of schools failing students. When we use test results to deny opportunities, we run the great risk of endangering students whose test results reflect poor teaching and administering. Urban and poor students whose schools have inadequate resources, including teachers who are not capable of teaching mathematics, for example, would be "punished" for the misfortune of geography, not because they did not work hard.

Tracking: Tracking, the practice of grouping students by "ability," has become acceptable practice in our schools. The "top" group gets the best teachers, the most challenging curriculum and the experiences needed to succeed. The "middle" and "low" groups get what is left over. This hardly democratic practice results in students having vastly different school experiences and correspondingly different achievement results.

If we demand that all children achieve at high standards, we must stop tracking students. The notion of "ability" grouping, especially when resources are allocated unevenly, is inconsistent with the desire that all achieve at high levels. To hold children accountable for achieving at high levels while placing them in low level courses is a cruel hoax!

Professional development: According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, "What teachers know and can do makes the crucial difference in what children learn.... Policies can improve schools only if the people in them are armed with the knowledge, skills and supports they need. Student learning ... will improve only when we focus our efforts on improving teaching."

The standards movement creates new expectations for educators, and unless we take the lime to prepare teachers to meet them, the "experiment" is doomed to fail. As students with more diverse learning needs enroll and remain in schools, teachers will have to learn how to work with those they would have discarded and hidden only a few years ago. They have to learn how to teach all children. It is just as barbaric to hold teachers to new norms without providing them the opportunity to acquire new skills as it is to hold children accountable while denying them sufficient opportunity.

Teachers, however, need more than new instructional techniques; they need to know more? For example, over 30% of all mathematics teachers do not have even a minor in this field. We cannot attain "world class standards" without "world class teachers. We must all work to realize the Commission's goal of providing "a caring and qualified teacher for every child.."

The standards movement offers this nation a tremendous opportunity to educate all children well. If it is to succeed, we must change drastically the way we organize our schools, who teaches in them and what they are capable of teaching.

In the final analysis, the standards movement's success depends on the willingness and ability of adults to heed Jung's advice and explore how we must change. Perhaps the first and most powerful "standards" should be applied to adults and those with power and privilege.

John Cawthorne John Cawthorne is Research Professor at Boston College (106 Campion Hall, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, Email: and former Vice President for Education at the National Urban League.


The lead article in the May/June P&R, by Jo-Anne Wilson Keenan & Anne Wheelock, was "The Standards Movement in
Education: Will Poor & Minority Students Benefit?" We asked a number of educators to comment on their analysis. Below are those by Peter Negroni, Superintendent of Schools for Springfield, MA, and John Cawthorne of Boston College. We anticipate printing additional comments in our Sept./Oct. issue and invite readers to submit their thoughts on this front-burner issue.

If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better change in ourselves.
-Carl G. Jung


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