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Content Standards for All Schools

“ ... mobility becomes another disadvantage that accumulates, leaving some children further behind or labeling them inappropriately.”

o topic in education has stirred more emotion than “standards.” As communities debate the essence and intended influence of standards on what teachers teach and their children learn, the national interest often recedes from view. The national interest is grounded in the importance of a strong, competitive workforce for the future of the Nation and a citizenry equipped to function in a complex world. That interest encompasses what every student in a grade should know and be able to do in mathematics and science (among other core subjects). Today’s mobile society means that local schools have become a de facto national resource for learning.

In the remainder of this section, we address two issues that under-pin this core recommendation: the need for standards in a mobile population, and the role of nation-wide standards in the context of local school governance.

Student Mobility

In the July statement, the NSB notes that “Students often move several times during their K-12 education, encountering varying curricula and instructional materials that cover an increasing number of topics while sacrificing depth and rigor.” National data show that 31 percent of the 8th grade class of 1988 changed schools two or more times between grades 1 and 8.* Ten percent changed schools two or more times during high school, i.e., between 1988 and 1992. White students were less likely to move than ethnic minorities; students who lived with their mother and father during the 8th grade were less likely to have changed schools than students in single-parent or other family situations. And students in low-income families were more likely to change schools than students with family incomes exceeding $20,000. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “students change schools for academic, personal, and family-related reasons. Those who make frequent school changes can experience inappropriate placement in a new school, lack of continuity of lesson content, disruptions in social ties, and feelings of alienation. Teachers may also find it difficult to identify and meet the academic needs of the highly mobile student.” 5 This “mobile student” segment of the school population also has implications for other phenomena that affect the Nation’s workforce--high school dropouts and completions.

Special local programs alone will not compensate for the learning deficiencies created by the movement of children between school districts. A sounder approach is student access to exemplary teachers and support that begins with agreement on the “minimum requirements” of what, say, all 5th graders should know and be able to do in mathematics and science. Without defining these requirements, mobility becomes another disadvantage that accumulates, leaving some children further behind or labeling them inappropriately.

If the content of instruction encountered by students in 5th grade math classes in Missoula is unlike its counterpart in Cincinnati, then every transfer student--regardless of what she has been taught and is prepared to learn--will have little opportunity (exacerbated by the lack of continuity) for making academic progress. This situation is all too common across the U.S.

A remedy is content--instructional materials, teaching, and testing aligned to something beyond, or in addition to, a local standard that gauges learning by every old and new kid on the block. The needs of the mobile student population beg for some coordination of content and resources. Structures and practices must help to prevent mobile students-- who tend to be ethnic minorities, poor, or come from one-parent families--from slipping through the cracks of a school or district. Better record-keeping is only a start. To help recognize learning needs, classroom teachers must be better informed about the content preparation of newly-arrived students.**

Student mobility illustrates a systemic problem that demands systemic solutions. Unless the needs of the mobile student population are addressed, other bigger problems loom. If school imparts too few skills, the teenager is at greater risk of dropping out and becoming dependent on another set of social services. If transience and mobility between schools reduces students’ access to quality teachers, instruction, and materials because of content that lacks consistency across districts and grades, then guidelines that transcend statewide practices and help to minimize the disruptions of change should be welcome.

Standards and Accountability

A decade ago, national standards in mathematics and science began to be designed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in close consultation with all stakeholders in education--preschool to graduate school. These standards, while evolving, have been endorsed--generically if not specifically--by organizations as diverse as the American Federation of Teachers, The Business Roundtable, the Education Commission of the States, and the CEOs of over 200 Silicon Valley high-tech companies.6

The reality today is that virtually all states have curriculum frameworks that use the NCTM, AAAS, and the NAS documents as points of reference for teaching challenging mathematics and science.7 These independently-generated frameworks signify an emerging consensus that offers a national resource on which local districts across the U.S. can draw as they define “basic skills” and formulate guides to classroom practice.

The existence of frameworks has not translated content standards into widespread classroom practice.8 “Translation,” of course, requires change--teacher by teacher, textbook by textbook, classroom by classroom. There is no “one size fits all” implementation plan. In this sense, the Federal role in the national movement toward standards is at best supportive. “National” standards do not mean “federal,” “federally mandated,” “standardized,” or “homogeneous.” Indeed, the relation of “nation-wide” standards to state frameworks and to what is actually taught in classrooms remains murky at best.†† Imparting core competencies neither defines an entire curriculum nor precludes locally-held beliefs and prerogatives about the content of that curriculum.

Rather, math and science competencies must try to anticipate future national needs as convergence on the definition, content, and use of standards continues to grow.9 For example, NSF, NASA, and other agencies have funded instructional materials development, yielding models that reflect professional consensus on what constitutes teachable content standards in mathematics and science.‡‡ The evaluation and distribution of such materials help districts, teachers, and administrators make informed choices among innovative resources.***

In a recent review of the status of standards, the President of the National Center on Education and the Economy identified what will reinforce high academic performance.10 Attaining such performance, by pursuing the following, is consistent with the states’ role as chief accountability agent:

  • assessments set to the standards (if you cannot accurately measure progress toward the standards, they are unlikely to influence behavior);
  • curriculum set to the standards (what is taught is what is learned);
  • incentives for the students to meet the standards (students presently have incentives to stay in high school to get the diploma, but little incentive to take tough courses or work hard);
  • a relentless focus on results (develop a strong rewards-and-consequences system tied to the standards and directed to the staff of schools; making progress would be rewarded, repeatedly dismal performance would put jobs at risk);
  • a modern accountability system (put performance standards in place, institute appropriate measures of progress, and decide how to raise the students to the standards); and
  • accurate, detailed, up-to-date data on student performance (readily available to parents and policymakers).†††

The reality of educational accountability lags these attainable prerequisites for student achievement. As Quality Counts ’99, a survey of state policies on accountability, concludes, “most have a long way to go in making their accountability systems clear, fair, and complete.” The survey finds, for example, that 49 states (all but Iowa) have or are drafting standards in core subjects, 48 now test their students, and 36 publish annual report cards on individual schools. Fewer than half publicly rate the performance of all schools or identify low-performing ones. Only 16 states have the power to close, take over, or overhaul chronically failing schools. While 19 require students to pass tests to graduate from high school, only two have attempted to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Finally, while most states rely on test scores to help determine “rewards and sanctions,” the focus is primarily on schools rather than individual educators, penalties are threatened but not imposed, and there is no agreed-upon strategy for fixing failing schools.11

Accountability may begin with standards. But because content standards are mere abstractions until melded with instructional and student performance standards, teaching and assessment are intimately (and perhaps inevitably) bound up in discussions of standards.12 Bound up as well are expectations--not just of students but also of teach-ers, parents, and the Nation. Test performance, too, must be interpreted relative to something, be it expectations or course offerings, and coursetaking (i.e., curriculum and the opportunity to learn it). Without a standard, tests become mere comparisons among students--norm-referenced tests--uncalibrated by content. They also risk missing or mismeasuring complex cognitive and performance proficiencies. In the very worst case, they measure what children bring to school, not what they learn in school. Student achievement, in short, should reflect the value added by schooling, not the distribution of class or home (dis)advantages that characterize the U.S. student population. Standards should help us think about the relation of science literacy to basic skills. What those skills are fuels the ability to apply knowledge to new contexts and problems. Controversy over how students acquire them seems to distract communities from achieving what most avow is in the national interest.

Teachers’ cognitive expectations, or what they believe the child can learn, set the stage for performance. Additionally, the child must be convinced of his/her own capability. Asserting that “all children can learn” reflects the power of standards and accountability: increasing mathematics and science graduation requirements (to at least three and preferably four years of each); eliminating remedial courses (and the tracking and ability grouping they denote); and holding principals, guidance counselors, and teachers--along with students themselves--accountable for academic improvement. All students can be held to the same high standard of performance, so that race, ethnicity, gender, physical disability, and economic disadvantage can diminish as excuses for subpar performance.‡‡‡

Likewise, parents’ expectations influence achievement. The research literature indicates that parents decide to become involved in the education of their children due to three principal factors: what they believe is important, necessary, and permissible for them to do with and on behalf of their children; the extent to which they believe they can exert positive influence on their children’s education; and their perceptions that the child and the school want them to be involved. Various factors, but particularly change of residence, inhibit parental involvement.13

Of course, adoption of curricula with challenging content and parental involvement will not willy-nilly boost American students’ academic achievement. Curriculum innovations have historically failed to influence teaching and learning practices due, in part, to teachers’ scarce opportunities to learn new content and improve their practice. Although teachers are instrumental in student learning, no one component can transform the quality of schooling, improve student achievement, and communicate to all stakeholders (especially parents) why changes should be tried, indeed supported, before positive results will be observed (much less measured). That is why a systemic vision--the U.S. as a “common market” for knowledge workers with transferable skills--is needed to integrate all components of teaching and learning.

For U.S. student achievement to rise, a consensus on standards, from classroom to state-house, must be forged. The recommendations discussed below all contribute to effective implementation of the Board’s core recommendation. Implementation is addressed to areas of action for which stakeholders share responsibility. Of special emphasis are NSB proposals for how the science community can collaborate to advance the consensus on core competencies, and how national and international experience should inform decisions about mathematics and science teaching and learning.


†††"What standards should do, among other things, is tell teachers what the experts think [based on research] is most worth teaching . . . Looked at that way, the changes that have taken place since the start of the standards movement are impressive, but not nearly enough. That is hardly cause for despair. It is cause for redoubled effort.” M.S. Tucker, “The State of Standards: Powerful Tool or Symbolic Gesture?” Expecting More (Newsletter on Standards-Based Reform), 1 (Spring 1998): 2. Also see D. French, “The State’s Role in Shaping a Progressive Vision of Public Education,” Phi Delta Kappan, November 1998: 185-194.

‡‡‡Such changes are examples of “policy drivers” that are central to the program design of NSF’s Urban Systemic Initiatives (USI). While each USI may follow a different reform trajectory for achieving the goal of system-wide, challenging mathematics instruction for all students, progress toward this goal--as reflected in student achievement data--is the chief outcome for which the districts are held accountable. “Such improvements are called ‘systemic’ because they fundamentally alter the school systems in which they occur.” See L.S. Williams, The Urban Systemic Initiatives (USI) Program of the National Science Foundation: Summary Update, March 17, July 1998, quote from 3; and The National Science Foundation’s Urban Systemic Inititiatives (USI) Program: Models of Reform of K-12 Science and Mathematics Education (Westat*McKenzie Consortium, October 1998).

About the National Science Board Conclusions How Research Can Better Inform Practice Building a Seamless Education System, K-16 Content Standards for All Schools Student Achievement as a Shared Responsibility Executive Summary Contents