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Janresseger: Coronavirus School Closures Will Force Us to Examine Failure of Standards-Based School Accountability

How will students make up the work they are missing now that schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic?  I am dismayed by some of what I’m reading about people’s strategies for catching kids up once schools open. There are people who actually believe that standards-based, accountability-driven education ought to be happening even while schools are closed and that it ought to be intensified once the schools reopen.

This kind of thinking is silly right now because, as Education Week reports, “Every single state has won permission to skip the statewide standardized tests that are required by federal law…. As of March 31, the U.S. Department of Education had granted waivers to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education.”

Standards-based accountability has defined and organized public schools across America for two decades under the policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, although political support for standards and assessments had been growing for a decade before that.  In a devastating critique of standards-based education published in 2000, Will Standards Save Public Education?, progressive educator, Deborah Meier identifies six assumptions that form the foundation of standards-based school reform:

Goals:  It is possible and desirable to agree on a single definition of what constitutes a well-educated eighteen-year-old and demand that every school be held to the same definition…

Authority:  The task of defining ‘well-educated’ is best left to experts—educators, political officials, leaders from industry and the major academic disciplines—operating within a system of checks and balances…

Assessment:  With a single definition in place, it will be possible to measure and compare individuals and schools across communities—local, state, national, international.  To this end, curricular norms for specific ages and grades should be translated into objective tests that provide a system of uniform scores…. Such scores should permit public comparisons between and among students, schools, districts, and states at any point in time…

Enforcement:  Sanctions, too need to be standardized, that is, removed from local self-interested parties, including parents, teachers, and local boards.  Only a more centralized and distant system can resist the pressures from people closest to the child—the people who have become accustomed to low standards…

Equity:  Expert-designed standards, imposed through tests are the best way to achieve educational equity…

Effective Learning:  Clear-cut expectations, accompanied by automatic rewards and punishments, will produce greater effort, and effort—whether induced by the desire for rewards, fear of punishment, or shame—is the key to learning.” (Will Standards Save Public Education, pp. 7-9.  Emphasis in the original.)

This theory imagines education as a series of ladders in a number of separate disciplines. Students must climb through school by mastering in order each of a series of essential pieces in each discipline’s curriculum.  And if they miss essential rungs of the ladder, the assumption is that they have to stop going up; for a while they must go back until they can prove they have mastered what they missed the first time.

No Child Left Behind and the whole theory of standards-based accountability didn’t work even though a lot of its assumptions continue to dominate federal requirements for state policy.  Lots of students got trapped on the lower rungs of the ladder and never could move up.  Not in any school district did all students master the standards and enable their schools to meet the law’s expectation that aggregate test scores would rise until, by 2014, all American students would be proficient.  In fact, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flat lined in recent years.  The National Assessment of Education Progress is an audit test without high stakes, a test that has been administered for decades to a random group of students from public schools across the country.

But despite the widespread failure of standards-based school accountability, today as schools are closed due to the pandemic, advocates of standards-based accountability have begun to express concern about whether schools are able to provide online all of the material to keep children up with the standards.  School teachers who know and care about their students, on the other hand, seem to be deeply focused on ensuring their students’ well-being and on providing some enrichment as the children are out of school.  While teachers and other school personnel are concerned especially for the welfare of students who have been lost and  disconnected, I am beginning to read about standards-based advocates who worry about how schools will ever be able to get everybody back up to standard.

In Monday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones accurately portray what is being exposed as a gap in access to technology and online participation between school districts serving concentrations of poor children and exclusive schools serving wealthier and better connected students: “Even before the outbreak chronic absenteeism was a problem in many schools especially those with a lot of low-income students.  Many obstacles can prevent children who live in poverty from making it to class: a parent’s broken-down car or a teenager’s need to babysit siblings, for example.  But online learning presents new obstacles, particularly with uneven levels of technology… Cratering attendance in some districts contrasts with reports from several selective or affluent schools where close to 100 percent of students are participating in online learning.  The dramatic split promises to further deepen the typical academic achievement gaps between poor, middle-class and wealthy students.”

While these reporters correctly describe the problem, unfortunately the expert whose opinion they consult about potential solutions is Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. Since the No Child Left Behind era, Casserly and his organization have supported standards-based accountability.  The NY Times reporters quote Casserly’s recommendations for post-pandemic education: “The scale of the challenge, and the work that will need to be done to catch children up academically and socially, is ‘huge,’ said Michael Casserly…. He called the prospect of ‘unfinished learning’ from this time ‘a serious issue that could have implications for years.’… ‘Many skills build on on another,’ Mr. Casserly said. ‘If a child misses out on some key idea, then all of a sudden, additional ideas as they’re introduced just become Greek.  Will we need some kind of beginning of the year diagnostics to try and figure out just where they kids are, how much they have lost?'”

The reporters conclude: “The trend is leading to widespread concern among educators, with talk of a potential need for summer sessions, an early start in the fall, or perhaps having some or even all students repeat a grade once Americans are able to return to classrooms.”

Conceptualizing public education as students climbing ladders of curricular standards without missing a rung is only one way to think about education.  And while such a theory has been drilled into all of us as a sort of “standards-based accountability conventional wisdom,” it isn’t really how most of us learn. If we want to understand something new, and there is some background we need, most of us look to experts or do some research to fill in the holes.  School curriculum is better conceptualized as a spiral instead of a ladder.  Children learn some processes and then as they move on to more advanced material, teachers are taught to spiral back—to review and even provide new and previously missed background. Sometimes people apply what they have learned in one discipline to help them understand or enhance what they have learned in another discipline. Remedial classes worry educators because too frequently they trap students in the most basic material—material skillful teachers can introduce and reinforce as children learn more complex material.  After schools reopen, acceleration will be preferable to remediation.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss features a column by Katherine Schultz, the dean and a professor of education at the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  In this column, Schultz deplores the school administrators pressed by their bosses to visit (virtually) and critique teachers of online classes—in these weeks when school is closed—according to the teachers’ adherence-to prescribed curricular standards: “Most administrators want to support teachers and families in any way they can. However, as time passes, they are feeling pressures from state departments of education, school committees, superintendents and even families to hold on to the same standards as before, to ensure that students don’t lose too much learning during this indefinite period of social distancing, and to make sure that teachers are covering the same content as before… The bottom line is that administrators are collecting these data not to support teachers, but because of contemporary American education’s unceasing focus on accountability.”

Schultz suggests a very different strategy: “While the coronavirus is absolutely a crisis, it is also an opportunity to do things differently.  What if principals consulted teachers about how to take stock of their teaching.  Rather than scheduling virtual walkthroughs or counting how many assignments students complete, what if principals set up individual conferences with teachers to ascertain their needs and support them in addressing the trauma of this moment for their students and themselves?  What if a teacher-led committee worked with administrators to design teaching and learning goals?”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...