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Volume 16, Number 2
March/April 2000

Successful School Reform Efforts Share Common Features

Schools big and small show that standards-based reform doesn't have to mean standardization. But it does require building "a culture of excellence."


Almost every public school teacher and administrator has had to grapple with the issue of standards and improving student performance. How should standards be defined? At what level should they be set? Who should set them? While such questions will continue to be debated, the topic of whether higher standards are needed comes up much less frequently since 49 states have adopted some type of standards.

Instead, the issue of how to implement new standards has taken center stage, and a consensus seems to be emerging among school researchers about what kinds of reforms work best. Several successful models of standards-based reform in both large school systems and individual schools demonstrate the common elements of what one education researcher calls a "culture of excellence."

Focus for Success

Mike Schmoker and Robert J. Marzano, researchers for the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, a research group focusing on standards, identify the first important characteristic common to schools and districts successful in raising standards: focus. "The success of any organization is contingent upon clear, commonly defined goals," they write in Educational Leadership.

Mark St. John, president of the independent educational research group Inverness Research Associates, agrees. He notes the dizzying array of standards documents that can confront classroom teachers. "In some districts there are so many different 'standards' that teachers attend to none or simply to the loudest or most familiar standard in that context," he writes. "The fact is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously attend to district standards, state standards, and national standards, especially if they are at odds with each other."

Those schools that successfully raise standards for all students generally have narrowed their goals down to improving some aspect of students' work. The area of focus can vary, as long as it is manageable and measurable. For instance, New York City's District 2 initially chose literacy as its primary curricular focus since the ability to read is so fundamental to achievement in other areas. The district, which is comprised of elementary and middle schools, has also paid close attention to screening new hires and to the kind of professional development it provides teachers.

Marguerite Straus, principal at District 2's PS 1 in Chinatown, describes her elementary school's response to the district's 10-year-long literacy drive. "Literacy is always our first priority. We look at everything we do in the building—every new program has to focus on literacy. Everyone knows the focus is on getting children to work better." At PS 116, a District 2 elementary school in midtown Manhattan, principal Anna Marie Carrillo recalls that when she arrived at the school nine years ago, only 55 percent of students were reading at grade level. After an intense focus on increasing literacy in all grades, 80 percent now do, she says.

At the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School (grades 7-12) in rural Devens, MA, teachers have developed a basic set of performance goals for students based on state standards, as well as guidelines so students know exactly what is expected of them when. Having defined what skills kids need to graduate, teachers then organize their content each year around this agreed-upon core, according to Deb Merriam, an arts and humanities teacher. One year, kids may learn to write persuasive essays and do in-depth research as part of a unit on the philosophies of ancient China; the next year, teaching essay writing and research skills will continue, though the unit may focus on the nature of revolution.

This may require teachers to adjust. They may have to trade extracurricular activities for more training, or they may be asked to revise or eliminate their favorite lesson plans, says Anne Lewis, author of Figuring It Out: Standards-Based Reforms in Urban Middle Grades. For instance, the Parker School has given up survey courses. "You don't get 'coverage' here," says Merriam. "We go deeply into a few things. But the reality is that most kids in traditional survey courses won't remember much of it."

Such single-mindedness can, in fact, also free up resources and let teachers concentrate on doing a few things well, according to Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools. "In most high schools, there is one teacher or administrator for every 14 kids, and the curriculum is so fractured that the meat and potatoes are carried by very few teachers. A teacher of freshman English can end up responsible for the work of 145 students," he says. "So you need to simplify, to focus on the central tasks. This is hard to do, but the results are wonderful. Kids don't drop out. They stay the course, they go to college."

Strong Leaders Build Community

Research on District 2 by Harvard's Richard Elmore and Deanna Burney of the Camden, NJ, schools also demonstrates the importance of strong leadership that builds a sense of community among staff. In a district where most student work in reading and math has improved, principals and teachers take part in pro fessional development, select training programs, and read materials.

In the spirit of teamwork, administrators provide the support and structure the staff needs in order to focus on improving student work. They carefully screen new hires, taking only those who demonstrate commitment to the district's reform goals. And they give teachers and principals the time to reflect on the work of students or teachers. The sense of community is enhanced by establishing clear goals that are informed and shared by students, teachers, and administrators.

St. John agrees that this kind of leadership is crucial to keeping teachers involved in and enthusiastic about reform measures. Where such leadership is lacking, "teachers may just close the door and continue teaching as before, in the hopes that 'this, too, shall pass,'" he says. Education writer Anne Wheelock adds that successful standards-based reform is marked by a sense of collegial community, a feeling that everyone in the school community is invested in making student work better. She calls this "building a culture of excellence."

Getting teachers and administrators to talk to each other about learning and teaching is an important step to achieving excellence. Talking about student work accomplishes important things: it breaks down teachers' isolation, and it enables principals and teachers to continually assess their own progress, articulate what the standards are (e.g., what an "A" really means), work on issues together, and ask for help. This is clearly easier in smaller schools, where communication and coordination are less difficult.
Even a large organization like District 2 has shown that it's possible to build a common culture. Richard Elmore points out that the district's administrators found that the most effective professional develop ment—and possibly the fastest—happens right where the teachers are: in classrooms. The district hires adjunct teachers, freeing up classroom teachers to visit more experienced teachers, who may also be freed from regular classroom duties in order to spend time in a more junior colleague's classroom.

At PS 116, teachers meet with Principal Carrillo at the beginning of the year to discuss areas of their work they would like to improve. She then arranges visits with master teachers, or she arranges their schedules so they can visit other teachers' classrooms. Teachers augment training and personal research with regular conversations among themselves about their practice, and they have formed study groups focusing on various areas of the curriculum. "Teachers observe teachers, and reflect and talk about their work," says Carrillo. "Continuous dialogue is an integral part of how we work." Principals in District 2 also visit each others' schools and classrooms, and exchange information about administrative issues.

The Parker School, which is part of Sizer's Essential Schools network, uses surprisingly little formal professional development, but it places the same strong emphasis on collegiality as District 2. Teachers share their skills through frequent discussions about students and their work. "Staff development is built into the structure of the school," says teacher Deb Merriam. "The collaboration among teachers is part of the daily meeting and planning time. We're constantly talking about the work of the school."

Knowing Every Child

Besides building community, teacher mentors and staff discussions have the added benefit of focusing more adult attention on students' individual learning styles and on how they are learning. "You have to know each child well enough to adapt to how that child learns," says Sizer.

Elmore agrees: "In District 2, you don't talk about groups of low-performing kids, you talk about individual kids. The principal knows every child at risk, the teacher knows every child in the classroom. Success depends on whether you have a plan for that child."

Many in policy circles forget that working schools are human communities, says Wheelock, and quality work can't be achieved if "standards" is construed to mean standardization. In schools where every child is known well by at least one adult, she says, no student is allowed to fall through the cracks. Some techniques for achieving this include giving children time every day to talk with an adult about their work, reducing class size, and looping.

At Parker and PS 116, students are encouraged to talk about their work and what they are learning every day. At Parker, students also prepare for biannual parent-teacher conferences at which they present and talk about their work in the context of the school's guidelines for excellence. "This is not about standardizing children; it's about forming a clear idea of what excellence is. How can we get an excellent piece of 4th-grade work from a typical nine-year old?" asks Kathleen Cushman, a member of the Parker School's board. One structure Parker uses to foster discussion is student-teacher advisories. Every adult in the school—secretaries and gym teachers included—is assigned a small group of students with whom they discuss all kinds of issues, including student work.

At PS 1, where 80 percent of students come from households where English is not the primary language, teachers and administrators started a series of programs to get parents more involved in their children's learning. Students write letters to their parents about what they are learning, and parents are asked to bring their children with them for parent-teacher conferences. "It's important that we plan together for the next step," says PS 1's principal, Marguerite Straus.

PS 116 students face many of the same challenges as do PS 1's-some live in temporary housing or shelters, 50 percent qualify for free lunches, and many don't speak English at home. Teachers at PS 116 show parents how to use neighborhood libraries and bookstore reading areas so that their children get more exposure to books. Parents come to the school on alternate Fridays to act as reading buddies with their children. They also attend "publication parties" at school to celebrate the final, bound drafts of children's stories. "Parents can watch the teacher interact with their children, and learn how to help children with reading difficulties," Principal Carrillo says. "And then more parents are informed about what we are trying to do."

Sizer says that in Essential Schools teachers are never responsible for more than 50 kids, which not only allows them to know how each child learns, but also permits closer contact with parents. "If I have 50 kids, it is not unreasonable for me to meet all the parents and guardians of the kids who are in some kind of trouble," he notes.

At Parker, PS 1, and PS 116, kids are not grouped by abilities. Each student is given the extra help he needs to learn what the school has defined as the standard for that grade. District 2 offers children extended day, extended year, and Saturday classes so they can get extra coaching in areas they have trouble understanding.

Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development Program found that intensive, individualized mathematics classes for under-performing students at Central East Middle School in Philadelphia buoyed the performance of other students in those math classes, as well. Central East, which has high numbers of at-risk students, boosted morale by treating the intensive classes as "plum" electives rather than remedial classes, Balfanz notes. The fact that struggling students had extra help made teachers feel they could push all of their students to do better. "When teachers feel that the weaker students are being 'taken care of' in terms of getting extra help with basic skills, they themselves feel they can move forward with the thinking skills curriculum without worrying about kids who might not be 'getting it,'" says Balfanz.

Quality Assessment

Ensuring that all students are learning according to standards requires regular, if not constant, assessment, Carrillo and other educators say. Assessment can be part of regular conversations with students about their work, or it can take the form of evaluating student work through portfolios, quizzes, tests, and other performance measures.

At the Parker School, assessment of student work is part of daily conversations among teachers as well as between teachers and students. Teachers and parents meet to look at examples of student work and to decide what meets the school's standards. Teachers meet regularly about the curriculum and to assess whether their ideas of good enough work are roughly equivalent. "You get fascinating discussions on what is good enough, what and how to teach," says board member Cushman. A critical cultural element, Cushman notes, is that such conversations leave "everyone with a feeling of having common standards."

As a result of regular conversations about student learning at PS 116, Carrillo and her teachers are constantly raising standards to reflect student improvements. For example, Carrillo knows that, according to national reading standards, her kindergartners should be reading at a particular level of difficulty by the year's end. But because of District 2's focus on literacy, most teachers report that by mid-year their students have reached those levels and met the city's goal of having kids read 25 books per school year. By being aware of their students' progress in relation to standards, teachers can raise the bar accordingly.

Teachers also assess themselves in a similar way, says Carrillo. "We're always measuring ourselves against what's there, and teachers are always looking at each other's work and measuring themselves against each other. This can only happen in a truly open work environment that is truly risk-free."

Sizer argues that children's assessments should mirror the kinds of demonstrations of ability required in the real world. Says Sizer: "The real test is understanding. Can a youngster take what he's learned and apply it powerfully? That's how it is in the real world where you have to apply knowledge in an unfamiliar situation. The real world isn't about being tested on something specific you've just learned."

Wheelock says the successful schools she has observed communicate clearly to students what quality of work is expected—usually in written statements and sometimes with examples of previous students' work. This gives teachers a concrete way to discuss students' work with them later.
Benefits of Revision

Quality assessment should also include constant revision, Wheelock says. Typically, revision entails a student's teacher or peers reviewing a completed draft of an assignment and making comments and suggestions. The student is then expected to incorporate this feedback into a new draft and present it for further review. Requiring revision communicates "the message that success depends more on students' effort than ability and that students have control over the quality of their work," says Wheelock.

During a visit to one middle school, Wheelock asked kids when they knew it was time to stop revising. She found that they had a variety of ways, from asking peers for suggestions until they ran out of ideas to comparing their work to that of adult professionals. Such frequent assessment of draft work allows teachers to catch student difficulties early on and get help to those that need it, Wheelock says.

At King Middle School in Portland, ME, and other Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB) schools, students' final revisions-which incorporate suggestions from teachers, students, and outside evaluators such as parents or local experts-are publicly presented, or "published." This strategy increases the relevance of student work, says Meg Campbell, executive director of ELOB. "Having a real audience is a way of taking the children seriously."

In most cases, the result is a product that future students-and others in the community-can use as a reference. For instance, King students studied the shore life of Maine's Casco Bay for a year. Their final project included beautiful student-drawn illustrations and accurate scientific descriptions of the plants and animals found there. It went through several drafts for completeness, style, and scientific and visual accuracy. The book can be used by parents and children on a walk on the shore and has been distributed to all the Portland libraries for just such use.

Parker School students, too, learn that "everything has to be revised," says Sizer. "For many youngsters, standards have no body to them. But when you watch your older friend explain and discuss her work, it's a real eye-opener. You can connect your work to the real world." At Essential Schools, students produce books that are "published" and brought home. They also present their research on a topic before panels of parents and any experts in that field whom parents or teachers have been able to corral for that purpose. Harvard's Richard Elmore points out an additional benefit of this practice: By inviting parents and other stakeholders of the community to weigh in, the school is building a political base of support for quality work.

When done right, testing, too, can play an important role in measuring student achievement, says Elmore. He believes the Texas state tests are forcing schools there to focus on student achievement, though there is considerable disagreement in the educational community about whether Texas is a good model. District 2, Parker, and King have done well on state and national standardized tests though none of the schools does specific test preparation. Instead, they all focus on improving classroom instruction and view standardized tests as useful indicators of progress, not goals in themselves.

These schools are also subject to regular outside evaluation, where they have to demonstrate that they are implementing reforms that benefit their students. In most cases, teachers and administrators say they appreciate such outside assessment, which usually augments a regular internal review of their progress.

The Parker School has state-mandated inspections as well as school-initiated reviews by outsiders. "Inspections are wonderful," says Sizer. "They make you pull your socks up and be clear about what you are about." Parker keeps all student work in portfolios for such inspections-and for students and parents to review. "Portfolios send a signal that what each student does is important, so important that the public can view it," says Sizer.

In District 2, the expectation of teaching excellence also extends to principals. Students aren't the only school workers expected to be thoughtful and reflective; teachers and administrators also reflect on their work and some are asked to keep portfolios of their work. Teachers are asked to continually improve instruction, to seek out the best professional development and curricula they can find. Super intendents schedule regular and surprise visits to check on principals' progress, and groups of principals tour and evaluate each others' schools.

In the end, of course, the greatest test of standards-based reform is what attitude children develop toward learning. "The kids love coming to school," Principal Carrillo says. "It's a delight to see them so happy to be here. They cry at the start of summer vacation. I don't ever remember doing that."

Andreae Downs, a Massachusetts-based reporter, writes frequently about education.See "One Urban School's Adventures in Reform" by Andreae Downs, also from this issue.

For Further Information

For Further Information

R.F. Elmore and D. Burney. "Continuous Improvement in Community District #2, New York City." Paper for the High Performance Learning Communities Project at the Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA: December 1998.

R.F. Elmore and D. Burney. "Investing in Teacher Learning: Staff Development and Instructional Improvement in Community School District #2, New York City." National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, Teachers College, Box 117, Columbia University, NewYork, NY 10027; August, 1997.

R.F. Elmore and D. Burney. "School Variation and Systemic Instructional Improvement in Community School District #2, New York City. High Performance Learning Communites Project." Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, October 1997.

J.P. Heubert and R.M. Hauser, eds. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Committee on Appropriate Test Use. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999. 6336.html

A.C. Lewis, "Figuring It Out: Standards-based Reforms in Urban Middle Grades." Available from The Program for Student Achievement, The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 250 Park Ave., New York, NY 10177-0026; 212-551-9100.

Performance Assessment Links in Science (PALS). An on-line, standards-based resource bank of science performance-assessment tasks indexed to the National Science Education Standards (NSES).

M. Schmoker and R.J.Marzano. "Realizing the Promise of Standards-Based Education." Educational Leadership 56, no. 6 (Mar 1999): 17-21.