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30 years after standards reform, schools aren’t much better

By By Morgan Polikoff, Associate Professor of Education Published on

Editor’s Note: Morgan Polikoff is the author of the book Beyond Standards, which examines content standards reform through its impact on instruction and student learning, and explores how it might be improved. 

It’s rare for an educational reform to have as much staying power as content standards. 

The idea of standards-based reform is simple—states create expectations for student knowledge and skill at each grade. States and districts support these expectations with aligned assessments, textbooks and professional development. Teachers teach what’s in the standards, and students learn it. Achievement rises, and opportunity gaps narrow. 

I’ve been studying standards since I began my PhD in 2006, and the movement itself dates back to the early 1990s. 

What I’ve found is that standards really haven’t meaningfully moved the needle on achievement, at least since the very early days of No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s. The last decade in particular has seen stagnation in student performance, if not retreat. And longstanding equity gaps have hardly narrowed at all. 

Why standards fail (it’s not necessarily what you think) 

Many scholars have written about the barriers to standards implementation, but I propose a sharp and novel critique of the policy. 

While I think standards advocates were broadly right in their assessment of the structural flaws causing the poor quality and coherence of teaching, the reform did not go nearly far enough to challenge those same flaws. For instance: 

  • Curriculum materials have remained weak throughout the standards era. Many districts have adopted poorly aligned materials, if any at all, in large part because states refused to touch what has historically been seen as a “local control” issue. 
  • Nothing in standards reform meaningfully challenged the widespread notion that teachers should curate—if not outright create—their own curriculum, even though they are scarcely offered any support or training to do so (and this approach would undermine coherence, anyway). This is one reason why teachers spend countless hours scouring Google and Pinterest to pull together curriculum. 
  • The standards themselves are too unclear, and we somehow expect all teachers to become experts in reading the standards, translating them, and identifying materials to meet them (again, an onerous and inefficient task). 

So if we think instruction matters for student learning (we should!) and contributes to equity gaps (it does!), and if we want to encourage better, more coherent instruction through policy, what can we do? 

Three ways to improve content standards 

  1. States need to step up and assert a stronger role in supporting standards implementation through quality materials and professional development. Recent research in offers a model for this kind of reform. 
  2. Policymakers and educational leaders need to rethink our expectations for how teachers use and supplement core curriculum materials. Teachers need to be given quality core materials and professional learning, and they need to be encouraged to supplement minimally, but collaboratively and in ways that support the core materials rather than undermine them. 
  3. The broader research and policy community needs to engage in a serious discussion about the ways that our decentralized educational systems—the 13,000 districts and school boards nationwide, for instance—exacerbate all manner of inequalities and undermine our ability to make meaningful improvements in education at scale. If we don’t challenge these outdated, inequitable, segregation-causing systems, we will never close opportunity gaps in K-12 education. 

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