Unfinished Agenda: The Future of Standards-Based School Reform

Future Ed recently published a piece in which Michael Cohen and Laura Slover review the history of standards-based school reform and propose next steps for the future. 

The long campaign to raise standards in the nation’s public schools, for decades the cornerstone of efforts to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes of traditionally underserved students, is out of fashion in school reform circles. Without standards sufficient to ready students for college and careers, many students, the history of public education makes clear, simply won’t get the demanding education they need to navigate an increasingly complex world successfully. Rather than abandoning standards, we and other leaders of the standards movement need to acknowledge and address a critical shortcoming of the movement—that we failed to prioritize the hard work of translating standards into rigorous curriculum materials, instructional strategies and teacher training. 

To that end, we propose a fundamental shift in state accountability systems, in which states primarily hold districts accountable for the coherence of their instructional program and its continuous improvement, while continuing to publicly report disaggregated achievement and attainment results and attach modest consequences to them, consistent with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. These are some of the key moves that states and districts should consider:

  • States should adopt policies requiring every district to demonstrate that its curriculum, instructional materials, professional learning, and local assessments are aligned with each other and with state standards. 
  • School districts should be responsible for conducting or commissioning a “coherence” analysis, with guidance provided by the state. 
  • States and districts should work collaboratively, with outside expertise, to develop the instruments and metrics that can determine the coherence of local instructional programs. 
  • States should build local capacity through “coherence institutes” that bring together district instructional teams to develop and implement comprehensive, coherent instructional-improvement plans. 
  • States should begin a conversation about the accountability consequences for districts that ultimately lack a coherent approach. 

After working at school reform for years, we are more convinced than ever that rigorous state standards are needed to achieve the nation’s ambitious aims for public education. But the arc of the standards movement has demonstrated that standards alone aren’t sufficient to overcome many local educators’ lack of capacity and commitment to teach much larger percentages of students to high standards. Instead, standards should be the foundation of instructional systems that combine a shared vision of sound instruction with high quality, tightly intertwined curricula, professional learning, assessments, and accountability systems.

For more, see: https://www.future-ed.org/unfinished-agenda-the-future-of-standards-based-school-reform/