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Teachers Vs. Better Schools
By Chester E. Finn Jr.
STANDARDS-BASED reform is America's main strategy for boosting student achievement. It undergirds President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" act as well as the reform efforts of nearly every state and community. But a new Manhattan Institute survey of fourth and eighth grade teachers suggests that we have a long way to go before teachers take these reforms to heart.
Standards-based reform rests on a tripod: academic standards, tests and accountability. The standards spell out the skills and knowledge that schools are supposed to impart and students are meant to learn. The tests ascertain how well those standards are being met. "Accountability" means rewards (e.g. a high school diploma, a bonus, a gold star) for those who attain the standards and interventions (summer school, extra training, job loss) for those who don't.
Standards-based reform thus seeks to alter the actions of students and educators so that children learn more. But it deals only with the outside of the classroom - with statewide goals, measures and consequences - not with what happens when the door is closed. It does not tell teachers what to do. In the end, however, its success will be determined by teachers (and pupils) who actually shape what is taught and what is learned.
What goes on inside the classroom, and to what extent does it advance the reformers' hopes? The Manhattan Institute study addressed these vital questions by identifying an accurate nationwide sample of fourth and eighth grade teachers and asking them about their educational philosophies, curricular priorities, instructional methods and opinions regarding standards.
The results are fascinating - and more than a little alarming. Though there is some good news here for standards-based education reformers, four of this study's findings are especially troubling because of the chasm they display between teachers' views and reformers' hopes.
First, a majority of fourth and eighth grade teachers favor "student-directed learning" rather than "teacher-directed learning." That means the children's interests will matter more than mastery of subject matter in shaping what the class does. Yet it's hard to imagine standards-based reform succeeding in classrooms where students determine what gets learned. This kind of reform presupposes that teachers prescribe what skills and knowledge must be mastered - and persist until their young charges actually learn those things.
Second, just one teacher in seven believes that educators' core responsibility is "to teach students specific information and skills." When evaluating student work, only one quarter of them place primary emphasis on whether pupils supply the right answer or correct information. Yet standards-based reform is all about the successful acquisition of specific information and skills. It cannot succeed where teachers put greater stock in student creativity and effort than in accuracy.
Third, not even two out of five teachers in fourth grade (and half of eighth grade teachers) base their pupils' grades primarily on a "single, class-wide standard," while most pay greater heed to individual children's abilities. In other words, they opt for a relativistic, child-centered mode of evaluating pupil achievement instead of an unchanging objective standard. Yet the essence of standards-based reform is judging youngsters according to their success in meeting a fixed standard of skills and knowledge.
Fourth, teachers do not have terribly high expectations for their pupils when it comes to how much they will learn. Fewer than half of fourth grade instructors expect their students always to spell correctly. Fewer than half of eighth grade math teachers expect all their students, by year's end, to be able to show why the angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees. Only 70 percent of eighth grade history teachers expect that, by the time they enter high school, most students in their classes will know when the Civil War was fought.
How can Congress enact a law mandating that every child in every state will (within 12 years) attain "proficiency" on state standards if many of those children's classroom instructors have no such expectations?
One ought not fault teachers for their beliefs. They are what they've been shaped to be by those who trained them yesterday and supervise them today. For the most part, their attitudes, expectations and priorities, as well as the methods they employ in class, mirror the views of their ed-school professors and their professional mentors.
The problem is that the professors and the profession have not entirely bought into standards-based reform. It goes against their grain. Never mind that it's the law of the land, the centerpiece of education policy in nearly every state, and the strong preference of most parents. We could face an education train wreck if what happens when the classroom door closes does not advance the goals that policymakers and parents so hopefully enshrined in their states' standards.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
©2002 New York Post
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