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 Why Can’t We Teach Students to Higher Standards in Public Education?

In his new book, Beyond Standards, USC associate professor Morgan Polikoff contends that the impact of  the standards movement in public education has been undermined by local educators’ failure to deliver consistent, high-quality curriculum in the nation’s classrooms. Editorial Director Phyllis W. Jordan spoke with Polikoff, a curriculum expert and a FutureEd senior fellow, about his take on the standards movement and how to achieve the movement’s important goal of educating many more students to higher levels.

You start out your book declaring that the standards movement is a failure. Why do you think it failed?

Standards have failed to raise achievement because they haven't been implemented. And why have standards not been implemented? First, we're asking teachers to become experts in reading and interpreting standards, going out and identifying curriculum materials to align with those standards, and then implementing those materials in the classroom. And almost on its face, this isn't a way that you could get standards to be implemented in any kind of consistent way. You've got 3 million teachers doing this laborious work of trying to interpret the standards, which are oftentimes quite confusing.

Teachers oftentimes get little or no guidance on curriculum materials from either the state or from their district. There's very little expectation that they even use those materials. The goal of the standards movement is really to get consistent implementation. But obviously, that's not going to happen when you've got millions of teachers with relatively little support and relatively little guidance going out and making these decisions independently. It's not a path to consistent implementation of anything.

I was struck by a figure you had in your book about how many teachers are taking materials off the internet to use in their classrooms and how they're shaping their own curricula.

Teachers in the U.S. supplement a lot. Teachers go to Google, teachers go to Pinterest. We know this. And I don't think you can or should say to teachers, "You can't supplement." But we can think about ways to encourage teachers to supplement productively, in ways that support the core curriculum rather than potentially undermine it. We've all seen these stories, there's one a week, about some horrifying lesson that some teacher implemented, and it's some terribly offensive thing about slavery or something like that. And they’re invariably not from the core textbook but from some supplemental material website or even passed on from a colleague. That shouldn't be happening.

Why is this happening?

If you talk to teachers about why they supplement, by far the most important reason is for engaging students and probably the second most important reason is for students to practice skills, especially in math. That tells me that their core materials are falling short. Their core materials, they feel, are not sufficiently engaging to their students. And that might be because they're not culturally appropriate for their students or relevant to the kinds of students they serve, but it might be their core materials also don't have what they feel is sufficient practice for students to develop the important procedural knowledge that they really need to get the more conceptual stuff.

What can district or state leadership do to avoid this?

What we've found is that you really need a clear and coherent vision. The district has to believe that core materials are important, has to build teacher buy-in for those core materials through including them in the selection process and hearing teachers’ voices when they say this is or isn't working.

Simply put, you need clear expectations about how much teachers are going to use the materials. That doesn't mean a script, but it does mean it's not just, “Here's the book and I don't care if you use it.”

Beyond the inconsistency across the ranks of teachers, you point to the inconsistency across school districts.

Right. The people who came up with the idea of standards were right that decentralization and lack of clear guidance and lack of structural supports were major problems in American education. But then, they didn't really try to fix that problem. We still have the 13,000 school districts, we still have, in most states, very little guidance for what kinds of materials school districts should adopt. And we still have in most districts relatively little guidance for what teachers should be doing.

Local control is part of the problem?

This decentralization issue is really at the heart of many of our challenges in education right now. The pandemic is the most recent example of the challenges of decentralization and the ways in which our sort of fealty to local control ends up burdening local actors, teachers and school district leaders and leaving to sort of widely varying and idiosyncratic policy decisions that may not be in the best interests of kids

We get results that are all over the map and results that, frankly, almost always disproportionately harm the most disadvantaged students. It also contributes very dramatically to these equity issues that we're all so focused on right now. We need to have some serious discussions about what degree of local control is right, what the proper role is for state versus local actors—in particular for state departments of education, which is where I think most of the action should be. And the pandemic should really make us take another look at local control.

That seems like a heavy lift in the current political environment. How would you accomplish that?

There are models of states that are really trying to push on this issue. And these are not progressive lefty states. In fact, they're states across the political spectrum—from Louisiana to Rhode Island. They're recognizing that the state has a very important role to play in ensuring that all children have access to high-quality curricular materials.

It's about creating clear incentives or maybe even requirements for districts to choose from among a small set of materials, and then supporting those districts and the teachers in those districts to understand and implement those materials by providing high-quality professional development or identifying providers who can deliver that professional development, and by ensuring that schools and districts are also using quality, aligned interim assessments.

What are Louisiana and Rhode Island doing that other states aren't?

They're creating strong incentives for districts to adopt high quality materials. They make it easier for districts to buy books that are well rated (in Louisiana they call this “Tier 1”). They identify professional development providers who are approved for those core materials. And they provide professional learning at the state level to representatives from each school or district on those core materials.

When Louisiana couldn't find the core materials it wanted, it actually created materials. The Louisiana Guidebooks are now used by, I believe, over three quarters of districts in Louisiana. And the great thing about creating this kind of open resource is that it can be made locally relevant. And it can evolve over time. They're actually on version 3.0 of the guidebooks. And each time they do it, they update it based on feedback from local school districts. I'm not saying I would want necessarily 50 states to go out and create 50 different core curricula, but Louisiana demonstrates that it can be done.

[Read More: Strengthening Standards, Teaching, and Testing in a Deep Red State]

Another example is New York with its Engage New York curriculum created almost a decade ago. It demonstrates that when you create a good quality core curriculum, especially in this sort of common standards era where state standards differences are relatively modest, it can actually have huge national impact. Because Engage New York is one of the most widely used set of curriculum materials nationally, even though New York is very much a local-control state and tries to stay out of what school districts are using there.

Can states force this on local districts, or is it going to have to be voluntary, given the politics of local control?

Absolutely, states can force this if they want. States are the primary funder of schools. They are the ones that are constitutionally responsible for the provision of education. Now, the politics of it are such that in most states you actually couldn't really force. But I think that it's well within the rights of states to say, "We expect all public school districts that rely on state dollars, the dollars that come from taxpayers, to use high quality core materials. Period.”

It's not necessarily a red state or a blue state thing. It can be done in ways that school district leaders appreciate, that teachers appreciate, that clearly increases educational opportunity. It's about state leaders figuring out what will work in their state, given the particular political context. Access to high-quality curriculum materials is an important equity issue.

Could states dedicate some of the Covid relief money they’re receiving to the development of high-quality core curricula?

Absolutely.  And it doesn't have to be just core subjects. Everyone is very concerned about social-emotional learning and student mental health. States should be involved in creating quality materials for those things. In California, we've got 1,100 school districts. You don't want to leave it up to 1,100 superintendents to figure out what's the best material for social-emotional learning coming out of the pandemic. The state is very well positioned to bring together experts to identify existing materials or create new ones, and then to strongly encourage and support districts to adopt those materials.

I think the district leaders would actually appreciate having that kind of guidance and not having to make yet another decision.

Do you see any hope for a national set of standards, ala the Common Core? Did the experience with the Common Core show that's not going to happen?

I used to have strong feelings about at what level standards should be written, and I felt that that was national. I don't know that’s necessary at this point; states are recognizing that this is an important lever and buying into it. Do I think that the federal Department of Education should be requiring or even recommending any particular curriculum materials? Probably not. I do think that the Education Department could invest in research to help support states and districts and teachers in this effort. That's probably the best role for the department to play.

[Read More: How the Common Core Changed Testing]

 Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.