How can you bring standards to life and reality in the classroom? The proliferation of standards developed at the national and state levels turns the preparation of a meaningful classroom curriculum into a daunting task. This guide is for teachers who seek a model and processes for designing standards-based units of study to use in their own classrooms. Consider the experiences of other educators as they have examined their teaching methods and incorporated standards into their classroom activities and units of study.
In rural Vermont, five Essential Early Education mentors spend a week designing standards-based units of study with 100 colleagues who teach kindergarten through 12th grades. Early in their work the teachers express concern that standards conflict with their exploratory, experiential program. After using newly developed state standards to identify the desired results of their program, the teachers realize that exploration and experience are the how of their program and that standards are the what and the why. The teachers end the week asking how to involve private preschool teachers in the conversation about standards and by recommending that individual education programs be designed around standards.
In 1989 the National Governor's Association called for the development of national standards for learning and teaching. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, calling for the following results in the United States by the year 2000:
- All children will start school ready to learn.
- 90 percent high-school graduation rate.
- All children competent in core subjects.
- First in the world in math and science.
- Every adult literate and able to compete in the workforce.
- Safe, disciplined, drug-free schools.
- Professional development for educators.
- Increased parental involvement in learning.
Forty middle-grades teachers in South Carolina spend a week during the summer using state frameworks to build integrated teaching units. About mid-week, while struggling to design activities related to standards, one group has an important “ah-hah” moment and their team leader exclaims, “In the past, activities have been the means and the ends and we never really got anywhere. Now I see that standards are the ends and activities are the means we need to use to help students get there. This is really going to change my teaching.”
Goal 3 of Goals 2000 states
All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation's modern economy.
Suburban high-school students spend the first week of school using the state's newly adopted standards to build scoring guides that they will use to assess their work for the year.
Since the passage of Goals 2000, national professional groups, state departments of education, and school districts have been developing frameworks of content standards and student performance standards to clarify what, and how well, all students should learn.
As one 2nd grader walks past a friend to turn in an assignment, the friend says, “I don't know why you're bothering to turn that in. It's not up to standard yet.”
Given a model and processes for using standards in the classroom, the teachers with whom we have worked find that standards help (1) focus their curriculum, (2) refine work they have done in the past, (3) make expectations clear to students, and (4) improve student learning.
The Purpose of Standards
As Scenarios 1—4 illustrate, the effect of standards is being felt at many levels—state, district, school, and classroom—and by many constituencies (students, parents, and the community). Why are standards so important and effective as a tool for good learning? Because they express clear expectations for what all students, except perhaps for those with seriously disabling conditions, should know and be able to do. As adapted from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989), all students means
- Students who are female, as well as those who are male.
- Students who are African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, and members of other minorities, as well as those who are members of the racial and ethnic majority.
- Students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, as well as those who are more advantaged.
- Students who have not been successful in school, as well as those who have been successful.
- Students who have been denied access to educational opportunities in any way, as well as those who have not.
Standards express what all students should know and be able to do while addressing the different needs of the school's constituencies.
Students. Standards set clear performance expectations for students, helping them understand what they need to do to meet the standards. Standards lead to improved student performance and promote more challenging, equitable, and rewarding experiences for all learners.
Teachers. Standards cause teachers to design curriculum, instruction, and assessment around what is important to learn. When teachers design standards-based curriculum and assessment, learning is intentional and more purposeful than in most other curriculums.
District and School. School innovations and programs for learning exemplify standards in action. For all districts and schools, standards provide a focus for developing new ways to organize curriculum content, instructional-delivery systems, and assessment plans.
Parents, Business People, and Community Leaders. Standards communicate shared expectations for learning and provide a common language for talking about the processes of learning and teaching. As a result, parents, business people, and community leaders become more effective partners in, and monitors of, young people's education. Standards allow people other than just the students to know and understand good learning and how the students are progressing in their education.
State. Standards are a common reference tool for ensuring that the components of the educational system work together. Standards make good learning evident from district to district and from school to school.
A Definition of Content Standards and Student Performance Standards
Content standards specify the essential knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that should be taught and learned in school. These standards are often set by local, state, and national groups.
Essential knowledge includes the most important and enduring ideas, issues, dilemmas, principles, and concepts from the disciplines. For example, each student should be able to
- Identify major eras in history and analyze periods of transition in the local community, in Vermont, in the United States, and in various locales around the world.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the history and structures of the English language (sentence, paragraph, and text patterns).
- Demonstrate an understanding of the nature and function of cells, both as individual entities and as components of larger systems.
Skills are ways of thinking, working, communicating, and investigating, and each student should be able to
- Use the scientific method to describe and explain natural phenomena.
- Use statistical methods and data collection to make interpretations, comparisons, and conclusions about technological, scientific, and other changes in society.
Habits of mind are essential both in and out of school. Habits of mind include studying, providing evidence for assertions, and developing productive, satisfying relationships with others. For example, each student should be able to
- Assess own learning by developing rigorous criteria to use in producing consistently high-quality work.
- Demonstrate dependability, productivity, leadership, and integrity.
Student performance standards express the degree or quality of proficiency that students are expected to display in relation to the content standards. Student performance standards answer questions about quality and degree, whereas content standards define what students should know and be able to do. For example, if the content standard states “Students comprehend and respond to a range of media, images, and text for a variety of purposes,” a performance standard might be “Students in kindergarten through 4th grade should read at least 25 books each year, choosing quality materials from classic and modern children's literature and public discourse, or the equivalent in children's magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and media.”