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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Creating “Standard-Bearer Schools”

Educators for a long time have measured individual performances but, very rarely, the school as a system. The creation of “standard-bearer schools” is an attempt to assess the school organization as a whole—and to align practice with vision.

In certain fields of endeavor—those in which human effort matters a great deal—the assessment of people and their performances consumes a great deal of energy. Education is such a field, and educators attach a great deal of significance to the measurement of people—their mental states, attributes, achievements, and aptitudes. Consequently, educators have gained considerable experience in dealing with the thorny problems of individual measurement.
It is little wonder, therefore, that most of the arguments about the application of standards and assessment in education have concerned ways of assessing individuals. Issues of assessment, especially national assessment, are commonly framed in terms of what young people need to know and be able to do. (The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards poses the same questions about teachers.)
Seldom do those interested in assessment ask, “What capacities must schools and communities possess if they are to ensure that each student has the opportunity to learn what he or she needs to know and be able to do?” And almost never do they ask how these capacities might be assessed or evaluated. In fact, questions of assessing systems and organizations are generally overlooked. Yet it is the capacities of schools and communities with which policymakers should be concerned: these capacities determine the performance opportunities available to teachers and students. Raising or changing standards for teachers and students does not necessarily raise or change standards for schools.
Why, then, has so little attention been given to establishing standards for schools? Part of the reason for this omission may be that certain standards that already apply to school—regulations, board policies, and accrediting procedures, for instance—are for the most part viewed as some of the big problems facing education. Deregulation, decentralization, site-based management, and shared decision making are all responses to such problems; they represent implicit efforts to eliminate the standards, or at least to set them aside. Standards for schools are too often programmatic and procedural. They are standards that have to do with what should be done and how it is to be done rather than qualitative standards related to organizational processes and system capacities.
Another reason that educators emphasize individual assessment over organizational assessment is that most measurement specialists in education have little experience in, or concern with, the measurement of organizational properties and capacities. Simply put, we tend to measure those things we know how to measure. Unfortunately, we also attend to those things we measure. Consequently, despite all the rhetoric regarding the quality of schools and community life, our existing measurement strategies discourage attention to these priorities.
Attention must be paid, however; recent trends—the quest to restructure schools and to transform America's system of education, together with the growing recognition that performance is affected by the characteristics of systems and organizations—demand it. Those who would improve our schools must give the same attention to establishing standards for schools that they devote to establishing standards for children. This article addresses the creation of systemic standards that are of equal power to those that policymakers seem committed to creating for individual students.
We do not disparage the quest for standards for students or for teachers; indeed, we applaud the effort. We are concerned, however, that creating higher (or at least different and uniformly applied) standards for students and teachers, without creating clearly understood standards for schools or communities, will simply result in one more round of “blaming the victim.” Systems have properties that affect human performance and that often function in ways that are not apparent on superficial inspection. It is time to begin the difficult task of identifying these properties and inventing ways to measure and assess them.

The Origin of Standards

Standards are statements of preference and value. Questions of values and their sources, then, are at least as important in any discussion of standards as are technical questions of measurement. What should be measured is at least as important as how it should be measured. This is certainly not a new insight, but its significance is often overlooked in the quest for technically defensible (and, more recently, legally defensible) methods of measurement.
Take, for instance, the supposed standards governing how many students can be assigned to a given teacher in a given period of time. Such a standard implies some link between class size and something of value in schooling.
Two values are commonly suggested: improved student performance and improved teacher morale. With regard to improved student performance, the research evidence is not sufficiently compelling to justify the multibillion dollar investment that would be required to reduce class size to a point where there is some reasonable assurance that improved student performance would result from the investment. Nor are the resources available for such an enormous investment.
With regard to improved teacher morale, reducing class size does appear to have positive effects, at least for a short time. But once a current reduction of one or two students has become accepted as routine, these effects on morale deteriorate, and the only way to continue the effect is to further reduce class size.
Here is truly a difficult issue. If it were financially and politically possible to reduce class size far enough, and if we could build enough schools to accommodate all of these small classes, and if we could find enough teachers who had the knowledge and the skills to take advantage of this state of affairs, then the act of reducing class size might have the power to affect simultaneously both student performance and teacher morale and efficacy. The ideal of Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a rapt student on the other end is still an inspiring image.
The amount of money that would be needed to achieve this end, however, would be staggering. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that student performance will be increased by “raising the standards” related to class size, especially in today's economic climate. Thus, if the intent of using class size as a standard is to exert lasting effects on student performance and teacher morale, it is unlikely that much good can come from the application of such a standard, since it cannot be met at a level that has any real meaning.
Let's suppose that the standard were framed by asking different questions: What qualitative differences would occur if we reduced class size? More specifically, what qualities would reduced class size provide students and teachers that they are not now getting, and that seem likely to bolster student performance, teacher morale, and teacher efficacy?
Two possibilities come to mind. First, reduced class size could increase the amount of attention each child receives from adults. Second, teachers might have more time for planning and reflection.
Fine. Why don't we state the value this way: “We believe that students deserve n amount of time each day from some adult in their school who can provide instruction and modeling.” Furthermore, “We believe that each teacher should have n amount of time for personal reflection and for developing activities for students with colleagues.” (The value of n is the quantitative expression of the standard.)
There are obviously many ways, in addition to reducing class size, of meeting such standards. We could reduce the number of classes taught and taken (Theodore Sizer's notion), or we could use computers for many of the routine tasks now performed by teachers, thereby giving teachers more time. We could give nonteacher adults new and different roles, reducing in-school time and increasing community service time. We could employ adult mentors more systematically, use student-teachers more effectively, and develop team-teaching arrangements. Or, if we wanted to be really radical (and we tend to be that way), we could abolish school classes altogether and organize different kinds of learning configurations, for example, multiage teams organized along the lines of Scout troops.
Standards stated in the manner suggested invite invention rather than mandate implementation and compliance. Such standards encourage creativity, not suppress it.

Beliefs and Values

The beginning point for the creation of standards for schools, then, is a set of beliefs about the way schools ought to be. Unless those who set standards are clear about their beliefs, they are likely to set inappropriate standards (for example, class size or student/teacher ratios) or to fall back on using individual measures of student performance.
  1. The purpose of schools is to develop in each student the capacity to think and reason, and to ensure that each student develops those understandings, skills, and habits of mind that make it possible to participate fully in a multiethnic, multicultural society in an information-based global economy.
  2. Every student can and will learn if presented with the right opportunity to do so. Schools serve their purpose when they invent learning opportunities for students that ensure that each day each child experiences success in school.
  3. Learning opportunities are determined by the nature of the work students undertake. It is the responsibility of teachers and administrators to provide students with those forms of schoolwork at which they are most likely to experience success and from which they learn those things of most value to them, to the community, and to the society at large.
  4. It is the obligation of the family and the community to guarantee each child the support he or she needs to be successful in pursuing intellectually demanding tasks and activities. Schools serve their purpose when they develop mechanisms for the active and continuous connection of families and the community to the schools.
  5. The work of people in an information-based society is best characterized as “knowledge work,” that is, the employing of ideas, concepts, symbols, and abstractions to solve problems, produce products, deliver services, or otherwise provide some useful outcome. Schools must become knowledge-work organizations; they must be organized to encourage children to use knowledge to solve problems rather than to passively absorb knowledge to be used at a later time.
  6. Students, and the work they are expected to do, should be the focus of all school activity. Schools should be organized around the work of students rather than around the work of teachers and administrators or the interests of school boards, political factions, and interest groups.
  7. The rules, roles, and relationships that govern behavior in schools should be such that: teachers are encouraged to invent work that responds to the needs of students; teachers are empowered to lead students in the doing of that work; and principals are encouraged to be leaders of leaders, so that all who work in and around schools are accountable for and committed to the continuous improvement of the quality of the work provided.
  8. The primary role of the superintendent is to promote the articulation and persistent pursuit of a compelling vision of education in the community, to encourage and support creative leadership at all levels of the system, to ensure that all personnel focus on providing high-quality experiences for students, and to educate the community about education.
  9. The mission of district-level administrators and staff is to give direction to and support for the work of schools. The superintendent, board of education, central office administrators and staff, and community members must provide principals, teachers, and students with forms of support that ensure continuing growth and development.
  10. Commitments to innovation and continuous growth and improvement should be expected of all people and programs supported by school district resources. School district resources should be allocated thoughtfully, purposefully, and flexibly to ensure that these expectations can be met.

The Envisioning Process

Our work in schools begins with these beliefs. Our strategy is to work with schools, school districts, and communities to develop clear descriptions of what schools and communities would look like if they were to operate in harmony with these beliefs. Our fundamental framing question is this: “If we hold these beliefs, then what policies, procedures, programs, and practices need to exist to support them?” For example, if we say we believe that innovation and continuous improvement should be expected of all people and programs supported by the school district, then what kinds of policies need to be in place? What kinds of programs and procedures might conceivably encourage or discourage innovation? How would people behave if this belief were manifest in schools and classrooms?
The answers to such questions will not provide standards, but they will provide vision. And vision tells us what to look for in the process of developing standards. If, for instance, we have some idea about the kinds of policies that encourage innovation, then we know what kinds of policies to take into account in a quest for standards. A vision also suggests what elements should not be present.
The act of envisioning a system grounded in a coherent set of beliefs leads to a description of the characteristics of the system one wishes to invent, support, encourage, or maintain. The next question is: “How would we know if these characteristics were present in the system?”
The answer to that question leads to a consideration of indicators, that is, to observable (and therefore measurable) elements. Agreement on indicators leads to the establishment of standards by which to judge qualities.
The above process allows school boards, faculties, or communities to begin to apply meaningful standards to their schools. Furthermore, this process makes accountability possible, because it separates two questions that are now confused: (1) Are our schools doing what we want them to do? (2) Are our schools achieving the results we want them to achieve?
If it turns out that our schools are doing what we want them to do, but not achieving what we want them to achieve, it may be because we want them to do the wrong things. On the other hand, if our schools are not doing what we want them to do—that is, not meeting systemic performance standards—then it may be that what is needed is more attention to these standards and more support for the pursuit of them. Until there are such standards, school reform must fly blind, and people will be held responsible for failures that are actually embedded in the system itself.

Standard-Bearer Schools

One approach to creating the kind of standards described above is to work with entire school districts (and, through those districts, with specific schools) that are expressly charged with the responsibility for creating and demonstrating the application of the desired systemic standards. The Center for Leadership in School Reform (CLSR) has developed partnerships with several school districts that are willing to attempt this approach to school reform.
In each partnership district, the superintendent, the board of education, and the teachers' organization have agreed to use the 10 beliefs listed above as a starting point for a dialogue intended to result in the creation of “standard-bearer” schools. These partner districts have agreed that designing standard-bearer schools is a crucial ingredient in producing systemic change. The design team is to be made up of teachers, principals, central office personnel, parents, representatives of youth-serving agencies in the community, and others appropriate in the local context.
The districts that are working with CLSR to create these standard-bearer schools will, at the same time, undertake a thorough analysis of the capacity of both the district and the community to embark upon a marrow-deep process of restructuring. Paralleling the development of the standard-bearer schools will be a series of audits and assessments to determine the extent to which the district currently has in place policies, procedures, programs, and practices that make it likely that a major restructuring effort can and will be supported and sustained. Such audits should indicate the extent to which current practices in schools are guided by a clear and well-articulated vision, and the extent to which this vision—if it exists—is consistent with the vision implicit in the beliefs on which the partnership is based.
  • To what extent is what we are doing in our school building consistent with the beliefs of the partnership—and thus with the districtwide beliefs?
  • Are we related to the district and to the community in the ways in which our beliefs suggest that we should be related?
  • If a discrepancy exists, what would we need to do to bring practices into line with our proposed beliefs?
Though the concept of the standard-bearer school remains to be more completely defined, the guiding image is that of the standard bearer in military units during the Civil War. The standard was not always in front, but the soldier who bore the standard was expected to be headed in the right direction. Moreover, the standard served as a visible rallying point when the confusion of battle caused disarray. And all the troops understood that the standard should never be allowed to fall. Each, therefore, had an obligation to the standard bearer, and all took pride in their standard.
The purpose of the standard-bearer school is to signify the direction reform is taking in school districts with which CLSR has established partnerships. Unlike the pilot school or the model school, the standard-bearer school does not stand apart from the other schools in the district. Rather, the standard-bearer school should belong to all the schools in the district.
The majority of the staff members of a standard-bearer school might be on temporary assignment from other schools in the district, in much the same way that the various military services provided personnel to staff the ranks of the astronauts in NASA's early days. But assignments to a standard-bearer school would be for a shorter period of time (two to three years), thus avoiding the fact or appearance of skimming off teachers from other district schools.
The principal of the standard-bearer school might serve as a lead principal for a cluster of schools. The standard-bearer school might function much like a professional development school, acting as a center for research, training, and support for teachers and administrators from several other schools. Teachers and administrators from schools other than the standard-bearer school might serve on advisory boards, or perhaps even formulate policy and direction, for the standard-bearer school.
The critical point is that standard-bearer schools must be embedded in the governance structure and staffing patterns of the district in such a way that those who work at other school sites will feel an investment in, and a commitment to supporting, what is occurring in the standard-bearer school. Rather than encouraging competition among schools, the standard-bearer school will encourage cooperation. Standards have no meaning unless those whose performance is affected by them believe in them and consider them important to their lives.
Because we believe that school reform has reached a critical stage, a stage at which significant progress must be made quickly if public education is to survive as a vital force in our society, we are taking the risk of describing activities that are only beginning to be tested in the real world of the public schools.
We are encouraged as we take this risk, partly because we believe that the current focus of school reform is often misguided, fixing as it often does on single schools. We believe that a systemic approach to school reform is needed. Creating standards for school districts and for standard-bearer schools seems a reasonable approach to this problem.
Fortunately, we have found a number of school districts that are willing to join us in our quest. As this process continues, we hope to have something more concrete to share. In the meantime, we believe that the general strategy we are employing is sufficiently adaptable that others, with other systems of belief, might find our approach provocative and useful.
End Notes

1 Mark Hopkins, professor of moral philosophy and rhetoric at Williams College from 1830–1887, was known as an inspired teacher and lecturer.

Robert W. Cole has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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