Dec. 4, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 6

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    Putting education to the test

    Researchers say higher standards, achievement tests keys to school reform

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Students in American schools could achieve closer to their potential if nationwide performance standards for all schools were established, according to a new book based on the research of the late James Coleman, University Professor in Sociology.

    Coleman, who died in 1995, devoted the last years of his life to studying ways in which education could be improved by encouraging teachers to raise their expectations of students' abilities and create positive norms for performance in the classroom. His observations, along with work by several colleagues, were recently published in Redesigning American Education (Westview Press, 1997).

    "Coleman envisioned a single entity responsible for establishing standards for student and teacher performance that would operate independently of local school interests," said Barbara Schneider, Senior Lecturer in Education and Senior Social Scientist at the National Opinion Research Center.

    "External state standards boards could serve such a function providing they were free from partisan politics and the interests of local communities," said Schneider, who wrote several chapters of the book. "By shifting the authority for standard-setting and assessment to an independent external agency rather than an intermediary district, it would be easier to monitor and ensure compliance at the local level."

    Under Coleman's redesign, the central focus of schools would be preparing students to perform well on standardized tests. Teachers would give up their authority to choose curriculum under the arrangement, but would retain freedom to teach in a style that would be most effective for them.

    "What is decidedly 'Coleman-like' about the approach is his explicit focus on the importance of building positive social relationships between the teacher and the student around norms that stress academic achievement," Schneider said. "Without strong social ties between the teacher and his or her class, Coleman believed that it would be nearly impossible to establish norms that place a strong value on academic achievement."

    Under the current system, in which teachers select the material that will be taught, many compromises are made that undermine achievement, the authors contend. In order to maintain control in the classroom, teachers often reduce the amount of work they expect from students. Instead of sending material home for students to read, teachers in many schools permit students to read books during class.

    Because there are no state or national standards on specifically what students are expected to learn at each grade level, there is very little accountability in the system, according to Coleman and his colleagues. The system hurts inner city and rural students who attend financially disadvantaged schools, as well as students in well-financed school systems who are not challenged to work at their full potential.

    The system contributes to the gap in achievement between American students and those of other industrialized democracies, most of which have strong national standards and uniform curriculums, according to the researchers.

    Using the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988-94 to research the impact of high standards on achievement, the authors found that some of the elements in Coleman's design, such as rigorous standards for achievement, are already present in some schools in the country.

    They discovered that mathematics performance increases in schools where teachers notify parents of poor student performance and press students to achieve. The authors found, too, that a student decision as a sophomore to take an SAT test as a senior prompted growth in mathematics achievement, regardless of prior achievement level or social background.

    The findings in the book make an important contribution to the discussions about school improvement, Schneider said.

    "Having clear and shared norms that are widely upheld and reinforced in classroom practices can help to reduce teacher uncertainty of their professional role and instill a stronger sense of institutional purpose among student, parents and staff," Schneider writes. "Without such performance norms for students and teachers, it is unlikely that reform practices will be able to accomplish major changes that can be sustained over time."

    In addition to Coleman and Schneider, the authors of Redesigning American Education are Stephen Plank, associate research scientist and adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins; Kathryn Schiller, visiting assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame; Roger Shouse, assistant professor at Penn State; and Huayin Wang, statistical analyst at R. J. Krumm and Associates; with Seh-Ahn Lee, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.