Back to basics: Do standards matter?

It’s been a long and twisty road since the Common Core State Standards were first released in June 2010. What began more than three years ago as a highly technical debate over the details of the expectations themselves has evolved into a far-reaching philosophical and political debate over the value of setting K–12 academic standards at all.

After two decades of broad bipartisan agreement in the education-reform community on the importance of standards as part of a comprehensive approach to improving our schools, many opponents—bolstered by the work of analysts such as Tom Loveless, Russ Whitehurst, and Eric Hanushek—now oppose the Common Core on grounds that standards don’t really matter anyway, so it isn’t worth expending political capital on a bruising fight to install new ones.

The drumbeat began even before the Common Core standards were finalized, in October 2009, when Russ Whitehurst published a paper in October 2009 challenging the importance of state standards. In brief, Whitehurst compared the “effect sizes” of a variety of reforms—on charter schools, standards, preschool, teacher quality, and curriculum—and found that curriculum had a greater impact than any other reform. He also found that there was no statistically significant correlation between the quality of a state’s standards, as judged by the grades that Fordham assigned, and that state’s student achievement, as measured by NAEP. Rick Hanushek ran a similar analysis using standards ratings published by Education Week and actually declared, “The better the state standards, the worse the students tend to do” (though those findings were not statistically significant).

In 2012, Tom Loveless added to the discussion by showing that not only was the quality of a state’s standards unrelated to student achievement, but a state’s proficiency cut score—i.e., the level at which a student had to score on the statewide assessment to be “proficient”—was unrelated to achievement, too (though Loveless also found that a “change in performance level” was related to an increase in achievement).

Q.E.D.?

Not exactly. While Loveless, Hanushek, and Whitehurst provide some compelling reasons why we should be cautious in drawing any direct line between changing standards and raising student achievement, there are limitations to their analyses, as well as contradictory evidence from other studies that we must take into account when weighing the role standards can play in the effort to raise student achievement.

It turns out there are four facts that emerge from the research that suggest standards are important (but not a silver bullet).

1. School-level accountability drives student achievement

Hanushek’s opposition to standards-driven reform is particularly curious when you consider his own research on the link between state accountability and student achievement. In a 2005 study—published jointly with Margaret Raymond for the National Bureau of Economic Research—he found that

state achievement growth as measured by the National Assessment of Educational progress shows that accountability systems…had a clear positive impact on student achievement.”

In other words, state accountability—which is impossible absent state K–12 academic standards by which to gauge student or school performance—clearly impacts achievement.

2. Standards influence instruction

Adding confusion to Hanushek’s opposition to the Common Core is his assertion that standards don’t matter because “what really matters is what is actually taught in the classroom.”

Of course that’s true. What isn’t taught is not likely to get learned. Classroom instruction matters enormously. And as Mike argued in another post yesterday, standards are meant to influence instruction (without being overly prescriptive as to the specifics of curriculum or pedagogy). But we also have empirical evidence demonstrating that standards do influence classroom instruction.

A study published last year by Morgan Polikoff in the American Journal of Education found that, while teachers exaggerate the degree to which they’ve aligned their classroom instruction to state standards, classroom practice does shift in response to academic expectations. (The results were stronger in math than reading, but in both cases, “changes in alignment take place.”)

What’s noteworthy about Polikoff’s findings is that despite the existence of standards that Fordham experts found to be vague to the point of near meaninglessness, and despite very uneven implementation of those standards both within and across states, there is evidence that teachers did align their practice to meet the K–12 expectations that were set by their states. Furthermore, in another study published in AERA’s Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in May 2012, Polikoff found that the better aligned state assessments were to state standards, the more aligned classroom-level instruction was to the standards and assessments.

Far from suggesting that standards don’t matter, these results suggest the potential for an even greater impact in an environment where academic expectations are clearer and implementation more focused and consistent.

3. Standards alone are not enough

Opponents of standards- and accountability-driven reform typically rely not just on Hanushek’s and Loveless’s research but also on student-achievement results from California and Massachusetts to give real-world examples of the disconnect between the quality of a state’s standards and the achievement of its students. As Hanushek has explained, for example,

In arguing for focusing on standards, proponents of national standards conventionally point to Massachusetts: strong standards and top results…But, California balances Massachusetts: strong standards and bottom results.

What is most frustrating (and a tad disingenuous) about this argument—and about sweeping declarations that standards don’t matter—is that the research doesn’t seem to account for implementation of the standards. They simply look at the standards’ quality, then they look at student achievement, and then they declare standards DOA.

Of course, like everything in the multifaceted world of school- and classroom-level reform, the equation is far more complicated. As we’ve long said—and as is entirely in line with some of Whitehurst’s and Hanushek’s arguments—standards alone do very little. For them to drive achievement, they obviously need to be implemented, which means they need to have statewide assessments aligned with them, they need to inform school accountability, and they need to drive curriculum and instruction. And the evidence suggests that if states set clear and rigorous standards and properly align statewide assessments to them, we will see classroom-level change.

But let’s not forget that implementation is not only important to standards, but to all reforms. For instance, while Whitehurst is right that curriculum can meaningfully drive achievement, the impact of even a proven curriculum depends in large part on how faithfully that program is implemented. In other words, no matter what, classroom change is hard and implementation matters immensely.

4. Standards’ content and coherence matters

Finally, to suggest that accountability (tied to state standards) matters but that the quality, content, and rigor of the state’s standards do not is illogical. For example, research conducted by William Schmidt and published in Educational Researcher found a link between the content and coherence of K–12 expectations and student achievement in math. Specifically, his analysis found that “states whose previous standards were most similar to the Common Core performed better on a national math test in 2009.” He found similar results when he compared standards of other high-performing nations to the Common Core.

Those findings are unsurprising when you consider that the specifics of what students study is critical. This is especially true in subjects like math, where knowledge is cumulative and students cannot advance without mastery of essential prerequisite knowledge and skills. That is no doubt part of the reason Whitehurst found that faithfully implemented curriculum have a significant impact on student achievement: because curricula give clear, unambiguous guidance about what students should know and how a teacher might structure lessons, units, and instruction to ensure that all students master that essential content.

That said, because a curriculum is only as effective as it is well implemented, local educators and leaders need to make curricular choices based not only on program effectiveness and alignment but also on the likelihood that a particular program will be faithfully implemented in the classroom. Those decisions will no doubt be influenced by teacher quality, training, access to resources, and on.

In other words, as Hanushek himself acknowledged, “what matters most is what happens in the classroom.” And so, rather than ignoring standards, we should be focused on ensuring that those standards are clear, focused, and coherent so that they can help teachers organize their classes in ways we know make a difference.

All of this is to say that, while Loveless’s, Hanushek’s, and Whitehurst’s research should not be ignored, we should be very careful not to look at their findings in isolation because we have a growing evidence base that supports a rather different policy prescription: the importance not just of setting K–12 academic standards but also of ensuring that those standards are well implemented, and that they are clear, rigorous, and coherent from grade to grade.

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