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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Holding Sacred Ground: The Impact of Standardization

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In the face of increasing standardization, schools struggle to hold on to the democratic ideals of public education and search for alternative visions of education.

When you look at students in their magnificent diversity—diversity of language, culture, ideas, economic background, religion, expression, and manners—what do you hope that schooling will do for them? What is schooling for, anyway? What constitutes an educated person? W. E. B. Du Bois (1949/1970) described learning for African American children as the most fundamental human right because it allows students to challenge the world and to determine how they can work toward a different and better future.
In the 1840s, Horace Mann proposed the need for common schools that would function as the great equalizers of human conditions, the balance wheel of social machinery. Public school would be free, for poor and rich alike, and nonsectarian. The common school would not be a school for common people but rather a school common to all people, developing educated persons who exercised free and deliberate choices (Cremin, 1961).
Thomas Jefferson viewed the educated person as a farmer, a person who lived apart from others, pursued interests in science, philosophy, and art after a long day of self-sustaining chores, and then determined when to participate in neighborhood and community affairs. The educated person combined self-reliance, individuality, and self-learning with minimal but significant civic responsibility.
In the late 1980s and up until the late 1990s, the "restructuring" period of education, we saw perhaps the largest and most sustained rethinking of schools along the lines of larger purposes of democracy, with the inclusion of all students as active, curious, and wise citizens.
My contention is that the work of K–12 schools—to sustain an education for all students built on active, participatory, integrated, and contributory learning—is messy, difficult, and up close. Powerful intellectual education is respectful, challenging, and democratic, preparing students to use their skills, knowledge, and understanding to exercise choices about how to self-govern and to govern with others—to have choices of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Glickman, 1998).
Many collaborative networks throughout the United States work toward such educational goals. The Coalition of Essential Schools, the Accelerated Schools, the Child Development Study Schools, the ATLAS Project, the Four Seasons Project, and the Annenberg Urban and Rural Challenge are just a few of the collaborations that have brought together the enthusiasm of schools and local communities to develop intellectual expectations among faculty, students, parents, neighborhoods, community resources, and businesses; these expectations move far beyond the traditional view of teaching as isolated, controlling, and passive (McDonald, 1996; McDonald et al., 1999).
Thousands of individuals are committed to this work, including such noted educators as Deborah Meier (1995), George Wood (1998), James Comer (Comer, Ben-Avie, Haynes, & Joyner, 1999), Henry Levin (1991), Lisa Delpit (1995), Linda Darling-Hammond (1997), and Theodore Sizer (1984). With their efforts have come astounding realizations of what students are capable of doing. The work of these educators represents the very best in the tradition of progressive education (Ravitch, 2000).
How do we sustain such work when recent history indicates that it will be curtailed? We are already seeing its curtailment by the standards, assessment, and accountability movement, which has, in many states, increasingly locked teachers and schools into focusing their teaching on high-stakes tests that reward or punish schools and determine whether students graduate or progress to the next level of school. The state standards and accountability movement has been an unstoppable train with only one state, Iowa, left in the United States without such a scheme.

Standards, Accountability, and Tests

The movement for state standards and accountability is a complex phenomenon.
First, the states are not all alike; the scope of standards, the nature of assessments, and the usage of both vary. Accountability plans in such states as Texas, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Alabama, and Michigan are highly prescriptive and maintain tight control over the curriculum; the consequences of test results are high for students, teachers, and principals. Other states—Maryland, Maine, and Vermont—use assessments that are broader, incorporate more constructed responses, and allow more options and discretion on the part of schools and districts.
Second, variances or waivers differ by states. Some states—through charter school laws or other state deregulation programs—allow schools and districts that are disgruntled with the existing state plan to opt out if they have developed their own accountability and assessment plans. The trend, however, is toward reducing local control and forcing schools to comply with state assessments.
The state governors, as part of the National Governors' Association, advocate tight state controls over standards, and the federal government's Goals 2000 legislation has provided further momentum for more testing with greater consequences. The issues of standards and accountability pervade educational conferences and literature on reform.
Standards policies are a significant issue in education because they affect nearly every student, faculty member, and school in the country and have a direct bearing on how we define well-educated students, the curriculum to be taught, and the ultimate purpose of our schools.
  • The standards movement expects every student—regardless of socioeconomic class, gender, race, or ethnicity—to achieve at higher levels than ever before, and it holds teachers and schools responsible for proving that all students can achieve standards.
  • The standards movement provides greater funds and targeted assistance to classrooms and schools where groups of students are not achieving at equitable levels.
  • Some schools that have shown no improvements over many years have been closed or reconstituted.
  • In some states, stronger equalization and redistribution of state funding of schools have accompanied the implementation of schemes for state accountability. Poor schools are receiving more, and wealthier districts are receiving fewer state funds.
  • State legislatures—or, more often, state courts—are saying that a quality education for all students is a constitutional responsibility and must be funded accordingly.
  • Some states have built inclusive and participatory consensus on key learning standards and assessments not tied to one way of knowing or to one format of testing. Some states also have sophisticated accountability schemes that weigh differences among students and communities and give useful information, assistance, and overall purpose to a school's work. Such state plans are rare, but they do exist.
  • States exercise major, unilateral control over all operational aspects of schools: standards, assessments, curriculum, consequences of tests, budgets, resources, staffing, and governance.
  • States establish narrow standards for many academic areas, require frequent and extensive testing of students using tests with single formats, and often follow one group's idea of what every student must master by a certain time.
  • States use bad science to make decisions: comparing noncomparable schools in rewards and punishment systems, not accounting for improvements within schools, and relying only on test scores to assess achievement and accountability and to grant student promotions (Schrag, 2000).
  • There are no allowances for prototype schools or districts to develop their own standards and assessments to challenge the state model.
  • Consequently, there are few challenges to the state's idea of what a well-educated American is.
This last point is the critical flaw of any universal state or national system of standards and accountability.

Who Defines the Well-Educated Person?

If we define education for democratic life as George Wood (1998) does—as making wise citizens and good neighbors who can think deeply and intelligently about issues of self and society, care for and respect others, take care of their family's needs, and contribute to the welfare of others—then what knowledge and type of schooling are essential to this definition? Presumably such an education includes developing an intellectual understanding of other humans and of local, national, and international living conditions; ways of communicating with diverse others; skills of analysis and problem solving; and the competence to choose what one will do with one's own life in economic, social, leisure, and aesthetic pursuits.
Does one need three years of college preparatory mathematics for this? Does one need to learn French or Chinese? What level of mastery does one need in the various disciplines? What is the priority of learning discipline-based subject knowledge versus integrative knowledge, with applications and contributions in the world outside of school? What are the intellectual skills, understandings, and core knowledge needed of a good neighbor and proactive citizen?
I am neither devaluing the worth of specific subjects nor suggesting that we water down expectations for all students. Instead, my battle is about who should determine, and for whom, the essential standards and the degree of public accountability for students.
In a high school curriculum controlled by college admission criteria, certain core courses and scores on the SAT or ACT are essential (even though the most selective colleges consider a much wider range of knowledge and skills). College-bound or not, most students will not use most of what they are required to learn in high school, whether they study mathematics, history, language, or science. Is this knowledge still essential? Again, says who? Dare I ask whether one can be a wise and productive citizen without going to college?
Is the purpose of public education to train a highly skilled work force to support the economic engine of our high-technology information and service corporations? If so—and, of course, there are good reasons to have a healthy economy—then the push for standards, assessments, tests, and skills reflects the ideas of what successful corporate employees need to know; thus, we have the college core courses supplemented by a huge concentration on technology.
Again, I am not arguing whether there is the need for expertise in technology; rather, my question is about who should determine, and for whom, what a well-educated person is.
For example, the Waldorf schools in the United States (Oppenheimer, 1999) have children work with natural materials for the first three to five years of schooling; children use only wood, clay, paint, and water to work on long, painstaking projects for several years before the manufactured world becomes a source of their learning. TVs, phones, and computers do not belong in this early and primary childhood education. The primary emphasis is on imagining and working in a completely natural environment. Are these students less well educated than their peers? According to what criteria?
The standards movement defines the well-educated citizen as a college graduate who is technologically prepared to lead a successful economic life. The idea of an educated citizen as someone who may not want to make a great deal of money or work in a corporation, who instead might seek success in quiet detachment from or even resistance to college or corporate life, has eroded in America. Even mentioning the idea that education is not mostly about jobs or money but about how to choose to live is seen as a romantic, utopian throwback to another time.
My point is not to convince others of my definition of a well-educated person but to share the open doubts about one single definition and to explore the need for more varied concepts of education—concepts that also thrive on student accomplishments and successes and promise a toehold in the future of American education and democracy. How might we do this?

Furthering Democracy

A democracy flourishes only when it protects the marketplace of ideas and a diversity of perspectives. One learns only through disagreements that are civil, respectful, and thoroughly understood (Yankelovich, 1991). What we need are special protections for classrooms and schools that have articulated different perspectives of students—their capabilities, their outcomes—and how to organize for them. We must protect these places the same way that we protect religious communities, native and ethnic cultures, historic places, and national parks. We need alternative concepts of education—not as historic artifacts, but as thriving places of practice that are built into systemic state and district policies. We need schools without grade levels, without mental or physical walls from their communities, with different forms of student expectations, work, assessments, and performances.
Without these alternatives, we have a single concept and a simple system that focuses on raising certain test scores and that silences other possibilities for public education. And if this single system does not work as legislators expect, then more private schools will proliferate—with or without public purpose—able to operate in ways that have not been available to public schools. The transition will be complete: State control will be handed to private control and the grand democratic idea of education for public purposes—wise citizens and good neighbors—will be gone.

Within Public Purpose

Alternative concepts of an American education and the role, indeed the obligation, of public schools to test out different forms of teaching and learning must be mindful of criteria different from those for private or religious schools. Public schools must be open to all, nondiscriminatory, and reflective of the range and diversity of student needs and abilities. Such schools must be public in all that they do. Students, parents or caretakers, and faculty should have a degree of choice over the curriculum and methods. Further, all such schools must make known what they intend to accomplish and must publicly share their progress, or lack of progress, with their community, district, and state. Finally, all meetings about schoolwide decisions and the use of funds must be open to everyone. Schools, in being public, no matter how different from one another, have a responsibility to make known their definition of a well-educated American, their practices of attainment, and the results. Further, they must abide by the U.S. Constitution and not promote private or sectarian purposes.
Unfortunately, protecting a loyal-opposition school movement in the next decade will be extremely difficult. Between the powerful groups that want a single system at state and district levels and the extremists who want to abolish state support and to allow all families to educate their own children however they see fit, we need to find a middle ground—state support with divergent concepts of education for public purpose.

What Can We Do?

  • Rebel openly. Knock the current accountability and testing system out by force. Parents and educators in Wisconsin halted what is widely regarded as a bad, arbitrary set of exit tests. Some Massachusetts schools refused to administer their state tests. Even some test developers and proponents agreed that the tests were unrealistic and time-consuming, measured often trivial knowledge, and were not used appropriately (Schrag, 2000). Rebellion is the clearest stance but has its obvious disadvantages. Power against power means one group will win and the other will lose; if one loses, even greater rigidity will be the likely result. The other problem is that opposition to a single public accountability scheme for a state must have in its place a locally developed public accountability plan to provide higher expectations for all groups of students in legal ways. This accountability entails a major commitment on the part of teachers, school leaders, students, and parents (Gallagher, 2000).
  • Propose variances in the current accountability system. Don't fight the entire state system, but argue instead for more public charter schools and more state deregulation programs that give waivers to state assessments. Argue that—just as all successful corporations work on future designs to help improve the larger system—education needs prototype schools and districts to pilot and test new forms of standards and assessments for guiding further state improvements.
  • Accept the state testing, but develop a community-based standard and assessment as a culminating project. A demonstration, portfolio, or exhibit can integrate what students need to know on the state assessments with a larger, more applicable contribution. The school realizes a higher purpose without reducing the chances for students to do well on the state assessments. Schools work with parents and others to find out what local communities expect of students and their schools. In the last month of each school year, there might be an open house for the community to view this culminating work of students; Maine, Vermont, and Minnesota have pioneered this work.
  • Accept the state standards and tests, and make them work by involving students in finding ways to learn and prepare for them. Involve students in activities that allow for other types of learning. Some schools and communities—many in low-income areas—have created environments of joy, love, and pride, where mastery of state tests is one important part of showing the rest of the world that, as students and a community, they are as good as anyone else (Scheurich, 1998).
  • Mainly ignore the test and then do a crash preparation close to the date of the test, or allow only a fraction of time weekly for test preparation.
  • Resign and find another school within or outside public education to practice what you believe.
In my experience with schools that have grounded their work on such alternative visions of education, I have uncovered incredible stories of savviness and courage: principals who have been fired and some reinstated; teachers taking on their unions to meet more often, control their own hiring, and teach larger classes as a way to redistribute monies for more specialized services for students; schools ridding themselves of colleagues who had great community power but were incompetent or uncaring about what was possible for all students; and educators engaging the public in discussions about school changes.
Many unsung heroes—school boards, superintendents, and community members—have fought to keep alternative concepts of schools alive. But many other teachers and principals have quit, unable to sustain the commitment, energy, and time to educate students in ways that continually challenge them. I have seen vicious attacks on such caring people by those frightened about allowing students to judge the world for themselves.
Others, over the years, in quiet and in loud voices, have carried an idea about education and democracy as inseparable from each other, an idea of the public purpose of education, taking place in all types of locations and in view of others—within the school and the larger community of parents, neighbors, and citizens (Glickman, 1998).
When we no longer see the inseparability of education and democracy, we lose our way. We are at a time when we must hold to a sacred concept of public education, a concept of the pursuit of truth in the marketplace of ideas. When one concept of education wins over all others and we are left with a single definition determined by others for all of us, then we all lose. We are at a time when we must hold this sacred ground, reaching out to our students, reaching out to one another, and helping to define our future.

Comer, J. P., Ben-Avie, N., Haynes, N. M., & Joyner, E. T. (1999). Child by child: The Comer process for change in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876–1957. New York: Vintage Books.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New York Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1949/1970). The freedom to learn. In P. S. Foner (Ed.), W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks (pp. 230–231). New York: Pathfinder. (Original work published 1949)

Gallagher, C. (2000). A seat at the table: Teachers reclaiming assessment through rethinking accountability. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(7), 502–507.

Glickman, C. D. (1998). Revolutionizing America's schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Levin, H. M. (1991). Building school capacity for effective teacher empowerment. Brunswick, NJ: Consortium for Policy Research.

McDonald, J. P. (1996). Redesigning school: Lessons for the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McDonald, J. P., Hatch, T., Kirby, E., Ames, N., Haynes, N. M., & Joyner, E. T. (1999). School reform behind the scenes. New York: Teachers College Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.

Oppenheimer, T. (1999). Schooling the imagination. Atlantic Monthly, 284(3), 71–83.

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon & Schuster. 418–419, 463–464.

Scheurich, J. J. (1998). Highly successful and loving public, preK–5 schools populated mainly by low SES children of color: Core beliefs and cultural characteristics. Urban Education, 33(4), 451–491.

Schrag, P. (2000). 'High stakes are for tomatoes': Statewide testing of students, with penalties for failure, has run into opposition from parents across the political spectrum. Atlantic Monthly, 286(2), 19–21.

Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace's compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wood, G. H. (1998). A time to learn. New York: Dutton.

Yankelovich, D. (1991). Coming to public judgment: Making democracy work in a complex world. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Carl Glickman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia. He is the author of the bestselling ASCD books Leadership for Learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed and Developmental Supervision.

Overall, he has written 13 books, three of which were recognized by national education organizations as outstanding education books of the year. His supervision text, coauthored with Gordon and Ross-Gordon, is in its 10th edition and continues to be the leading text in the field. Glickman, once active in ASCD, has keynoted to audiences in the thousands at various conferences, including five major presentations, and served as a featured general assembly presenter.

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