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Although each of these elements—standards, assessments, flexibility, and accountability—is itself complex and challenging to administer, the essence of standards-based reform is the idea that states must implement all of them. Reformers argue that previous education reforms failed because they were piecemeal; they addressed one aspect of the system while leaving the rest untouched, and failed to address the core of schooling. Without a comprehensive change, standards-based reform will suffer the same fate.
How, then, to implement such a massive change? The Title I statute lays out a precise schedule for implementing standards-based reform. The law's sequence is as follows: flexibility, standards, assessments, and accountability.
Not all states and districts have followed this linear sequence. In some places, political exigencies have led policy makers to put in place accountability measures before standards and assessments were revised. Others followed a different approach because of a different conception of how to achieve change. For example, Community District 2 in New York City started with a vision of teaching and learning and invested heavily in developing teachers' knowledge and skills to be able to realize the vision. They held teachers and administrators accountable for the quality of instruction and made sure that everyone in the system, from teachers all the way to the deputy superintendent, knows the quality of the staff, the quality of teaching, and the quality of student work in each school. Only after years of developing teachers' abilities—and after rising from 16th to 2nd among New York City districts in performance on conventional tests—did the district adopt standards and a testing system that they believed reflected their instructional goals (Elmore and Burney, 1998).
Regardless of the approach, the expectation is the same: comprehensive standards-based reform systems will result in students' meeting high standards for performance.
The Theory in Practice
In a study conducted for the National Education Goals Panel, David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan (1998) examined two states that registered large gains in student performance in mathematics and reading in the 1990s, North Carolina and Texas. They found that many of the factors often associated with improved student performance—increases in education spending, reductions in class size, changes in the student population—did not explain the results in the two states they studied. Rather, they suggested, what the two states had in common were a set of statewide policies that coincided with the increases in test scores. These policies were: statewide academic standards, by grade, for clear teaching objectives, holding all students to the same standards, statewide assessments closely linked to the standards, accountability systems with consequences for results, increasing local flexibility for administrators and teachers, computerized feedback systems and data for continuous improvement, shifting resources