A FRAMEWORK FOR INVESTIGATING THE INFLUENCE OF EDUCATION STANDARDS
This chapter provides a Framework for identifying and judging possible influences of nationally developed standards on what teachers do and what students learn. The chapter begins with a general overview of the education system within which teaching and learning occur. It then describes key channels through which education can be influenced and ways that reform ideas (such as standards) may travel through the system. The chapter closes by suggesting a Framework that highlights relevant facets of the education system and frames queries that need to be addressed when dealing with two overarching questions: How has the system responded to the introduction of nationally developed mathematics, science, and technology standards? and What are the consequences for student learning?
AN OVERVIEW OF THE U.S. EDUCATION SYSTEM
The United States education system is large, diverse, and complex. Approximately 2.7 million teachers are responsible for the education of more than 47 million pupils in nearly 90,000 public schools; another 6 million students attend private schools (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2000b). Such aggregated nationwide data, however, fail to reveal the variation and increasing diversity of student bodies located in different regions of the country—in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and in affluent and impoverished communities. Student populations in urban schools are particularly diverse. A large majority of urban students have
non-white ethnic backgrounds, and increasing numbers are recent immigrants not yet proficient in English (NCES, 1997c; 1999).
The U.S. teacher population also brings an array of different knowledge bases, expectations, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs to classrooms. Since nearly 90 percent of U.S. K-12 teachers are white (NCES, 2000b), teachers in some schools are demographically quite different than their students.
The individual classrooms within which teachers and students interact constitute the core of the education system. At the same time, what happens in a classroom is significantly affected by decisions made in other layers of this loosely coupled system. First there is the school as an educational unit; setting expectations in certain content areas, the principal, department chairs, or team leaders can affect beliefs about teaching and learning priorities. They can also establish a climate that encourages or discourages particular pedagogical approaches, collegial interactions, or inservice programs (Talbert and McLaughlin, 1993; McLaughlin, 1993; Little 1993). A school’s level of commitment to equity and to providing opportunities for all students to learn the same core content can influence how students are scheduled into classes, which teachers are assigned to teach particular classes, and how instructional resources are identified and allocated.
In the next layer of the system, school districts are responsible for ensuring implementation of state and federal education policies, and often create additional, local education policy. District leaders set instructional priorities, provide instructional guidance, create incentive structures, and may influence the willingness and capacity of schools and teachers to explore and implement different instructional techniques.
The state level is a particularly important one for schools. In the United States, states are constitutionally responsible for elementary and secondary education, and they play major roles in funding and regulating education, providing nearly half of all public school revenues (NCES, 2000a). Each state is responsible for
developing and administering its own policies for standards, curriculum, materials selection and adoption, teacher licensure, student assessment, and educational accountability. Across states, the authority of schools and districts to enact policy varies considerably. In states with “local control,” more power resides at the district level than is found in states with centralized control.
Although the federal government contributes less than 10 percent of all funds invested by states and local districts in education (U.S. Department of Education [USDoE], 2000a), it influences education at all levels through a combination of regulations, public advocacy, and monetary incentives. For example, the USDoE creates mandates for serving special-needs students, provides aid for districts serving disadvantaged students, and distributes funds to support professional development (through Title I and Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). In addition, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies award competitive grants that address targeted educational priorities in science, mathematics, and technology education.
ONE VIEW OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Based on research, interactions with practitioners in the field, and members’ own experiences, the authoring Committee has chosen to represent the U.S. education system as shown in Figure 3–1. The figure highlights the layers of governance described earlier in this chapter and identifies three main routes or “channels” through which national reform ideas might flow to various layers of the system and eventually influence teaching and learning. It also includes the social and political contexts within which the U.S. education system operates. Other factors, such as organizational development, could have been selected as system components, but the Committee agreed that the elements identified in Figure 3–1 are most relevant to tracing potential effects of nationally developed standards on the education system—and, in particular, on student learning.
As reforms (such as standards) enter the education system and traverse one or more “channels,” they may affect policies, programs, and practices within various jurisdictional layers. The channels are:
Curriculum. Mandates and resources from legislative bodies, and decisions and developmental work by teachers, school and district curriculum coordinators, state agencies, curriculum development organizations, and textbook publishers all collectively define what teachers should teach and students should learn. Nationally developed standards, as well as state and local standards, typically play roles in this process, and thus may help to define the content of instruction.
Teacher Development. School districts, institutions of higher education, state agencies, and other entities recruit, prepare, license, and evaluate teachers, as well as provide an array of opportunities for continued professional learning. Nationally developed standards can inform these processes in many ways, influencing the content and expectations for teacher preparation and for their career-long professional growth.
Assessment and Accountability. Student assessment practices—created by teachers, district or state agencies, assessment developers, postsecondary institutions, and others—establish ways that student learning is monitored, and, in so doing, may operationally define the classroom content that matters most. Based on assessment results, accountability mechanisms often establish consequences for students, teachers, and schools. Nationally developed standards may define the content domain that assessments address, as well as prompt development of new forms of assessment.
Standards may also have an impact on education’s social and political contexts, spurring those outside the education system to influence, both directly and indirectly, what happens in classrooms. For example, what parents and other members of the public, their political representatives, the media, and relevant professional organizations say and do can influence the practice of public education. How stakeholders outside the education system understand and interpret standards may therefore influence how—and whether—standards ultimately cause changes in classroom teaching and learning.
THE ELEMENTS OF THE FRAMEWORK
Based on the Committee’s view of the education system, described above, the Committee developed a Framework that consists, first, of a conceptual map that shows the contextual forces
NOTE: The channels of influence and the contextual forces are described in more detail in the following chapters. An expanded version of this framework, based on that additional detail and including the questions that can be applied to the various components of the system, appears in Figure 8–1.
and channels through which nationally developed standards may influence teachers and student learning (see Figure 3–2).
Second, the Framework includes a set of guiding questions that can be applied to various policies, programs, and practices within the system and to outside influences that may affect the system (see Figure 3–3).
As configured, the Framework provides conceptual guideposts for those attempting to trace the influence of nationally developed mathematics, science, and technology standards and to gauge the magnitude or direction of that influence on the education system and on student learning. In other words, the Framework is intended to guide inquiries within the education territory encompassed by the map.
As is true for all models, the system represented in the Framework is greatly simplified. Those simplifications, however, should not obscure these important realities:
Within the education system and in its context—
• How are nationally developed standards being received and interpreted?
• What actions have been taken in response?
• What has changed as a result?
• What components of the system have been affected and how?
Among teachers who have been exposed to nationally developed standards—
• How have they received and interpreted those standards?
• What actions have they taken in response?
• What, if anything, about their classroom practice has changed?
• Who has been affected and how?
Among students who have been exposed to standards-based practice—
• How have student learning and achievement changed?
• Who has been affected and how?
The channels of influence are complex and interactive, both with other components of the education system and among different levels of jurisdiction. For example, changes in the curriculum framework of a state may affect a district’s teacher-development program.
The time needed for the influences of any set of standards to traverse the system may be long. One of the principal players in the development of standards wrote that the estimate of “a decade or longer” to implement the standards was “modest” (Collins, 1997).
Reform ideas may be altered or ignored for various reasons (including prior beliefs and ongoing debate) as they work their way through the education system. Thus, nationally developed standards may stimulate the intended changes, create a backlash, or result in no changes at all.
Local, state, and regional variability within the U.S. education system all imply that teachers and students are likely to be influenced differently within different locales, depending on available resources, participant backgrounds, and other factors.
Although this Framework has been developed specifically to guide thinking regarding nationally developed mathematics, science, and technology standards, it is intended to support comparable considerations for any set of education standards. In short, the Framework is designed to guide inquiry into the influence of standards on various parts and levels of the education system. Those investigations may be centered on one or more of these key questions:
How are nationally developed standards being received and interpreted? Because the vision expressed in the standards for student learning, teaching practice, and system behavior is conveyed through broadly framed statements, it is subject to interpretation. Accordingly, individuals throughout the system will necessarily engage in various forms of sense-making, drawing on prior beliefs, knowledge, and priorities, as they give educational and operational meaning to the standards (Spillane and Callahan, 2000). Thus, to understand anything about the influence of standards, answers to this first central question are needed. The answers will reveal much about how expectations embedded in nationally developed standards are understood, and whether they are accepted, rejected, or altered in that interpretive process.
What actions have been taken? What have curriculum developers, teacher educators, and assessment designers done in response to standards? Actions taken by individuals or entities with respect to the standards will depend on their interpretations, and on their capacities and determination. Variations in resources, professional expertise, structural features, working cultures, and values will affect their motivation and ability to implement nationally developed standards in some form or other. Enactment of standards represents an unfolding story of reform intentions interacting with the multiple contexts within which teachers work and learners learn (Talbert and McLaughlin, 1993). That story will unfold differently in particular states and localities depending on what educators
support, seek, and are able to accomplish. As decades of research on policy and program implementation attest (Anderson, 1996; Anderson and Helms, 2001; McLaughlin, 1987, 1991), it is likely that enactments of nationally developed standards will take on very different forms as implementation proceeds.
What has changed as a result? What new policies, programs, or practices can be attributed to the influence of standards? Attempts to implement national standards, whether faithful to their original intentions or to alternative interpretations, do not guarantee educational improvement. Furthermore, as the Framework implies, incorporation of standards into one part of the system may or may not lead to programs and practices in other parts of the system that mirror the intent of the nationally developed standards. Ultimately, what matters is how student learning is affected—or to be more precise, whether standards-based changes in the education system and in teaching practice have led to improvements in student learning.
Who has been affected and how? In specific terms, how has the learning of students who have been exposed to standards-based practice been affected, and do these effects vary across groups or types of students? For the student population, or subsets of it, do effects on learning represent an improvement? Substantial inequities continue to be documented within U.S. education in general (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2000) and within mathematics, science, and technology education in particular (National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000; Martin et al., 2001; Mullis et al., 2001). Thus, it is entirely possible that nationally developed standards or other educational interventions may engender practices that differentially benefit (or harm) some segments of the student population, or that benefit some schools or communities more than others. Nationally developed mathematics, science, and technology standards explicitly call for reform in policies and practice leading to literacy for all students. It is imperative that investigations of the influence of nationally
developed standards address this critical question when examining particular elements of the system and when gathering evidence regarding student learning.
If these four central questions within the Framework are used in the context of particular investigations, both producers and consumers of research can acquire important insights into possible benefits and limitations of nationally developed standards.
The next four chapters provide more detail regarding the channels and outside forces through which standards may influence the education system. Each chapter starts with a brief overview of that part of the system, examines ways in which nationally developed standards might stimulate either positive or negative changes, and identifies places to look for evidence of any impact standards may have had. The final chapter examines ways in which the Framework can be applied to develop understanding of the influence of standards in the U.S. education system.