A Better Education System

On April 9, 2020, the New York TImes published an editorial titled: “The America We Need.” The Editors pointed to an America that still has wide disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In education for example, they noted, “in which children in lower-income households struggle to connect to the digital classrooms where their school lessons are now supposed to be delivered.” (NY Times, April 9, 2020). Although all schools systems are now delivering their curriculum online, not all of them are doing it well, and not all students are able to receive it. This digital perspective of the inequality in learning not only reflects the inequality that existed before the pandemic but also indicates a widening gap between those that are more fortunate and those that are falling behind because it more closely connects the resources students have at home with their performance at school. Shouldn’t school be able to teach all students well? That is the assumption behind standards.


The role of standards is to give teachers and students a set of criteria, benchmarks and concepts wrapped in commonly understood language that define what students need to know and can do. The know and can do part is a framing that includes the content of a discipline and the demonstration of the student use of that content. And while this has given many teachers a way to be more consistent across different subject areas and different levels of student ability, teachers have noticed the inequity of asking all students to attain standards when not all of them have the same resources at home and the same opportunities at school to learn well. Examples of these disparities are the lack of digital access at home and the lack of access at school to a highly qualified teacher in school.

Testing Student Learning

Traditional forms of evidence gathering are quizzes, tests, and/or exams. Over time, these types of testing begin to peg a student’s grade at B+, let’s say as an example, and this can develop in the mind of the teacher as a way that teacher thinks about a student’s performance in school. And what we know about students is that student expectation of a B+ and teacher expectation of a B+ equals B+ for the final grade. Unfortunately, expectations for lower grades are also fulfilled in the very same manner.

But teacher observation of student learning can be more nuanced than this stereotyping might indicate and teachers would welcome other ways to document and to assess their students. One of those ways, formative assessment for example, would give teachers more valuable evidence of student learning, which promotes better feedback students about their learning. Formative assessment also documents the real-time progress students are making and gives students the chance to improve that learning before the final grade.

Evidence of Student Learning

In this 20-year old era of standards, we have elevated tests and testing to a multi-billion dollar business of providing that evidence of student learning to principals, district leaders and state education officials. And that evidence has been charted and graphed. All of these years of evidence gathering has resulted in the same outcome in results. How can we explain this to ourselves? Most importantly, how can we explain this lack of progress given that we all are in this together? One unfortunate explanation is that we are not all in this together.

Funding for Public Services Such as Schools Depends on Real Estate

In a seemingly harmless ruling in 1973, we began to define public services as dependent on individual communities to fund it. This makes sense in the abstract, as wealthier communities have more money for schools, while poorer communities have less money for schools.

“Policymakers tied funding for public services to the prosperity of the new communities, and the Supreme Court blessed the practice in a 1973 ruling, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that allowed differences in school funding based on differences in local property values. The effect was to substitute economic segregation for explicitly racial segregation.”

NY Times, April 9, 2020

This ruling has become how we ask for better schools for our children…we simply see which communities fund their schools well and we try to find a home in that community. Think of how many people in America cannot move toward these well-funded schools. Could we turn to the Federal Government to help us reduce this inequality? The federal government is the policymaking part of our democracy that is particularly tasked with protecting us from seemingly unjust land-grabs! This seems like one of those times…

Performance Standards

If we want to do something about improving schools, we must get into the inequity policies that are built into our system of education. One of those things would be to honor opportunity to learn policies that help address inequities and how they address students who need better access to the internet. Another of those opportunity to learn standards is to look into how changing our assessment system to collect better evidence of student learning through performance assessment would benefit all of us, including students who were under-resourced. And all of these performance assessments would be tied to performance standards that take into account the real experiences students are having in schools and in their homes. None of this is simple.

The America We Need?

We have many examples of good schools and real progress…examples where students are achieving performance standards in science by completing a wonderful write up of their science experiment. In Math for example, students should be able to write up and present multiple solutions to problems that show a real facility with the entire course of math they have just been taught. In language students should be able to speak well in their new language. In the arts, students should be able to rehearse a play, deliver their performance, discuss their achievement and relate to audience questions. These examples are usually found in well-resourced communities.

Teachers Lead the Way

The push to improve our schools has to be guided by the conversations between us, the profession of teachers, and only mildly influenced by the testing companies. In order to transform teaching and learning we need to discuss the quality of the evidence we collect. Performance assessments collect this type of evidence and schools need to honor their teachers in discussing this type of evidence for what students know and can do.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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