Low Standards from the Top


Administrative Factors in Education Standards

Over the last few years America has invested a great amount of talk into the low quality of education. Most of this talk focuses on teachers. Teacher accountability programs have been mandated by NCLB and created in almost every state. However, as we shall review below, most of the major decisions affecting the quality of education are not made by teachers. Teachers typically have not been allowed a say in the matters. Here, we will look at some of the major factors affecting education and give anecdotal examples just one teacher collected over about ten years. Teachers usually do not discuss these problems openly, but most teachers can verify from experience that the discussion below do typify what's happening in education.

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Top-Down Administration with Constant Reform

Well managed organizations give their workers support and autonomy. They allow for as much local control as possible so that those who know what needs to be done and how to do it have the authority to do so. Education is primarily top-down. Politicians and administrators make the decisions about the methods, the curriculum, and the goals. They give teachers mandates. Teachers are frequently not permitted to draw on their training and experience to contribute to the decisions about curriculum, methods, or student needs.
This top-down approach is plagued by fads and constant reform. New reforms replace previous fads about every two years. Administrators order teachers to adjust. Frequently, the teachers have not even finished training on the previous fad, and the school has not yet purchased all the critical materials before the administration orders the teaching staff to retrain for the next fad.

  • Experienced teachers I've met in many locations have expressed discouragement. They have told me that administrators order them to retrain to a new fad only to replace it with another educational fad every year or two. I've had this same conversation with experienced teachers too many times to count.
  • State accountability laws forbid switching students to a different class after the 20th day of school. However, I have seen a number of instances where the student was not ready for the class he was placed in and the school was not allowed to switch the student into another class which would serve his needs better.
  • I have seen administrators instruct teachers that the best evidence supports heterogeneous grouping, and then two years later, impose on the teachers a tracking system (homogeneous grouping) to separate high, average, and low.
  • I have been at a school that trained teachers on the benefits of gender segregated methods, used gender methods with very strong outcomes, and dropped all their gender specific methods the very next year.
  • I have been at a school where administrators spent two years instructing teachers that students will increase their academic performance and respect for the environment if they get more exercise and outside time. The very next year administrators ordered teachers to invest more time into academic seat work and spend less time taking students outside for exercise.
  • I have been at a school which hired a curriculum coordinator who demonstrated marginally innumerate performance, had no training in best practices for math education, no training in math cognition. She mandated to the math teachers what should be taught and how it should be emphasized. She reprimanded the math teachers for speaking up about their training in best practices and experience, since this information contradicted her decisions.
  • I saw a school break their writing program into smaller groups with different instructors. We noticed far more growth from students being taught by the regular English teacher than the group taught by the curriculum coordinator. But the curriculum coordinator repeatedly ordered the English teacher change her methods, and the next year fired her for not doing so.
  • I talked to a teacher who had the highest reading scores in his elementary school. When the principal saw the methods he used to teach reading he ordered the teacher to stop. The teacher responded by asking the principal to show him a superior method for teaching reading. The principal simply responded by saying that the teacher would be disciplined if he didn't stop using the method he was using.
  • One elementary school spent years training its teachers in multi-age methods. Multi-age methods, and looping, can outperform traditional grade level assembly line schooling by helping children learn from the bonds they have already developed with teachers. After years of training and practice the administrators switched the school to the traditional grade level method without accepting input from the teaching staff.

Although we hear much blame directed towards teachers, we find that teachers are subject to constant top-down mandates. On a regular basis they are ordered to change their methods to match the latest fad in education, even when this fad contradicts their previous training or experience. Teachers can be reprimanded or fired for failing to follow these mandates even when their students outperform the students in classes which are following the mandates.

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Standardization Test-driven education where One Size Fits All

NCLB and other reforms place increasing pressure on educators to teach all students the same material - regardless of the students' interest, skills, or background, or the changing job market. The material that teachers are required to teach is usually defined in a central curriculum office to match specific standardized tests. The standardization process eliminates interesting diversions, application to real life, higher level thinking, and the specific backgrounds and skills of the teaching staff.
For the low achievers this creates a problem of relevance. Abstract mathematics has no clear relevance to a boy whose highest aspiration in life is basketball. To high achievers the one-size-fits-all approach to education creates another problem. They are prevented from actually working at high levels. Instead they are raced through the same mediocre material as the average students - only faster. The only relevance that their education has under these circumstances is status. They see themselves as winning the race, ahead of the others. The low achievers lose faith as they see themselves as losing the race while taking classes that they believe prepare them for nothing that will ever matter.
Standardization limits all students to lowest common denominators in learning. Standardization prevents teachers from addressing student interests, needs, or personal goals.

  • I was at a school that implemented a new testing program. Very rapidly every single teacher in the middle school noticed that the results were unreliable. Low achievers got high scores, high achievers got average scores, and good students scored negative growth. The administrator reprimanded the teachers for discussing the unreliability of the test and insisted they spend more time adjusting their teaching practices to the test scores.
  • Every good teacher I've talked to discusses how student attitude, interests, and behaviors are the primary factors that determine student success. Yet, regulators and administrators insist that teachers conform to "data-driven" approaches. The data teachers are mandated to use include only academic information and ignore the attitude and behavior factors that most indicate potential success.
  • I had an educational administrator instruct us to put a student in the algebra 2 class based on his test scores alone. All the middle school teachers working with this child recognized that he was not mature enough to be in the advanced class and his behavior would drag the whole class down. The math teachers had to explain to the administrator that the student did not qualify for algebra 2 because he had not had algebra 1 yet.

Memorized Facts & Routines vs. Creativity and Problem-Solving

Business leaders say that students are coming out of school unprepared. Graduates can not perform complex tasks. Graduates communicate poorly. In 1991 NCTM issued standards to address these concerns by emphasizing non-routine problem-solving, reasoning, and communication. The NCTM said that high school students should regularly work on complex problems that take more than a week to solve. Middle school students should work on complex problems that take over a day to solve.
State regulations were creates. NCLB was created. The combined effects of these regulations were to subject all students to standardized tests. Standardized tests address mostly memorized facts and routines. Problems on standardized tests are designed so that the average student can solve each problem in less than two minutes. (How can problems designed to be solved by average students in two minutes be considered high level or complex?) The state and federal regulations actually de-emphasized complex high-level problems and communication instead placed great emphasis on short, simple, routine problems and basic skills. As a result many schools now do less to prepare students to deal with real complex issues and communication than they did before the regulations were implemented.

  • I have seen administrators tell teachers that they will be judged based on how well they use high level methods. Later in the year the same administrators ordered the teachers to stop investing time on high level learning and spend more time on test-preparation (low level skills) in the class room.
  • I was in a school that invested much time training its teachers to emphasize high level writing skills (thought development) over low level (conventions.) Two years later that school hired a new curriculum coordinator. The curriculum coordinator mandated that teachers spend less time on high level skills and more time on low level skills.
  • I have seen a school invest two years of intense training into thematic expeditionary planning only to have administrators order teachers to stop using thematic expeditionary approaches one year later.
  • I have been in a school where math teachers discussed the advantages to teaching high achievers using project-based approaches requiring student to develop high-level complex problem-solving and reasoning skills. The principal and curriculum coordinator (neither of whom had a strong math background) insisted that the high achievers be given low level accelerated curriculum. The math teacher was reprimanded for pleading for an opportunity to follow his best training as well as the school's mission statement and was threatened with termination.

Concepts vs. Abstractions

Most students learn best by starting with the concepts and working towards the abstractions. Most early elementary teachers and most Asian and European teacher recognize this. First grade teachers don't say, "2+3=5 ; this may be generalized to all discreet systems, e.g.: apples." Instead, they start by letting students see that 2 apples plus 3 apples make 5 apples. Then with other examples and practice students learn to generalize 2+3=5 to all discreet systems, even while they still have no clue what a discreet system is or whether non-discreet systems even exist. But by the time American students reach fractions and algebra, methods are taught with no conceptual support, or even worse distracting or misleading concepts. Even high-achievers can be regularly heard complaining, "When will we ever use this?"
Yes, some advanced mathematical methods exist which have no readily available concept. And so many methods must be learned by college-bound students that teachers do not have sufficient time support them with all the concepts. But these are not factors of learning and cognition; they are factors of logistics of educational administration.
Standardized test are based on the assumption that all students learn in the same order. Yet, any skilled teacher can tell you that students can and will learn in their own order. Most math textbooks are based on the assumption that students learn from simple to complex, procedures first ideas last. Yet, most studies in cognition show that most people learn best when they start with big picture concepts and work down to the details. Standardized tests and textbooks reinforce misleading perceptions about learning and success. They reinforce the notions that learning is memorization, there's a standard method and procedure for everything, all problems can be solved in a short time, learning is linear, and academic success separates us all by status. Each of these ideas is erroneous and must be unlearned to become a highly successful adult.

  • I've been in a few situations where the textbook was so bad (failed to support understanding of the concepts) that I discussed with the students the shortcomings of the textbook. I did this both to support the recognition of what they really needed to learn and to support their sense that they need to evaluate the quality of information sources. In one case, the principal reprimanded me for admitting to the students that the textbook was substandard. In another case the principal told parents that all textbooks were up to standards, thus teachers should be blamed for any problems.
  • After these events the AAAS evaluated the major science textbooks on the market at that time. The highest grade any textbook got was a 'C'. The AAAS determined that the textbooks were full of misleading statements and diagrams as well as blatant errors.
  • The salesmen for the MAP test openly admit that their test is based on the assumption that all students learn material in the same order (the RIT scale.) I worked at a school whose mission valued creativity, projects-based learning, and student-centered approaches. The school adopted MAP testing. The administrators started to demand that teachers use less projects, be less responsive to specific student interests or news that might affect students, reduce creativity, and spend more time on tested skills.


The combined issues and anecdotes above represent issues dominating education as long as I have been involved. Politicians and administrators with no experience, or minimal experience, in education make decisions. Teachers get reprimanded for disagreeing even when the orders contradict their best training and experiences. States and school systems use tests that are known to be misleading and based on false assumptions. Teachers and students both get judged based on these unreliable evaluations. The media reports the scores without question. People complain and blame the teachers. But nobody asks the teachers about the educational decisions they were not allowed to make, or the unreliability of the high stakes testing.


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