Educational Reform through a Standards-Based Approach


Standards-Based Curriculum and Instruction

Before one can look at educational reform critically, one needs to first ask why reform has taken place. Analysis from a naïve or overly simplistic perspective will simply point to education reform being the result of changing needs of students or of the overall population. However, such a view will not immediately shed light on some of the more political influences that have pushed education reform over the years, nor will it illustrate the role teachers—as opposed to policy-makers—can play in promoting effective change.

A bird’s eye view of education in the United States today might lead an observer to ask whether anything is really lacking. After all, despite the shortcomings that many teachers and school administrators may observe in their daily work, the United States still has an admirably robust educational system, no matter what level of education is being considered. Overall, one can generalize and say that residents in the United States have decent access to good-quality education. However, focusing in on the country’s educational history, it becomes evident that this was not always the case. In fact, even if one were to look at what is still recent history—specifically the Civil Rights era—”public education” in the United States was somewhat of a misnomer. It can even be argued that legal changes regarding racial discrimination marked the beginning of the educational standards movement (McClure, 2005)The beginning of the contemporary standards-based movement is more often identified as following the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report. McClure (2005) points out that there have been standards in education all along, but that most of these have been process standards—such as decisions on curriculum, the length of a student’s in-school day, the number of days a student is supposed to attend school, and so on—rather than educational content standards.. The prior inequalities in educational options—not just for students of color, but also impoverished students—led to the coining of the term “the achievement gap” and to the writing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, recently renamed No Child Left Behind.

As a result of these changes in education—or rather, changes in the demands placed on education—one can observe “standards” which vary widely, but which, nevertheless, can have a significant impact on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. All other factors equal, a teacher in California, for example, may have an entirely different set of standards to follow compared to a teacher in Massachusetts. Which method is more effective? With differing standards across states, how can the United States as a nation provide a consistent level of education to all of its residents? Murphy (2006) argues that the discussion is not really about who has written better standards, but rather, how well the standards are applied. After all, it makes sense that standards might be different: even though teachers are expected to teach similar topics, their resource pool, including the textbooks they are required to use, will most likely be entirely different. As such, Murphy suggests that what he calls “the last mile” in standards-based educational reform comes down to the teachers. For standards to be significant—for them to positively impact curriculum, instruction, and assessment—teacher certification must also be aligned with the educational standards.

Considering the problem standards set out to alleviate, how well has it succeeded? Again, remembering that the standards movement is well-laden with politics, reports differ. Furthermore, as mentioned before, teachers may play a key role in the success or failure of standards-based education. Several reports indicate that standards do help promote achievement. Roach (2006), for example, mentioned that the achievement gap between White students and Black or Hispanic students have narrowed significantly compared to reports from 1995. Another paper (Mason, Mason, Mendez, Nelson, & Orwig, 2005) looked at a single underperforming school district that experimented with both a top-downIn this case, standards are designed based heavily on theory and research. approach and a bottom-upIn the bottom-up approach, teachers are actively involved in the standards design process. approach to designing and implementing standards. The authors found that in almost all cases—an anomaly was observed for fifth-grade mathematics—overall performance improved at district schools which implemented the reform. There are caveats in both of the above examples, however. Both reports indicated more significant gains for mathematics than for language-arts. Mason et al. attributed this finding to the significance family plays in the development of language and literacy.

Despite the strides that have been made to promote equality in education in the United States, there remains an achievement gap that needs to be narrowed. At the same time, new problems are already present. A casual search for documents involving standards and educational reform, for example, yielded numerous documents questioning the efficacy of standards on meeting the educational needs for students in other groups including English language learners or students with emotional or behavioral disorders. Do we apply the same standards to these students? How do we make exceptions? How do we engage in the process of minimizing the difference between the “standard” and the “exception”?

There are other difficulties. A bottom-up approach involving teachers significantly in the design process, while shown in one case to be successful, can be a considerable challenge for policy makers at different levels. It may also increase the divide amongst those involved in the decision making process—especially if the decision making group is comprised of members ranging from veteran teachers, to teachers new to the field, to educational theorists. However, teachers are not new to the world of challenges—challenges which change daily, if not hourly. Ultimately, as the ones implementing the standards, their responsibility should be towards ensuring they are well-read on the standards, well-equipped to implement them properly, and confident enough with their knowledge of the standards that they can continue to teach with creativity.


  • Mason, B., Mason, D. A., Mendez, M., Nelsen, G., & Orwig, R. (2005, March). Effects of top-down and bottom-up elementary school standards reform in an underperforming California district. The Elementary School Journal, 105(4).
  • McClure, P. (2005). Where standards come from. Theory into Practice, 44(1).
  • Murphy, E. J. (2006, May). The ‘last mile’ in standards-based reform: Conducting a match study linking teacher-certification tests to student standards. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(9).
  • Roach, R. (2006, January 26). Education report highlights progress under standards-based reform by states. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 22.

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