High Standards and High-Quality Assessments Are Working In the United States

This week the Michael and Gillian Goodrich Foundation hosted the Alabama-Finland Education Summit at the University of Alabama. Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, an author and educator, argued that education systems built on high education standards and high-quality assessments “have never worked” to improve student outcomes.

“Accountability is what’s left when you subtract responsibility,” Sahlberg contended, WBHM Birmingham reports. Instead, Sahlberg asserted, states should spend more on education. “America is the wealthiest country in the world. You can afford it.”

As we have noted before, however, it is inappropriate to draw comparisons between the United States’ and Finland’s education systems. Fundamental differences between the two, including discrepancies in student demographics, poverty levels, and cultural and structural disparities, make it impossible to argue that what works in Finland can or should be applied to U.S. schools.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, Kentucky’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, recently cautioned against drawing parallels between the United States and Finland. Sinclair specifically explains that higher standards foster creativity in classrooms and help students build greater conceptual understanding.

“Our standards, developed in partnership with teachers, were not designed to obstruct individuality and creativity. In fact, they are intended to be springboards for deeper learning,” Sinclair writes.

High standards “provide opportunities for students to consider things from different viewpoints, seek new information, and review the way they think, all skills emphasized by the Finnish system…If anything, [critics’] complaints highlight the urgent need for high-quality professional learning and autonomy for teachers, which can illuminate exactly how to implement high standards in a way that best serves the students in their classrooms.”

Three Arizona Teachers of the Year share Sinclair’s position. States’ implementation of higher standards “marked a huge departure from the old ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ way of teaching,” they explain. “Those kinds of changes are only effectively achieved through proper support and training. Sadly, many educators never received the resources they needed to make those adjustments.”

Here in the U.S., states’ commitment to raising classroom expectations is helping to improve student performance. This year the majority of states that administered tests aligned to high standards saw improvements in proficiency. Those gains were often largest among early-grade students, who have spent most – if not all – of their educational careers learning to higher standards.

“While there are numerous factors that affect student scores, and it is still too early to make definitive declarations, the 2016 assessments suggest that the promise of higher academic standards—whatever they may be called—is working,” Jim Cowen explains in a memo this month.

Parents strongly support rigorous, comparable education standards and high-quality assessments. About two-thirds of families favor high learning goals, no matter what labels are attached, and nearly eight in ten support annual assessments. That’s exactly what most states are delivering.

As Cowen points out, “It’s time to stop fighting about the words ‘Common Core’ and move forward…State leaders have moved past the rhetoric. The Every Student Succeeds Act has once and for all removed any doubt that states have full ownership of their education standards, and they are now developing accountability systems to ensure those systems meet their student needs.”

States have raised expectations for students and they are keeping the bar high. That is a tremendous success for parents, teachers and students. To turn back on those gains would be a mistake.