High Standards Are the First Step, but They Must Be Supported by Strong Curricula and Teaching


Writing on a new book by education pioneer and author E.D. Hirsch Jr., Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews suggests states’ commitment to high standards has not been met with adequate curricular materials.

“We have been callously blaming teachers for meager results of reform when the real culprit is what they have been asked to teach,” Mathews argues. “The dream that [high] standards would lead to a vibrant curriculum rescuing American schools from mediocrity has, Hirsch says, fallen victim to a lack of specificity and a lazy acceptance of whatever the textbook and testing companies thought they could sell to states and school districts.”

We agree. High standards by themselves are not enough to raise student performance; they must be met with strong teaching and high-quality curricula. But that should not be a reason to suggest that states’ commitment to high standards is shortchanging students.

Although it’s too early to plant a flag, results from the second year of tests aligned to high standards indicate states are beginning to see the payoff of raising the bar. “High standards and high-quality assessments best serve our students’ needs, help prepare them for college and career, and are delivering promising results. To change course now would be a mistake,” Jim Cowen explains.

The implementation has not always been easy, but states have passed an important milestone, says Mike Magee, head of Chiefs for Change. They have raised classroom expectations and coupled those with high-quality assessments. That accomplishment along with the Every Student Succeeds Act, has brought a “period of extraordinary change” to a close, and “our schools are better for it.”

The transition has not been perfect; nothing of this magnitude is. A RAND study this year finds only 28 percent of math and 31 percent of ELA teachers believe professional development opportunities reflect their needs. As one educator put it, “teachers are hungry” for professional development support.

States’ new “emphasis on conceptual understanding marked a huge departure from the old ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ way of teaching,” three Arizona Teachers of the Year wrote in June. “And those kinds of changes are only effectively achieved through proper support and training.”

Evidence indicates states must step up their support to teachers and administrators as they help students learn to higher levels. Fortunately, they have partners in education advocacy groups, who have begun to provide resources for parents and teachers alike to better support student learning.

Learning Heroes and others now offer a wealth of tools and resources to help their kids achieve to the high expectations that have been set for them. At the same time, schools have begun to bring parents into the fold through “math nights” and outreach efforts to help them better understand the changes happening in their classrooms.

Absolutely, states and schools must continue to improve their supports to teachers and ensure materials align with their standards. Those are considerations that should be made close to home, and the Every Student Succeeds Act goes a long way to ensure they are.

We agree with Hirsch that high standards are only the first step towards improving student outcomes. Higher expectations must be met with strong supports to teachers and high-quality materials. But to suggest that for some reason states should turn back on high standards would be a mistake. Raising the bar is working; states should keep it high.