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  • Abner Oakes

The Standards Movement: Full Circle

I taught middle and high school language arts for 15 years and left the classroom in 1997. By that time, my wife and I had moved to the Washington, DC area, and with much interesting stuff happening public school improvement-wise at that time - I’d taught in private schools - I decided that I wanted to try and help in that world. Yes, I loved the classroom and my students and teaching The Great Gatsby and Mary Oliver and Beowulf, but there was more work to be done in the public school realm, it seemed, and I wanted to see if I could put to use on a larger scale what I’d learned about education those 15 years.

I had the great luck of falling in with a really thoughtful, energetic group of educators at Modern Red SchoolHouse (MRSH), my first full-time gig after teaching. Based in Nashville, MRSH was one of the original school reform models incubated by New American Schools, and it relied on funding through the US Department of Education’s Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) Program. Low performing schools could use CSR money to fund a three-year partnership with groups like MRSH, and we went into these schools and conducted a variety of professional development activities, from in-class instructional coaching to work with the principal and his or her leadership team. Ideally, we did our darndest to build capacity for improvement in these buildings, and it was often the principal and leadership team work that had the greatest traction.

MRSH and other CSR designs came at the very nascent stage of the standards movement, and much of our work was helping schools develop standards-driven curriculum. In fact MRSH had its own set of standards that some of its partner schools used, in addition to the state standards that were rolling out in those early days. Also in those early days, there was heady talk of just what a standards-driven school ought to be, much of which revolved around the issue of mastery - that a truly standards-driven school holds kids to the standards, not to grade levels. A student moves on when he or she has mastered a set of standards in a content area, not when he or she hits a certain age or comes to the end of a certain grade. But, for the most part, it was just that: Heady talk. Most schools and school systems are not built to accommodate a strict adherence to the mastery of standards. For example, what happens to students who can master a set of course standards in less than the school year? Are they allowed to go to the next course/set of standards immediately? And what of those student who might need two years to master them? Is that accommodation allowed, even for one course that might be particularly thorny? For the most part, no.

Now, jump ahead some 15 years, to my work with JumpRope and the conversations we get to have with schools and districts about our standards-based gradebook. Last week, for example, we talked with a potential partner school that’s very focused on mastery. This school adheres to a set of standards and has built curriculum around those standards, with instruction tightly aligned to that curriculum, those standards, and the movement to mastery. Yes, we were on the phone with them to demo our software, but as often happens during these demos, the software is just the iceberg’s tip. As often happens, our conversations with schools and districts are about student mastery, and they so often remind me of the conversations we had 15 years ago at MRSH, both within the company and with some of our own school and district partners. Ideally, the standards movement was about mastery. It was rarely implemented in that manner, for a variety of reasons, but many of us held on to this ideal - that a set of standards and their mastery presupposes a significant change in structure, in approach, in thinking when it comes to school and schooling - and it’s exciting for me to return to those conversations with JumpRope. Full circle, I guess.

We here at JumpRope are always looking for ways to share with partner schools and districts our beliefs about mastery learning. Sure, for some folks, we’ll just be a tool - a gussied up gradebook - but we believe otherwise. We believe that our tool can jumpstart the kinds of important conversations that first happened for me, 15 years ago, in a Nashville office. That’s why I got into this school improvement work in the first place.

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