With the spotlight on standards and accountability,
middle school educators across the country are scrambling to figure out
ways to boost students’ test scores. But students require more than a
push from external tests in order to produce quality work that meets the
standards articulated by the professional associations. First and
foremost, students need schools rounded in what Shutesbury,
Massachusetts, teacher Ron Berger calls a "culture of high standards" –
the values, structures, relationships, and "regularities" that shape
schools’ daily activities for helping all students become successful
learners. Establishing such a culture calls for redefining what it means
to become smart and translating that definition into a set of practices
that help students fell safe to be smart.
Rethinking beliefs: What does it mean to be smart?
In a school culture of high standards, beliefs about being smart
complement the view that learning for understanding involves using
knowledge for in-depth inquiry, problem-solving, and communication of
new learning. In this context, teachers do not categorize students as
smart because they have posted a particular grade-point average or met
certain cutoff scores on standardized tests. Nor do they define students
as smart because they have the quick answer, get it right the first
time, or even always have the correct answer.
In contrast, school cultures that support
standards-based reform define being smart in terms of students’
willingness to take risks, make mistakes, ask for help, and not fear
that their questions or mistakes make them appear stupid. In schools
where it is safe to be smart in this way, students learn to persist in
solving difficult problems, even when solutions are not immediately
New beliefs require new practices
If all students are to do work that matches the expectations of new
standards, they need school cultures that value accomplishments born of
effort rather than based on inherent capabilities. The implications for
classrooms are obvious. Teachers can point out, "You must have worked
hard at these problems" as a way of fostering students’ beliefs that
effort, not the fast answer, is what counts. Likewise, teachers can
develop assessment practices that teach students to view corrections or
negative comments on work as a source of help and information for
improving future work, rather than judgments about innate ability.
Teachers can also make it safe to be smart by
adopting alternatives to tracking and ability grouping. Teachers who do
this know that no matter what they say about persistence, students will
not put forth the effort necessary to do good work as long as schools
sort them according to perceived ability. Heterogeneous grouping is
essential if students are to learn multiple modes of creating good work.
Heterogeneous grouping and the norms, routines, and relationships that
make the most of student diversity allow students to grapple with the
complexities of divergent thinking and expand their own definition of
A focus on student work
Putting student work at the center of learning is a key step in
building a culture of high standards. In schools that make it safe for
all students to be smart, student work itself, not lists of discrete
facts to be mastered or cutoff scores on standardized tests, is the
standard of accomplishment. In fact, teachers who focus daily on helping
students produce better work that meets higher standards of quality
understand that test scores have little connection to the quality of
Middle school teachers around the country are
increasingly adopting a set of routines that result in students’
producing work that meets standards. These teachers know student work of
high quality requires assignments that orient students toward the
learning for understanding anticipated by the standards of the
professional associations. They also know that students will strive to
create work of high quality when they know that real world audiences
will actually use their work.
Teacher Ron Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts, sees
the effort when his students prepare testimony to submit to the United
States Congress that is based on the students’ study of international
child labor conditions. In Kathy Greeley’s class in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, students write and illustrate books that will be used by
the school’s younger students.
In Shutesbury, Ron Berger’s students may prepare a study of the town’s water quality for their community’s planning board.
Helping students do high-quality work in relation
to challenging assignments means reorganizing classrooms for maximum
learning. In these classrooms:
- Students use and develop rubrics that describe work that is good
and excellent. Teachers make sure that all students have a chance to
view samples of work that exemplify excellence in their field—science,
journalism, construction—so that students see for themselves the
standards of quality they are aiming to achieve.
- Students understand that a first draft is only the beginning of a
process for improvement. Teachers instruct students in the skills of
giving feedback to support peer critique and discussion about the work.
All students have time and guidance for revision of the work so that it
meets the expectations for high quality.
- Student-led conferences give students the opportunity to engage
in a process of self-assessment and articulate learning strengths,
interests, and weaknesses.
- Students complete exit projects that meet standards of the rubrics as part of their transition from the school.
- Students present the results of their projects—an analysis of
water quality, a report on community voting patterns over several
decades, their own illustrated chapter books—to an audience that will
use their work in the real world.
Middle schools increasingly adopt these practices
as a way to let student work, not test scores, reflect the value they
place on high standards. Reform organizations like the Coalition of
Essential Schools, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, and the ATLAS
project* aid in this movement by offering technical assistance and
networking links to like-minded schools that share a commitment to
learning in depth, even when that means "covering" fewer topics in the
School cultures that make it safe to be smart create a climate of
respect and caring, where racism and sexism do not violate a student’s
integrity and sense of self. If a focus on student work reflects what
Theodore Sizer calls "caring rigor," then it is in respectful personal
relationships that students find the rigorous caring that will motivate
them to do their best work, persist through difficulties, and revise
work to meet standards. Establishing a motivational climate based on
these relationships is a second step toward building a culture for high
A number of structures that make consistent and
caring relationships are familiar to well-developed middle schools. They
- Teaming and looping so that a small group of teachers remain with a consistent group of students over several years.
- Teacher advisories that ensure that all students have at least one adult who knows them well.
- Smaller schools or schools-within-schools that allow teachers to
know and discuss student work from a group of students whose learning
styles they know well.
But smallness is not the only condition necessary
for developing caring relationships that make it safe to be smart. If
students are to take risks and value effort, they need to know that they
will be given second chances and extra help to improve their work to
meet standards. Schools that foster a culture of high standards, then,
also make it possible for students to receive extra help early and
often. Students receive assistance when they need it, rather than at the
end of the year when their failure is certain.
A collegial professional culture
Teachers who believe that all students can do work that meets high
standards and who put into practice routines and relationships grounded
in that belief go a long way toward creating a culture in which it is
safe to be smart. But those beliefs do not emerge by magic. They require
a common understanding of what high quality teaching and learning look
Regular sustained opportunities to discuss the work
students do in light of teaching goals and curriculum is essential to
developing a schoolwide, shared definition of high standards that
teachers can then communicate to students. Such discussions can reveal
how different learning opportunities and expectations vary from
classroom to classroom. As teachers use student work to stimulate
conversations about assignments, classroom interactions, and
expectations for individual students, discussions begin to unearth
controversy and reveal differences in perspectives among adults in
school. As Kathe Jervis and Joe McDonald of the Coalition of Essential
Schools point out, it is at this point that teacher discussions become
"counter-cultural", capable of shaking up entrenched assumptions about
what students can learn and do.
If schools are to realize the promises of the
standards movement, they need a vision for standards-based reform
powerful enough to generate a school culture that values student work of
high quality and establishes routines that make it possible for all
students to produce such work. They need a motivational climate based on
caring relationships that communicate the possibilities of doing high
quality work to all students. Grounded in new habits, relationships, and
beliefs about what it means to be smart, a culture of high standards is
within reach of all middle schools. In its absence, all the rhetoric of
high standards will mean little for the learning of our young
By Anne Wheelock, a Boston-based independent
education policy analyst, whose writing about schools focuses on
practices that promote both exellence and equity, especially in the
middle grades. This article draws from her 1998 book, Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades, available through NELMS.
This article originally appeared in Alliance Access, Summer 1999, Volume 4, Number 1 (published by the Regional Alliance at TERC). Reprinted with permission.