Building a Culture of High Standards in the Middle Grades

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 forthcoming.

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 being smart.

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 student work.

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 curriculum.

Caring relationships
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 standards.

A number of structures that make consistent and caring relationships are familiar to well-developed middle schools. They include:

  • 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 like.

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 adolescent students.

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.