Why Standards-Based Teaching Has Failed to Raise Reading Achievement

  • 22 February, 2015
Blast from the Past: This was originally posted on February 22, 2015 and was reposted on January 4, 2018. This blog entry explains one important reason why standards-based teaching is not improving reading achievement. There are others--the over-emphasis on teaching, the lack of sufficient and appropriate professional development, the misinterpretation of standards as narrow easily tested skills--all serve to undermine success. Nevertheless, the emphasis on teaching activities instead of on learning will undercut kids learning progress. 
Standards-based educational reform goes back to the early 1990s. Since then, test scores have see-sawed a bit, but for the most part, we are doing about as well as we’ve been doing since 1970 (when we first started collecting national reading data). 
      That means standards-based reform has not led to higher achievement. Establishing educational goals and aligning teaching to those goals to ensure kids succeed has not happened. 
      Diane Ravitch and others who don’t spend much time in schools claim to know why standards have failed. They believe that if teachers were just left to their own devices, American kids would excel in school. 
      Unlike them, I’ve spent much time in classrooms and working with kids over the past four decades or so…as teacher, lunchroom supervisor, park supervisor, student teacher, tutor, researcher, remediator, teacher educator, observer, evaluator, school administrator, textbook author, test designer, parent, grandparent, and uncle. 
    My take on the problem is different, but I do agree that it is a problem. 
    I have come to believe that standards-based reform will NEVER work unless educators come to understand the idea of standards-based teaching, something that has not happened during the past 25 years. 
      To illustrate my point, I received the following two notes from teachers last week: 
I teach 4th grade in a Daily 5/Cafe school. We have NO curriculum or requirements other than... 2 mini-lessons, conferring individually and maintaining strategy groups with students. Do you have any advice or thoughts on the organizing and planning within these four areas? 
I am working on a district committee that is developing a universal literacy framework for our elementary schools. One of the recommended components is shared reading, which is not currently a formalized daily practice at our highest-achieving schools. Is there an argument, based on research, for this component to be mandated for all classrooms as part of an excellent literacy program? The research that I have found seems to mainly focus on pre-schoolers. 
      What sense do I make of these queries? They reveal that their schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particularly focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read. 
      Instead of focusing like-a-laser on they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes. It would be like a surgeon deciding what kind of surgery he wanted to conduct and then hoping to stretch it to the patient’s needs (“Sorry Mr. Jones. I know you have prostate cancer, but I like to do hysterectomies.”) 
      Until we actually focus on teaching the standards—that is, until we decide that our job is to ensure that kids learn what we have agreed to teach them—then it will continue to look like our kids are failing. (And, no, “test prep” is not teaching to our standards, it is just one more example of educators focusing on particular activities rather than on reaching particular outcomes).


See what others have to say about this topic.

P. David Pearson Jun 13, 2017 04:17 PM


Well said, Tim.

By the way, the thrust of your argument can be extended to support national standards. What makes us think that just letting every teacher do what he or she thinks is right is not dissimilar from letting every school, district, or state have their unfettered way with curriculum and teaching.

What’s worse? A national orthodoxy (that we can all watch carefully, evaluate, tweak to tame its weakness, and maybe even nurture) or 15,000 local orthodoxies.

But the real message is developing an approach (really a set of tools that includes standards, assessments of all sorts—with the real emphasis on formative, materials—curriculum if you will, and then and only then, classroom activities to promote growth on the standards). I agree that everyone wants to start out with the activities, just like researchers tend to start out with methods (I want to do a qualitative study or an experiment).

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 04:17 PM


This is the first time I want to give an unequivocal YES!!!! to something you have written. I've sat in classrooms, first as a behavior consultant and then as a reading consultant for 20 years....watching project after project with students expected to learn from "exposure" not practice. After ed schools pounded into their prospective teachers the dangers of any sort of "Drill and Kill," practice of any sort ...even well designed "drill and thrill" practice was too much of a source of guilt to include in any lesson in the now curriculum-deficit schools. Given that the average person needs between 5 and 15 exposures/practice until new learning enters long term memory, we now have two generations of students who have exited typical public schools, knowing little. Coaches understand setting goals and practice; music teachers understand setting goals and practice. And the much maligned Japanese understand setting goals and practice. No surprise that in graphic novels, graphics, virtual world development, and game design, the Japanese are exhibiting astounding creativity. Knowledge (not just exposure) is a critical underlying ingredient for creativity.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 04:18 PM


Thanks, David. That’s an interesting point and one that I don’t disagree with. I believe, in core areas of education, there isn’t much point in having big differences in educational goals. While the states do differ to some extent economically (in terms of the types of work done in their states), I think the similarities of what kids need to know about reading and math overwhelm any particular differences you could identify. The idea of each teacher going his or her own way seems obviously foolish to me; and the argument in these core areas is just as clear when you talk about schools, school districts, regions, and states. If it is important and valuable to be able to read and summarize the major points in a science text in Massachusetts, I assume it is important and valuable to be able to do that in Alabama, too.

However, I don’t think we can have federal education standards, but I do think we can have common ones. Too hard politically to get the left and right together at the same time in terms of the appropriate role for a federal government to play in education (short of a Constitutional amendment). However, if those arguing against common standards these days really believe in states’ rights then they must accept the idea that the sovereign states have the power to enter into cooperative agreements with each other in areas like health, law enforcement, and education. And, the idea that the federal government might encourage or facilitate such sharing and cooperation seems well within its constitutional responsibilities.

I hadn’t thought of it in this context, but you are absolutely right. When education researchers set out, not to understand something better, but to conduct a particular kind of research study, things don’t work well. Conceptually, research should be conducted to answer questions, settle arguments, solve problems—not to exercise particular research skills. I missed it, but it is exactly the same problem facing schools. Too often teachers have no idea what it is that they are trying to accomplish in terms of kids’ learning and they have no idea of how to figure out if they have gotten there (the assessment problem). Instead, they focus on the activities that they like to do or that they think kids like to do and ignore the learning problem altogether. I hate it, but I don’t think we’ve made ANY progress in getting teachers to focus on outcomes rather than activities.



Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 04:19 PM


More needs to be done for teachers/educators in helping them in their class rooms. Educators want to do right by their students but are rarely given good information/resources/examples/etc on how to best achieve their goal of helping student to become better.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 04:19 PM


I definitely agree about the importance of professional development, but this is one that PD does not seem to be helping for some reason. Teachers have to become goal directed rather than activity directed. This is hard because one needs to engage students in activities to teach them--we learn from experience so creating experiences for someone is one way to think about teaching. However, for far too many teachers, the activities themselves have become the point. Instead of striving to ensure that kids know or can do or can appreciate particular things, teachers just engage them in activities that have no real connection to those outcomes.

Dic Schutz Jun 13, 2017 04:20 PM


In sectors other than EdLand, the onus for failure goes to the top rather than to the bottom of the power chain. "Standards-based reform has failed" but this failure has not been accepted by policy makers or policy executors. The current reauthorization of ESEA US policy retains the standards and the tests. The only debate is in the frequency of he tests in grades 3-8.

But the official orthodoxy is that "we have made gains." The "gains" have done nothing to eliminate Ethnic/SES "gaps," but yet "Standards and Tests" are held harmless.

The two queries you received from teachers are sadly prototypical of the impossible plight that teachers find themselves. They are saddled with teaching goals that are ill-defined, a good portion of which are reified abstractions that are not teachable by anyone. Yet within the confines of school and LEA strictures, they have the full responsibility and freedom to "teach the standards." How professionally cruel and inhumane is that imposition.

The thing is, those at the top have no idea how to get teachers "goal directed." In other sectors changed is largely achieved by changing the artifacts and tools that people use; change in accomplishments follows.

In EdLand, the view is that the artifacts don't matter at all; the teacher is the only thing that matters; any "qualified teacher" can teach the standards. You are adding "if they are goal/oriented rather than activity/oriented.

The "good news" in my view is two-fold. First, the self-serving academic, corporate, educrat policy hasn't really damaged the "human capital." Second, the long-term ESEA investment has elevated the matter of pre-Collegiate schooling to a level of national media attention

As long ElHi was strictly a state and local concern, it was altogether impossible to get any sustainable improvement. All improvements have been locale-specific and individual-specific. Change the locale and/or change the personnel, and the "reform" flops.

The upcoming elections will see debate about substantive el-hi matters. The debate is about "Common Core" but CC is just a header for the "Standards-Tests-Sanctions" narrative. I'm looking forward to how the debate goes.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 04:20 PM


I'm not a big fan of using testing for teacher or principal accountability. Nevertheless, your note raises an interesting issue: We have long used texts to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers... recently, it appeared that we were going to be able to evaluate state governors and legislators in the same way (since so many states were going to be using SBAC and PARCC to evaluate common standards). The big public pushback against testing doesn't seem to be protecting teachers much, but it has sheltered those most responsible for education policy.

Dick Schutz Jun 13, 2017 04:21 PM


A fascinating vignette bears on this point.

On February 24 the LATimes print edition published a piece by Paul Petersen titled "Why school tests work" In the article he says nothing about the "school tests" but blasts teacher unions and pits the unions as the "bad guys" opposed to Civil Rights.

In the on-line edition the same article was toned done with the title, No Child Left Behind and testing hold Schools accountable.

Then on Feb 27 the Times on-line format published four "Letters to the Editor" under the header, When test scores improve, does student learning?
The Readers and (now) the LATimes get it

Ronda Schlumbohm Jan 04, 2018 11:36 PM

Thank you for taking a complicated idea and making it clear. Our job as educators is to teach kids to read and write. How do we do that? We read, read, read, and write, write, write. It is true that as educators we can get caught up in the daily routines and not look to see if kids are learning to read and write.
We need to simplify and bring on the rigor.

Lisa Feb 13, 2024 01:57 PM

It seems to me that the extreme reaction to this standards-based data is what I'm observing in our local school district. ALL students in grade 9 are required to read Romeo and Juliet on a very fast timeline. Ok - great: high expectations for all. Except, in the standards classes, 2/3ds of the 9th graders are VERY low level readers. Teacher generally has to explain words like "perhaps" and assignments longer than 2-3 paragraphs are turned in almost blank papers in spite of modeling and individual or paired encouragement. Teacher's use of audiobooks and read-aloud is frequent. Teacher's preference to supplement with audiobooks and film is looked down upon by admin. The reaction is that all students will be taught the same high level curriculum at the same pace throughout the district. There's also talk about the tests being standardized by the district for each unit of instruction. The philosophy seems akin to "trickle-down economics". Interesting idea.

Considering that teachers are now teaching all of the special education in their classrooms within inclusion models, and that classroom sizes of student numbers are expanding in many areas , how does this particular district's reaction leave any real room to teach those at varying levels? It's a frustration that I've heard from teachers in different forums. Is there not a middle ground?

via a veteran Speech Language Pathologist in the educational setting

Timothy Shanahan Feb 13, 2024 03:42 PM


I'm a big fan of teaching almost all students with grade-level curriculum when it comes to reading. However, administrators who buy into that idea seem to think there is no cost to doing that. Teachers have to teach students how to read those texts -- not just assign them. Some kids will take longer to get through a text and will need more support. Standardizing the curriculum and the amount of scaffolding sounds a plan to make sure many kids fail.


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Why Standards-Based Teaching Has Failed to Raise Reading Achievement


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.