Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

STANDARDS, TESTING, AND URBAN SCHOOLS -- Implementing High Standards in Urban Schools: Problems and Solutions

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

STANDARDS, TESTING, AND URBAN SCHOOLS -- Implementing High Standards in Urban Schools: Problems and Solutions

Article excerpt

Instead of starting with a deficit view of learning, Mr. Lee argues, educators working in high-poverty urban schools should strive to create cultures of quality based on high expectations. The key is to link standards to the students' own ethnic, social, and cultural lives.

IT IS HARD to argue with the call for higher standards for urban schools. Kati Haycock of the Education Trust describes how "stunned" members of the Education Trust were when they observed how little is expected of students in high-poverty schools -- how few assignments students are given and how low the expectations are. She goes on to say that "careful research shows the positive impact of more rigorous coursework even on formerly low-achieving students," and she calls for a "relentless focus" on an academic core, the alignment of assessments with standards, accountability systems for all students, and "intensive efforts to assist teachers in improving their practice, along with extra instruction for students who need it."1

Certainly most Americans would agree with Haycock that students who attend high-poverty schools have been sold short. And they would also agree that at least part of the remedy for this situation is to raise our expectations and to direct all available resources toward helping students fulfill them.

Yet there are some real problems with this remedy if it is based on a deficit model of learning. The typical curriculum for the urban poor treats students as passive, empty vessels to be "filled up" with knowledge. Paulo Freire calls this the "banking" approach to education, in which students are asked to absorb, file, and store what educators think they need in order to overcome perceived deficits.2 Many educators who work with the urban poor believe that such learning will produce equity, with students more literate and better able to advance to college and to compete for jobs.

Associationist Psychology and Standards

This deficit view of learning, even as embodied in academic standards that are performance-based, usually embraces an associationist psychology that favors a pedagogy in which knowledge exists apart from the learner and not, as modern cognitive science would have it, in relation to the learner's current mental schemata, motivations, and life experiences. Teaching of this sort supports a form of stimulus/response behaviorism that ignores the need to help students construct their own understanding.

Since 1989, when new mathematics standards were published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the standards documents of the professional organizations in the disciplines have recommended a student-centered pedagogy. But especially in urban schools, these recommendations have usually been ignored in favor of what Martin Haberman has called the "pedagogy of poverty," which consists primarily of control techniques that include giving directions, making assignments, and monitoring seatwork.3 Such pedagogy emerges from what Lauren Resnick and Meghan Hall refer to as the associationist instructional theory that Thorndike and other psychologists promoted early in the 20th century on the basis of laboratory research that mainly involved animal learning.4

As Resnick and Hall explain, for associationists, knowledge consists of a collection of bonds, each of which involves a link between an external stimulus and an internal mental response. The goal of teaching is to strengthen the correct bonds and diminish the strength of the incorrect ones by means of a system of rewards and punishments. Associationist teaching matches up well with a deficit model of urban education that believes students are cognitively, linguistically, and culturally in need of remediation that "stamps in" the dominant culture and "stamps out" the deficiencies that characterize a minority, impoverished culture.

Teaching based on associationist theory employs a form of recitation in which teachers ask narrowly focused questions designed to trigger correct responses with little extended thinking. …

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