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Picture of Wendy Puriefoy
Wendy Puriefoy

Wendy Puriefoy is President of Public Education Network (PEN). Prior to joining PEN, she worked on the desegregation of Boston public schools and was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Boston Foundation. She holds Master of Arts degrees in African-American Studies, American Studies, and American Colonial History from Boston University.

PEN believes community engagement is the missing ingredient in school reform. Its standards and accountability initiative is designed to build community accountability so that all children have the supports they need to meet high standards of achievement.

Q: Why do you believe that standards-based reform represents the best tool available for public schools to improve student achievement?

A: Requiring all students to meet the same high standards makes the process of learning and everything about education public. That includes what teachers are doing, what’s expected of students, and who’s accountable for helping students reach high levels of learning. It covers the relationship between teacher and student, classroom and school, and the school system and the community.

Standards-based reform clarifies expectations in terms of content. It introduces a level of specificity about what is required of the curriculum and what teachers and parents have to do. It begins to put in place a system—not of punishment but of consequences—for students and for everyone. The expectation that everyone can learn, and learn at a high level, has consequences for a community’s economy and the capacity of its members to lead a good life.

Standards-based reform represents not only an intellectual revolution, but also a social revolution. It affirms that poor kids with uneducated parents can achieve the same high levels of learning that rich kids with educated parents do. That flies in the face of what we have been taught. In the U.S. and other countries there is a philosophy that some are worthy of great knowledge and others follow the anointed. It is misleading to confine standards-based reform to education reform. Although implemented in schools it is a societal reform because of the way it posits the responsibility to develop human potential and the means to do that.

Q: What is the role of evaluation in standards-based reform?

A: Evaluators need to look at both its technical and cultural dimensions. On the technical side, standards-based reform is a system that functions almost like a scientific lab in the sense of finding out what children are learning, how they are learning, and how teachers are teaching. It operates to find out what works best to help all kids get to the levels that the standards call for them to reach. It says we are not going to let children fail. So evaluation has to demonstrate promising practices that allow better alignment and implementation of standards.

On the cultural side, evaluators can work to help identify resistance to the implementation of standards. We find a parallel in the research of Carol Gilligan¹ in which she looked at classrooms where girls’ voices were suppressed. People were unaware of it because the cultural norm was domination by males. The problem of getting to scale is not that we lack scaleable techniques of teaching and learning, but resistance to the fundamental change that standards call for, so the role of evaluation in understanding resistance is critically important.

Q: What does the public need to know about standards-based reform and how well is the information being communicated?

A: The impact of a good education system moves well beyond the people who receive it, the people who deliver it, and the people who regulate it. Standards-based reform was adopted and managed by the educational establishment, but full implementation needs to be fulfilled by all parts of society.

Knowledge is the first responsibility of the public. The public needs to be educated about the work of standards, the implementation of standards, and what results to expect when we are done with the full implementation. Then comes the alignment of this knowledge with action—for example, voting for public officials who can best represent the community in the allocation of resources to implement the standards.

There are gaps, however, in the public understanding of what it takes to invest in a quality education. For example, the public understands that if you want to get good teachers you have to pay them more and give them more power and prestige in the community. They don’t understand that teacher quality requires more teacher professional development, a different arrangement of the school day, evaluation and feedback, and policies that allow teachers to form learning communities.

Another example concerns assessment. Standards-based reform promotes multiple assessments, but it costs more money to provide multiple sources of evidence compared to a single standardized test that can be administered inexpensively. The standardized tests don’t tell you much; they lack texture and quality; they don’t measure learning. If you want to change that we have to invest more money.

Unfortunately, there has been insufficient public information and inadequate public engagement and, therefore, no kind of public responsibility around standards-based reform. The information system is not consistent. People get different types of information from different states. This missing public information and engagement strategy is the Achilles heel.

Q: How can communities be equipped to understand standards-based reform?²

A: Philosophically, part of the difficulty in standards implementation is our resistance to the idea that all people can learn and learn at high levels because it will completely change the social order. The public sometimes cannot provide the kind of accountability that we would look for because the public is part of the resistance to what standards-based reform is positing. Part of our work at the Public Education Network is to create a set of indicators—a civic index—that builds awareness about public accountability in the implementation of standards.

Technically, the public really connects well to evidence and data. When the public sees whole schools and whole groups of kids beating the odds under circumstances that you would not have expected them to they will buy more into the standards movement.

There are a number of districts such as District 2 in New York City that have moved kids toward higher achievement for all. This accomplishment depends on strong school leaders—where the principal and the teachers agree to a shared vision and execute it. Whole schools have beat the odds, and getting that story out in popular media helps start changing people’s attitudes and beliefs about children and their potential.

Q: What are the opportunities and challenges of the No Child Left Behind Act?

A: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) proposes and makes public the theory of standards-based reform. It begins to put together the first element of a public engagement strategy, which is information. It mandates that parents and the public have a right to know how schools are doing. It outlines what it takes to implement high standards—a curriculum aligned with standards, multiple assessments, quality teachers, and public accountability.

The reality is that implementation takes time and money. The federal government has put this on the fast track and is running the new train on old tracks, and I’m not sure that this will get us there. We need more infrastructures to change the existing culture. Each of the systems (data, teacher quality, curriculum aligned with standards, assessments) that standards-based reform depends on for success is problematic.

For example, data systems need to be upgraded. It is problematic when schools are labeled failing and the data for this judgment are not uniform. In addition, the goal of having quality teachers for all children by 2005 is being proposed in the face of a teacher shortage, and the system of preparing, recruiting, and sustaining quality teachers is all over the map. Also, if schools fail in rural areas, there are no other schools where parents can send their children. The problem of assessment is that although standards provide for multiple assessments, the federal government will be using one assessment system in allocating its dollars. To compound things, states are going through one of the worst budget crises in 50 years and it will take resources to fully implement NCLB.

But the work needs to be done and can be done. Kentucky began its standards-based reform years ago and developed state standards, a curriculum aligned with standards, teacher certification and professional development, and a public engagement strategy. Has Kentucky succeeded in bringing children to higher level of standards? Absolutely! Are there more poor kids who are reaching high standards? No doubt about it. While Kentucky continues to move forward with this work, it is not just the education system that implements and supports standards. It involves an informed and engaged citizenry.

For more information about PEN and its work, visit

¹ Gilligan, C., Lyons, N. P., & Hanmer, T. J. (Eds.). (1990). Making connections: The relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

² William Miles, Director of Policy and Public Engagement at PEN, responded in part to this question.

M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant, HFRP

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