Skip to main content

Full text of "ERIC ED469219: Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform."

See other formats


ED 469 219 

EA 031 996 










Mizell, M. Hayes 

Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform. 
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, New York, NY. 
2002 - 00-00 
207p . 

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 250 Park Avenue, Suite 
900, New York, NY 10177. Tel: 212-551-9100; Fax: 212-986- 
4558; Web site: For full text: 
http: //www.emcf . org/ pdfZstudent_shootingforthesun.pdf. 

Books (010) — Opinion Papers (120) — Speeches/Meeting 
Papers (150) 

EDRS Price MF01/PC09 Plus Postage. 

* Academic Achievement; ^Educational Improvement; Educational 
Philosophy; Educational Responsibility; ^Middle Schools; 
Principals; Speeches; Teacher Responsibility 
Reform Efforts 


This book is a collection of speeches by M. Hayes Mizell. The 
book is divided into three parts. In part 1, Mizell reviews some of the 
challenges middle schools must overcome to become effective places of 
teaching and learning. His suggestions range from developing a new kind of 
middle school principal to better serving young people's "raging" intellects 
and the adoption of a "whatever it takes" philosophy that will lead to 
improved schools. In part 2, Mizell reminds his audiences that the key to 
successful reform is an unwavering commitment to help students learn. While 
some might encounter difficulties to better schools, everyone must keep his 
or her eye on the ultimate goal — serving "all children well." In part 3, 
Mizell cautions that "academic standards do not guarantee success." However, 
when coupled with professional development, they can be useful tools to help 
ensure students move forward academically and "help schools and educators 
become more accountable for their results." The book concludes with a speech 
in which Mizell reviewed the history of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation's 
Program for Student Achievement and listed some of the most important lessons 
from his 10 years of experience as director of the program. (RT) 


Reproductions supplied by EDRS are the best that can be made 
from the original document. 

ED 469 219 

Shooting for the Sun 

The MeAAage of Middle School Reform 

Selected Remarks of M. Hayes Mizell 

Office of Educational Research and Improvement 

tS/This document has been reproduced as 
received from the person or organization 
originating it. 

□ Minor changes have been made to 
improve reproduction quality. 



• Points of view or opinions stated in this i jq THE EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES 

document do not necessarily represent j INFORMATION CENTER (ERIC) 

official OERI position or policy. j ^ 





Cjark foundation 



Shooting for the Sun 

The MeAAage of Middle School Reform 

Selected Remarks of M. Hayes Mizell 

Ed ^MfConnell 

^i3.rK FouNDATioN 

Copyright © 2002 The Edna M c Connell Clark Foundation 

Shooting for the Sun: The Menage of Middle School Reform, by M. Hayes Mizell 
ISBN: 1-929633-00-9 

Table of Contents 

Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform 

Selected Remark ofM. HayeA Mizell on Middle School Reform , School 
Improvement, and Academic Standards and Accountability 

Foreword ^ 

Part I. The Challenge of Middle School Reform 

The New Middle School Principal n 

Raging Intellects 27 

30 and Counting: Why the Middle School Movement 

Has Not Reached Its Potential 36 

Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School 47 

Middle School Reform: Where Are We Now? 64 

The War We Are In 74 

Who Will Advocate for Middle School Reform? 84 

Part II. Getting it Done 

SHAZAM! No Lightning Bolts in School Improvement 93 

The Rocky Trail of Standards-Based Reform 10 6 

Hitting the Wall X1 4 

What You’re Cookin’ vs. What They’re Smellin’ 121 

All Children Well 

Part III. Academic Standards and Accountability 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? 149 

Academic Standards: The Beauty and Terror 164 

Watching for Mr. Hyde 

What If There Were No State Test? 382 

Professional Development: The State It’s In 193 

Conclusion— Where We Are Now 

Ten Years of Middle School Reform: A Few Lessons 


Foreword / page 5 


W hen he was just fourteen Hayes Mizell 

won first prize (and five dollars) in a 
young author contest sponsored by the 
Memphis Commercial Appeal. The judges 
singled out his five-paragraph short story because of its 
“understanding and well-expressed sense of the principles 
of American ideals, democracy, brotherhood and fair play.” 
Fifty years later, it’s hard to come up with a more apt 
description of the guiding beliefs that have been at the 
root of Hayes’s unstinting efforts to improve education for 
America’s middle grades students. This book, a collection 
of “oral essays” on that subject, reveals a never-ending 
optimism-perhaps a true American idealism— that schools 
can and should be places where all students achieve at 
high levels. 

While holding on to that dream, Hayes also has always 
been a realist about the challenges that stand in the way 
of even the most committed and tireless educators. Still, 
few people can leaven that painful realism with greater 
ease than Hayes who has a boundless reservoir of humor 
that he readily draws upon. For example, he once said the 




page 6 / Shooting for the Sun 

pressure on school leaders was like being asked to 
produce ‘tofu data’ that on the one hand is dry and taste- 
less and on the other hand can absorb nearly any flavor of 
interpretation.” In the same speech (p. 133), he recalled a 
popular Gary Larson cartoon depicting Rex the Wonder 
Dog balancing an impossible number of objects as he 
walks the highwire. “High above the hushed crowd,” the 
caption reads, “Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he 
couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog 
and this was a new trick.” 

Balancing frankness with irony and colorful 
metaphors, Hayes never has shied from the challenge of 
walking a tightrope of his own as he delivered tough 
messages about obligation to students and accountability 
to communities. His straightforward style violates the 
“passive voice” approach favored by many public school 
educators who prefer not to utter (or hear) statements 
that assign direct responsibility for results. 

Every speech you will read here resonates with the 
same core message: The surest way to break the cycle of 
underachievement is to make absolutely certain young 
people gain the skills and knowledge they need to become 
self-sufficient, lifelong learners. And the surest way to 
reach this goal is to hold every student and every educator 
to high standards. 

As Hayes plays variations on this theme, he shares a 
decade of insights he and the Foundation’s Program for 
Student Achievement have gained about standards-based 

Foreword / page 7 

middle grades reform. In these speeches he examines the 
meaning of reform, the need for clear standards, the poor 
quality of most professional development, the importance 
of principal leadership, and the vital role of the central 
office in signaling the significance of any reform initiative. 

In one of his most recent speeches (“All Children Well,” 
page 132”), Hayes offered educators participating in the 
Student Achievement Program the following assessment 
of the work he and others have been doing in districts com- 
mitted to standards-based reform: “We were shooting for 
the sun and I do not apologize for it.” 

For those who know Hayes, those remarks are anything 
but hyperbole. Never once would he consider anything less 
than a quality education for every middle schooler as the 
reason for this work. He went on to remind the assembled 

...(W)e are doing [this work] because we know that most 
students in your communities depend now and will depend 
in the future on your school systems.... You know students 
who have abilities and talents their schools do not recog- 
nize or seek to discover. You know students who are satis- 
fied with achieving the minimum because their schools 
establish that as the maximum. You know students whose 
intelligence is devalued because their teachers do not 
know enough to tap it.... You know that if your schools were 
truly performing at high levels, nearly all your students 
would be performing at high levels. 

page 8 / Shooting for the Sun 

This is why we are here again, but we will not always be 
here, or places like this, together. You have learned a lot, 
you have accomplished a lot, but there is much more to be 
done. Learn from the past six years, but do not be a captive 
of them. Look towards the future and determine how you 
want it to be different from the past. Most of all, be res- 
olute, be brave, be determined, be tenacious in creating 
school systems that Aerve all children well. 

Many people, including Hayes’s co-workers, colleagues 
and admirers, encouraged us to bring together in a single 
volume some of his most thoughtful and inspirational 
speeches about how we all can do better for our kids. 

We’ll leave it to our readers to judge for themselves if this 
collection lives up to and reflects the ideals that Hayes’s 
work has always been about. Having had the pleasure of 
working with him for a number of years, I already know 
the answer to that question. 

Michael A. Bailin 

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation 

Part I. 

The Challenge of Middle School Reform 

In this series of speeches, Hayes Mizell reviews some of 
the challenges middle schools must overcome to become 
effective places of teaching and learning. His suggestions 
range from developing a new kind of middle school prin- 
cipal to better serving young people's “raging” intellects 
and the adoption of a “whatever it takes” philosophy that 
will lead to improved schools. 



The New Middle School Principal / page n 

The New Middle School Principal 

An achieving middle school must have a new kind of 
principal, one who sets high standards and gives teachers 
and students the tools and support they need to succeed. 
Hayes Mizell defined this powerful new role at a gathering 
of middle school principals in Louisville, Kentucky, 
in July 1994. 

All across America, new schools are in the making. On the 
outside, these schools may not seem new at all; most people who 
pass by them notice no difference. The schools are not new because 
they have new buildings, but because they have new purpose and 
operate differently from schools we increasingly refer to as 
“regular” schools. 

New schools go by many different names. Some are magnet or 
choice or charter schools that describe their new focus by includ- 
ing in their names words like “academic,” “traditional,” “ecology,” 
“African-American,” “fine arts,” or “technology.” Other new schools 
are the result of joint ventures between school systems and the 
private sector. In San Jose, the settlement of a school desegrega- 
tion case called for all middle schools to pattern themselves after 
Henry Levin’s Accelerated Schools. 

Other urban school systems have launched new schools based 
on James Comer’s School Development Program, or Ted Sizer’s 
Coalition of Essential Schools, or Mortimer Adler’s Paideia 
Schools, or the Montessori or Total Quality Management models. 

In Corpus Christi, the school system “disestablished” a failing 
school. All the school’s faculty had to resign, and if they wanted to 

PAGE 12 / Shooting for the Sun 

teach there the following year they had to reapply to do so. The 
school reopened with a fine arts theme, a new principal, and a 
mostly new faculty. 

There are many reasons for this national movement to create 
new schools, but the primary reason is that more and more people 
are concluding that existing schools, operating under existing 
rules, are not educating most young people very well. Over the next 
decade it will be interesting to observe whether this movement 
gains momentum. One would hope that most schools are not so 
dysfunctional or unyielding that they will reform only if they 
become new schools similar to the ones I have described. Yet there 
is little doubt that all schools need to pick up the pace of reform 
and intensify their focus on enabling students to perform at high 
levels. All schools need to become “new,” whether or not they have 
a different name or special status. 

The achieving Achool requireA a new kind of principal 

There is at least one thing that new schools and regular schools 
have in common. In both, the principal is central to shaping the 
direction and climate of the school. Newly created schools often 
begin with a new principal because school systems know that if 
parents and students are to believe the school is truly “new,” the 
principal must be new also. It is not yet clear whether school 
systems can reform regular schools only by appointing new princi- 
pals, but it is clear that there will be no reform unless principals 
become new. The phrase “new principal” refers not only to a differ- 
ent person in the building who holds the position of principal, it 
means a principal who behaves and leads differently. 

Who is “the new principal?” The new principal may not even be 
called the “principal.” He or she may be called the “building coordi- 
nator,” “the school team leader,” “the co-principal,” or some other 
name that communicates that the person does not exercise control 

The New Middle School Principal / page 13 

through hierarchical authority but by forging consensus and mobi- 
lizing talents to enhance student performance. 

According to education researcher Ulrich Reitzug, the princi- 
pal should be “asking questions and suggesting a variety of alter- 
natives that expand conceptions of how organizational tasks 
might be accomplished, rather than telling organizational 
members how these tasks must be accomplished. ...The principal’s 
role shifts from prescribing substance to facilitating processes in 
which substance can be discovered.” 

This does not mean the principal does not lead, or is not 
responsible for carrying out certain tasks, but the new principal 
knows that he or she can control very little. The new principal suc- 
ceeds only to the extent that he or she empowers teachers and stu- 
dents to succeed. 

The new principal hcu a tight grip on reality 

In what other ways is the new principal new? The new principal has 
a tight grip on the reality that faces students when they graduate 
from high school. Middle school principals worry about the futures 
of their students just as much as do high school principals. They 
know that among high school graduates in the 1970s who did not 
go on to college but looked for jobs, 16 percent were still unem- 
ployed in October after they graduated in May. The new principal 
knows that the proportion of graduates who could not find work 
immediately after high school increased to 24 percent in 1993. 

The new principal understands that the nation’s economy is 
producing two million new jobs a year but that those jobs typically 
come with wages below $16,000 a year, and, according to the New 
York TimeA, “without health benefits, much opportunity for promo- 
tion or promises that the jobs will last.” But what about students 
who pursue post-secondary education? In 1991 the earnings advan- 
tage of people having attained only some college was 32 percent 
greater than those with only a high school diploma. The income of 


PAGE 14 / Shooting for the Sun 

college graduates was more than double that of people with only 
some college education. 

Over these data, the new principal lays an understanding of the 
world students will enter as young adults. The economist Peter 
Drucker believes we are now in a period of transition, from an age 
of capitalism and the nation-state to an age of knowledge and 
organization. In the emerging new age, Drucker believes, “Most, if 
not all, educated persons will practice their knowledge as members 
of an organization. The educated person will therefore have to be 
prepared to live and work simultaneously in two cultures-that of 
the ‘intellectual,’ who focuses on words and ideas, and that of the 
‘manager,’ who focuses on people and work.” 

Drucker’s analysis is not a vision of the distant future; it 
describes the world today’s middle school students will enter. The 
human resources director of the Bic Corporation was recently 
quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the qualities she 
seeks, even in entry-level employees, are “smarts, speed, flexibility, 
the ability to handle risk and ambiguity, knowing how to find out 
what you don’t know and how to teach others what you do know.” 

Unlike many principals who shrug off telling labor statistics or 
sobering predictions, the new middle school principal knows that, 
tragically, these data and analyses paint a frightening but realistic 
picture of what the future will be like for many students. Those 
who the school does not encourage and prepare to pursue some 
education after high school may find themselves among the 47 
percent of i8-to-24-year-olds earning less than the poverty wage 
even though they work full time. While even college graduates’ real 
wages have fallen in recent years, it is still true that the more edu- 
cation young people have the better off they are likely to be. This is 
particularly true for racial and language minorities and those from 
low-income families. 

If middle school principals do not understand these trends and 
what they mean for the young people in their schools, they cannot 


The New Middle School Principal / PAGE 15 

become “new principals.” If they say they believe and understand 
these trends but continue to lead schools that are boring, uninspir- 
ing, and passive, their schools are merely factories, producing the 
raw material for what Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describes as 
“a society divided between the haves and have-nots or the well-edu- 
cated and the poorly educated.” 

For the new principal, high performance always corner firM 

The new principal organizes and leads the middle school so all 
young people are able to perform at the highest levels possible. For 
the new principal, this is the greatest commandment. The adminis- 
trative and operational dimensions of the principalship are very 
important, but they are secondary to the task of creating a school 
where the emphasis is on academic performance. The new princi- 
pal does not apologize for this priority and does not merely rely on 
words or admonitions to focus faculty, students, and parents on 
increasing student achievement as the primary mission of the 
school. Action is the key. 

The new principal knows that how the school looks and “feels” 
communicates a great deal about its mission. Everything about the 
school directs students toward high levels of performance and 
achievement beyond high school. By the door of each teacher’s 
classroom is a name plate that lists the teacher’s name, grade, 
subject, the name of the college from which the teacher graduated, 
the city in which the college is located, and the degree the teacher 
earned at the college. 

Teachers are often seen wearing sweatshirts from their col- 
leges. Once a month in the hallway by the office, representatives 
from different post-secondary education institutions sit at tables, 
informally providing students with materials and information as 
they enter and leave school, and then going into classes to make 
presentations to students or counsel them. Monthly, students write 
at least one essay about some aspect of a post-secondary education 


PAGE 16 / Shooting for the Sun 

institution. The walls of the school are covered with students’ 
themes, science and history projects, and math homework. 

Just by walking down the halls, students know that the school 
is serious about achievement, and that their work really counts. 
They also know it because four times a year the new principal 
invites five business people from the community to come to the 
school, randomly select ten students across all grade levels, and 
spend several hours examining the students’ portfolios, discussing 
them with the students and counseling them about their futures. 

The new principal constantly interact with the school 

The new principal is not hiding in the office nor merely “visible” in 
classrooms and hallways, but is constantly interacting with adults 
and students around issues of performance. Students know that 
every day the principal will randomly stop at least one student 
entering school, ask to look over the student’s homework, and give 
feedback and a few words of encouragement. Students also know 
that at the end of every day, the principal will randomly invite one 
or more students to sit down for a few minutes and discuss the 
classes where they are doing their best work, those where they are 
performing least well, and why. 

In similar ways, the new principal daily interacts with teachers 
to provide support and gain insight into classroom and instruc- 
tional issues that affect student performance. The new principal 
either teaches one class a day or substitutes for at least 25 class 
periods a year. On any given day, the principal may volunteer to be 
a teacher’s aide for a full class period, invite a teacher for lunch 
and informal discussion in the principal’s office, or help a teacher 
grade papers after school. 

Significant interactions with the principal are not rare events; 
they are part of the new principal’s routine, intentional acts to 
communicate to students and faculty that on a daily basis the prin- 
cipal wants to know how students are performing, why they are 


The New Middle School Principal / page 17 

performing well or not so well, and how the school can help stu- 
dents perform at higher levels. 

The new principal knows that every school year there will be at 
least several teachers who are teaching at the school for the first 
time. Whether new to teaching or experienced teachers, they come 
to the school without an understanding of its history, culture, aca- 
demic standards, or means of achieving them. The principal organ- 
izes a committee of veteran teachers to provide the new teachers 
with support and mentoring throughout the year. 

The new principal frequently meets individually with new 
teachers, making a special effort to understand each teacher’s 
strengths, limitations, and goals. In this way, the new principal 
accelerates the teachers’ integration with the school’s culture, and 
better understands how to use the teachers to advance the school’s 
emphasis on student performance. 

Taking rlskjs la an everyday part of the new principal !a job 

The new principal understands that, inherently, teaching and 
learning involve risk. Every day students risk exposing what they 
do not know, their embarrassment at not knowing it, and their dif- 
ficulty in learning quickly. Unfortunately, because many schools do 
not create a culture that encourages and supports academic 
achievement, students who are serious about achievement may 
risk the ridicule of their peers. 

Teachers also take risks every day. There is an absurd expecta- 
tion in our culture that managing a classroom is a science that 
people can learn in teacher training institutions when in fact it is 
an art that teachers master, if they ever do, through hands-on expe- 
rience in the classroom. Every day when teachers enter the class- 
room they take risks. They risk demonstrating that they do not 
know how to handle every situation, that their mastery of content 
or methods of effective instruction are not strong, or that they are 
simply human, people who sometimes get tired, discouraged, or 

ERIC even angry. 

PAGE 18 / Shooting for the Sun 

The new principal must enter this arena of risk, rather than 
stand outside it or ignore it. Students and teachers should know 
that the principal is taking risks to learn and grow, For example, 
when the principal demonstrates leadership by identifying a diffi- 
cult problem for which there is no obvious answer and facilitates 
discussion and debate among teachers and students about possible 
solutions, this establishes the principal as a fellow risk-taker. 

How the new principal acts as a teacher and learner is crucial. 
The new principal asks probing and difficult questions: What is 
the evidence that all our students have access to high content and 
high quality instruction? How can we change our schedule to give 
low-performing students more time for learning with better teach- 
ers? How can we use high-performing students as a resource to 
assist low-performing students? 

The new principal acknowledges, directly or indirectly, that he 
or she may not know all the answers but is quick to seek answers 
from others inside and outside the school community. The new 
principal learns from mistakes and is determined in conceiving 
and applying alternative solutions to problems. The principal’s 
actions send the message that not knowing is understandable, but 
not trying to know is unacceptable. 

The new principal makeA the Achool Aafefor learning 

It is also the new principal’s job to reduce the risk environment in 
which students learn and faculty teach. The term “reduce the risk 
environment” means not only assuring freedom from physical 
harm, but safety in a broader context -teachers feeling safe to 
express their opinions, safe to take initiative in solving problems, 
and safe to try, and try again, more effective ways to enhance 
student performance. It means students feeling safe to question, 
safe to explore, and safe to achieve. 

The new principal establishes a reduced risk environment by 
developing a collaborative relationship with teachers that fosters 


The New Middle School Principal / page 19 

trust and enables the principal and teachers to identify school- 
based barriers to learning and honestly address them. The princi- 
pal aggressively assists teachers in getting the high-quality staff 
development they need to engage students in learning. Always 
interested in whether staff development results in more effective 
teaching, the new principal is a frequent classroom visitor and 
seeks other opportunities to talk with teachers about how they are 
using their training to increase student performance and what 
follow-up support they may need to implement the training. 

The new principal also develops an environment that is safe for 
learning by mobilizing teachers and parents to reach consensus on 
standards for student performance. Learning is at risk when some 
teachers are moving in one direction while others are moving in 
another, when parents are uninformed about what their children 
should be learning, or when students are able to keep teachers and 
parents isolated from one another, or worse, play them off against 
one another. The school is not safe for learning if teachers, stu- 
dents, and parents do not understand or agree on what students 
should know and be able to do. 

The new principal keepA thefocuA onMandardA 

The new principal believes that standards are important bench- 
marks that can help students advance along a continuum of learn- 
ing. Standards can focus the teaching and learning process so the 
force that drives the school is not the state test but clearly defined 
statements of what students should know and be able to do as a 
result of their education. Students need to understand what the 
school expects them to learn and how the school will assess 
whether they can apply what they have learned. Parents need to 
understand the results they can expect to see from their children’s 
education. The new principal mobilizes the school community to 
use content and performance standards for those purposes. 

page 20 / Shooting for the Sun 

The new principal knows that content standards will have little 
meaning if the school is not able to assess whether students meet 
the standards, or are making progress in doing so. While the state- 
mandated test provides only limited information that is helpful to 
teachers in understanding what the school’s students know and 
can do, the new principal organizes a committee of teachers to pore 
over the state test results and, in effect, become the school’s 
experts on how the school’s students performed on the test. At the 
new principal’s urging, the committee devotes particular attention 
to disaggregating the test results and examining the performance 
of minority students and those from low-income families. 

The new principal understands that a large-scale assessment 
of student performance, such as the state test, is necessary for 
accountability, yet he or she worries if the school has become so 
obsessive about the test that teachers and students have lost their 
perspective of what education and learning are all about. It is the 
new principal’s view that the school has two choices. It can either 
allow the state test to shape the school’s agenda and sap its energy, 
or it can balance the state test with school-based assessments that 
more accurately identify and document what students know and 
can do in a way that teachers, students, and parents find useful. 

The new principal takeA control of the Achool’A 
“aAAeAAment deMiny” 

The new principal accepts the legitimacy and value of the state test 
but believes the school must seize the initiative to creatively use 
assessment in ways that promote learning. The new principal 
shares this view with teachers and engages them in considering 
questions related to school-based assessment. What could the 
school do to enable teachers, students, and parents to better under- 
stand what students know and can do? What steps could the school 
take to systematically determine not only whether students meet 
academic standards, but also their growth in performance? 

The New Middle School Principal / page 21 

How could the school-not the state or the central office, but 
the school-seek to gain an accurate understanding of what stu- 
dents know and can do when they enter the sixth grade, what 
growth in performance occurs each year because of school-based 
interventions, and the degree to which students meet academic 
standards at the end of grade eight? In other words, what can the 
school do to take control of its own assessment destiny? 

This is a daunting task, but because the new principal and 
increasing numbers of the school’s teachers are committed to 
enhancing student performance, they take on the challenge. They 
believe that if they truly understand what students know and can 
do, and if students and parents understand it, the entire school 
community will take student performance more seriously, and the 
state test will take care of itself. 

As a first step, the new principal and teacher leaders mobilize 
teachers from all grade levels to participate in the assessment of 
every student who enters the sixth grade. This process begins in 
March before the school is even sure who will enroll in sixth grade 
next September. Not all students who participate eventually enroll, 
but most do and teachers are able to plan for the forthcoming 
school year with a more realistic view of the students they will 
be teaching. 

The assessment of each student combines discussion between 
the student and a three-teacher panel (one from each grade level), a 
short essay, a brief multiple-choice basic skills test, and an exhibi- 
tion developed by the student. The purpose is to gain insight into 
each student’s level of performance, understand strengths and 
weaknesses, and determine how the school can best enhance the 
student’s growth during the sixth grade. Each year, a similar 
process occurs before the student moves on to the next grade, 
except it also includes an assessment of growth in performance 
during the preceding year. 

PAGE 22 / Shooting for the Sun 



Teachers also agree to make greater use of student portfolios, 
even in math and science, and the principal obtains from the 
school system and the community resources to enable all teachers 
to participate in intensive staff development on portfolios. With 
the new principal’s support, a small group of teachers interested in 
using portfolios to assess student performance seek additional 
training and thereafter serve as resources to other teachers in the 
school. These teachers provide mini-staff development experiences 
for the faculty and periodically review the portfolios of students 
from other teachers’ classes and provide feedback. 

Not only does the new principal make sure that all teachers 
keep honing their skills in using portfolios as an assessment tool, 
but he or she prods teachers to experiment with other alternative 
forms of assessment. As a result, teachers increasingly create 
opportunities for performance events in which students demon- 
strate and exhibit their knowledge and skills and receive critical 
feedback from teachers, other students, and even guests from the 

The new principal integrateA AtandardA into Achool life 

Because the school’s deepening use of alternative forms of assess- 
ment is highly organized and consistent throughout the building, 
rather than hit-or-miss, the new principal is able to institute two 
school-community events each year. The first event, held at night 
during the first month of school, focuses on interpreting to stu- 
dents’ families what students will be learning during the school 
year. Through skits, displays, presentations, and handouts, teach- 
ers educate families about the specific content standards the 
school will prepare students to meet. 

The second community event, held over three nights during the 
last month of school, combines formal programs at the classroom 
and school-wide levels with scheduled conferences involving fami- 
lies, students, and teachers. This event provides an opportunity for 


The New Middle School Principal / page 23 

families to see what students know and can do as a result of their 
education during the school year. Families examine students’ port- 
folios and discuss them with teachers. Every student makes a brief 
oral presentation and otherwise demonstrates what he or she 
learned during the school year. 

The halls are lined with exhibits from the science fair in which 
all students participated, and there are other displays and booklets 
based on projects students completed during the year. Teachers 
schedule individual conferences with families to discuss how their 
children performed in relation to the content standards. 

These changes at the school have not come easy. The shift in 
the school’s mission to enabling students to meet high academic 
standards has occurred only because of the new principal’s strong 
leadership and collaboration with teachers, families, and students. 
The principal knows that the most important part of his or her job 
is to focus the school on student performance, increase the expec- 
tations and skills of the faculty, and empower teachers to make 
reforms that will enhance student performance. 

The new principal believer in hard work 

The new principal has standards. All reforms are not equal and the 
new principal asks tough questions to determine whether proposed 
reforms are likely to enable students to perform at high levels. The 
school begins no new program and launches no new reform 
without a process for assessing its likely effects, and without 
making someone accountable for conducting this assessment and 
reporting the results. 

The new principal believes that real reform at the school is nec- 
essary if most students are going to meet the academic standards. 
Unlike many other principals, the new principal constantly 
engages teachers in conversations about reforms the school needs 
to make to enhance student performance. The new principal is 
open to practically any scheme that will produce more time for stu- 

page 24 / Shooting for the Sun 

dents to learn and more time for teachers to improve their skills, 
plan, reflect, and assess students’ performance as well as their 

The new principal knows there are no shortcuts to learning: 
not entertainment to instill motivation, not lower standards to 
create opportunities for what some people call “success.” 
Instruction, practice, feedback, correction, practice. Instruction, 
practice, feedback, correction, practice. This is the drumbeat of 
most formal learning experiences, and while it does not have to be 
joyless, it is often hard work. 

The new principal believes that if low-performing students, or 
any students, are going to meet high academic standards, it will 
require more time and effort. Half the battle of enhancing student 
performance is to intensify students’ and teachers’ focus on learn- 
ing. For students to write better, they must write much more fre- 
quently and think more critically and deeply about how and what 
they write. The students’ teachers-all teachers, not just English or 
language arts teachers-have to take the time and make the effort 
to read what students write, make corrections, and help students 
understand their errors and how to avoid repeating them. 

This is why the new principal is so determined that teaching 
and learning must be the school’s focus, and why the principal acts 
to protect and expand time for hard-core learning. There are no 
assumptions about the school organization the principal holds 
dear, except those that directly advance student learning. No 
aspect of the school’s structure or operations or schedule is so pre- 
cious that it cannot be changed-yes, even radically reformed-if it 
will focus teaching and learning, and provide more time for both. 

The new principal la both caring and tough 

Because the new principal is serious, really serious, about student 
performance, he or she is not always popular with teachers, 

The New Middle School Principal / page 25 

parents, students, or the central office staff. On the other hand, 
they respect the new principal and cannot argue with the fact that 
increasing numbers of students are meeting the academic stan- 
dards. They know the principal cares more about preparing stu- 
dents to meet high academic standards than about maintaining 
comfortable routines. 

Teachers sometimes wish the new principal’s personnel 
reviews were not so thorough and candid, but they know the princi- 
pal is in their classes enough to have a good understanding of their 
strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, they see ineffective 
teachers move on because the new principal carefully documents 
their deficiencies and insists that they improve. If they do not, the 
principal does not hesitate to initiate steps leading to the dis- 
missal of those teachers. The school’s quality teachers also know 
that the new principal works hard to recruit outstanding new 
teachers and frequently fights with the central office when it sends 
teachers to the school who do not meet the principal’s high stan- 

This is what it means to become a “new principal.” The call is 
demanding, and the challenges are great. It is understandable that 
not all principals want to make the effort to become new, and the 
fact that so few do so is reflected in the performance of many chil- 
dren in our nation’s schools. This is one reason school systems are 
now creating new schools, because many believe it is the only way 
to get the quality of leadership that students must have to perform 
at higher levels. 

I still believe that principals of regular schools can become 
new, but it will take a lot of effort. Two thousand years ago, the 
apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, “So let us not grow 
weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we 
do not give up.” The harvest is students who can perform at the 
levels of which they are capable, who seek and obtain as much edu- 

PAGE 26 / Shooting for the Sun 

cation as they can, and who, in a new and different age, can earn 
enough to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. New 
principals will reap this harvest if they do not grow weary, if they 
do not give up. 


Raging Intellects / page 27 

Raging Intellects 

Arguing that schools should stop worrying about young 
adolescents’ “raging hormones” and instead attend to the 
demands of their “raging intellects,” Hayes Mizell explains 
the premise of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s 
Program for Student Achievement. These remarks were 
made in June 1995 at a briefing for repre-sentatives of 
Minneapolis community organizations. 

People often ask me why the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation 
is interested in middle schools. The answer is that we are con- 
cerned about the educational and life futures of n-to-14-year-olds 
and how middle schools prepare them for the future. We believe 
that middle grades represent the last, best hope for influencing the 
choices young adolescents make and for shaping their understand- 
ing of how to develop their talents. 

The Foundation is also interested in the education of n-to-14- 
year-olds because their education has often been neglected by 
funders, school systems, and even parents. The truth is that our 
culture has a hard time dealing with young adolescents. Because 
they are experiencing an intense period of physical, emotional, 
psychological, and sexual development, students in the middle 
grades exhibit unpredictable behaviors that confound many adults. 
While this developmental period is normal— indeed, it is not possi- 
ble for children to make the transition to young adulthood without 
it— adults often react negatively to the behaviors and stresses asso- 
ciated with young adolescence. 

PAGE 28 / Shooting for the Sun 



Adult interactions with middle school students can be so dis- 
concerting that they give rise to audible sighs, rolling eyes, 
clenched teeth, and even screams, by adults and students. Indeed, 
the symptoms of the developmental period we call early adoles- 
cence can be so compelling that adults find it hard to see past the 
behaviors to the needs, feelings, and potential of the young person 
in formation. This stage of development can be difficult, for both 
young people and adults, but it is also a time of opportunity. 

Many adultA expect too little of young adoleAcentA 

Young adolescents are seeking to understand who they are and 
how to relate to the world around them. They are curious and seek 
new opportunities to test and prove themselves. They are, to use 
Jeff Howard’s term, “learning machines.” The issue is what they are 
learning and how they are learning it. 

Unfortunately, many adults (and the education institutions 
they operate) fail to recognize the strengths of young adolescents 
and to capitalize on them. Instead, they focus on the sometimes 
erratic behaviors and risk-taking of middle school students, and 
spend disproportionate energy and time trying to straight-jacket 
the symptoms of this normal developmental period. Other adults 
appear to take a more benign approach, but if you listen carefully 
to their supposedly light-hearted references to young adolescents 
as being “wacky” or victims of “raging hormones”-or even, as one 
leader of the middle school movement put it, “a little brain-dead”— 
you hear pejorative characterizations that translate into low expec- 
tations. These adults regard young adolescents as not only out of 
control but disabled. 

Students in the middle grades are going through a difficult 
period in their lives, these adults feel, and it is important to 
support and nurture them, but one should not really expect too 
much of them academically. This attitude is deeply rooted in many 
schools serving grades six, seven, and eight, even in middle 


Raging Intellects / PAGE 29 

schools. I wonder whether this view is unique to schools or 
whether it mirrors attitudes in the community at large. Do commu- 
nities pay so little attention to their middle schools, and expect so 
little of them, because citizens also wish the challenges of young 
adolescence to silently pass them by? Unfortunately, there is ample 
evidence that all of us need to pay more attention to middle 
schools and expect more of them and their students. How should 
schools and school systems respond? 

How can AchoolA Aerve young adoleAcentA better ? 

Often, the first step is to implement structures that create smaller, 
more personalized learning environments for students. Many 
larger schools subdivide into “houses,” units that constitute 
schools within schools. A house may have its own administrator 
and its own wing or floor of the school building. Students in one 
house may interact with students from another house only rarely. 
Within each house, there may be “teams” of teachers. A team may 
consist of two or three or four teachers who work together to teach 
the core academic subjects to a group of approximately 150 stu- 
dents. The team and the students constitute a kind of self-con- 
tained family in which students and teachers get to know each 
other very well. In some cases, the same team of teachers stays 
with the same students through all three years of middle school. 

Teachers in many middle schools have two preparation periods: 
one to prepare individually for the subject he or she teaches, and 
one to meet with other teachers on the team to discuss problems of 
individual students, or to develop interdisciplinary curriculum 
units. These units help students understand the connections 
between discrete subjects. 

Some middle schools also offer exploratory courses in which 
students are able to participate in short-term technology, commu- 
nity service, arts, or other projects. Many middle schools also have 
advisory programs where, for perhaps 20 minutes a day, a teacher 

page 30 / Shooting for the Sun 

meets with a small group of students to enhance their decision- 
making and other life skills. These and other structures and pro- 
grams are hallmarks of middle schools. One team of researchers 
refers to them as “enabling mechanisms.” In fact, many schools 
define themselves as middle schools by virtue of having put these 
structures in place. There are still more schools that devote enor- 
mous energy and many years to implementing and perfecting 
these classical components of middle schools. 

While many of these characteristics of middle schools are nec- 
essary first steps to providing a more effective learning environ- 
ment for young adolescents, in and of themselves they are not 
likely to have much effect on student performance. The key vari- 
ables are whether and how schools intentionally use these struc- 
tures to increase student learning. I know this from experience 
and observation. Unfortunately, I am very familiar with a large 
urban middle school that has a strong principal and most of the 
common features of a middle school but has been on the brink of 
being cited by its state for its unimpressive student performance. 

Researchers Penny Oldfather and James McLaughlin have also 
observed that middle school characteristics alone are not suffi- 
cient to increase student learning. They write: 

Many of the characteristics of middle level education over the 
last three decades...have been structural changes that were benefi- 
cial for students in easing the transition into early adolescence. 
But regardless of these changes, students’ intrinsic motivation- 
what we refer to as their continuing impulse to learn— is dimin- 
ished by unresponsive classroom environments, and by 
conceptions of learning as transmitted, rather than constructed. 
Innovations such as interdisciplinary unit planning will fail to 
fulfill their promise without the nurturing of students’ voices. And 
teachers’ actions to create an environment that is more responsive 
to students’ interests and experiences— to their lives— cannot be 
divorced from how teachers and students think about learning. 

Raging Intellects / page 31 

Oldfather and McLaughlin describe an “honored voice,” or “a 
deep responsiveness in the classroom culture to students’ ideas, 
opinions, feelings, interests and need.” They say that “voice comes 
from our hearts, from our minds, and from the deepest places of 
knowing and feeling. If learners become connected to their literacy 
activities in ways that engage all aspects of themselves, they 
become motivated for literacy learning.” 

Too few acHooIa honor AtudentA’ voices 

I have seen middle school classrooms where there are “honored 
voices, a collaborative construction of meaning, and a sense of 
shared knowing between student and teacher.” Yet in any school 
system, they are too few. There are too many middle schools where 
neither students nor teachers want to be. 

A problem typical of many middle schools is that they fail to 
strike a balance between supporting and nurturing students, on 
the one hand, and academically challenging them, on the other. 
This problem sometimes arises in part in reaction to the junior 
high school experience, where schools were departmentalized, 
focused on subject content, and insensitive to the developmental 
needs of young adolescents. In many middle school circles, 
“content” is a pejorative term. I believe this results in achievement 
becoming secondary to the mission of middle schools rather than 
central to it. This view is illustrated by the following message from 
a middle school news group on the internet. A middle school 
teacher named Kathy wrote: 

“In California, we are more concerned with students learning 
concepts and not just being a ‘factored’ machine. In this informa- 
tion age, facts can be looked up easily. We feel it is more important 
for students to have an idea of the overall concept so they can be 
informed citizens of our global community.” 

It is easy to dismiss Kathy’s view as stereotypical Californian, 
but in fact it is widespread. Writing correctly, reading for under- 

PAGE 32 / Shooting for the Sun 

standing, using mathematics, and knowing what and where Bosnia 
is— these are secondary to the greater goal of “an idea of the overall 
concept.” But content and achievement are important, particularly 
for low-performing students who are the most dependent on high- 
quality education. If schools only want students to get “an idea of 
the overall concept” I am not sure why schools are necessary at all. 
Television and talk radio will suffice. 

It’A time to quit obAeAAing about AtudentA’ weakneAAeA 

At the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, we are focused not on 
young adolescents’ raging hormones but on their raging intellects. 
We would like to find a few school systems and communities with 
the courage to abandon the myths associated with the developmen- 
tal stage known as young adolescence. We believe it is time to 
structure and staff middle schools so they build on students 
strengths rather than obsess about their weaknesses. We have no 
tidy prescriptions, but our experience to date has led us to some 
broad approaches. These approaches do not constitute ‘ answers 
to vexing problems of low student performance, but they offer 
direction that may he useful. 

Because it is our belief that many middle schools are unclear 
about their academic mission, we are asking school systems 
seeking our support to develop standards for what students should 
know and be able to do by the end of the eighth grade, specifically 
in math, science, language arts, and social studies. It is our hope 
that school systems and middle schools will use those standards to 
mobilize teacher, parent, student, and community support for aca- 
demic achievement. 

On the other hand, we also know that if schools treat 
standards as they have treated the structures that. are characteris- 
tic of middle schools, standards can become one more narrow, for- 
mulaic tool with little positive effect. Again, the key variable is 

Raging Intellects / page 33 

whether and how educators use standards to improve teaching 
and learning. 

We are also asking school systems and their middle schools to 
tell us what proportion of graduating eighth graders they want to 
meet the standards by June 2001. In other words, we think it is 
important for the school system and individual middle schools to 
have a clear academic target they will try to hit. We hope this not 
only focuses school improvement and teacher professional develop- 
ment, but also encourages school systems to use sensible assess- 
ment and techniques that more accurately determine students’ 
progress toward meeting the standards. 

We are convinced, however, that students will not perform at 
higher levels if schools operate and teachers teach the same as 
they have been. We want to know how teachers will change their 
practice to enable students to meet the standards. We also want to 
know how schools will change their structures to provide more 
time and productive environments for teacher and student learn- 
ing. There are many things schools could do to enable students to 
meet standards, and it is up to them to determine what actions will 
most likely achieve that result. They will, of course, have to con- 
vince us that what they propose is a credible strategy for advanc- 
ing increasing proportions of students toward the standards by 
June 2001. 

We expect school systems and their middle schools to use most 
of the resources we provide for professional development. That is 
where the need is, and that is where there is the greatest potential 
to strengthen teachers’ self-efficacy, improve their practice, and 
raise their expectations for the performance of their students. 

Professional development can make a difference 

Many teachers in middle schools, particularly those with high pro- 
portions of low-performing students, do not believe their students 
can perform at significantly higher levels. Aside from whatever 

PAGE 34 / Shooting for the Sun 

assumptions teachers make about their students’ abilities because 
of family background, economic status, race, culture, or language, 
many teachers do not expect high performance from their students 
because they do not expect it from themselves. They have lost con- 
fidence that they can make a difference in the performance and 
lives of their students. 

It has been our experience that large, consistent doses of inten- 
sive, high-quality staff development can increase teachers’ self-effi- 
cacy and improve their classroom practice. When teachers 
experience success in learning and applying new skills, they also 
begin to believe that students can do the same. When teachers 
raise expectations for their own performance, their expectations 
for their students’ performance go up as well. 

Providing more high-quality staff development is also impor- 
tant because there are middle school teachers, particularly in 
science and math, who are not secure in their knowledge of the 
content they teach. Some have had only one or two math courses in 
college or have not seriously pursued in-service educational oppor- 
tunities that deepen their understanding of their subject. Just as 
some of the best jazz musicians are those who have had classical 
training, teachers feel more free to innovate and experiment when 
they are confident about their mastery of content. 

This lack of confidence causes many teachers to cling to the 
security textbooks provide. When middle school students are asked 
to describe their classrooms, the word they use most often is 
“boring.” This is not likely to change unless teachers participate in 
staff development that causes their classroom pedagogy to become 
more engaging and challenging. Yet improved pedagogy will only 
result from professional development that is qualitatively different 
from traditional in-service training. 

In many school systems, staff development is disparate, frag- 
mented, and unconnected to teachers’ classroom experiences and 
needs. In fact, it may not even be based on an expectation that 

Raging Intellects / page 35 

teachers will use what they learn to improve student performance. 
The staff development may be just as didactic and boring to teach- 
ers as their teaching is to students. This will have to change. 
School systems will have to make more effective use of their 
resources and provide staff development that models the kind of 
high content, engaging instruction we want to see in classrooms. 
Indeed, high-quality staff development, like the responsive class- 
room, needs to exemplify “honored voice, a collaborative construc- 
tion of meaning, and a shared sbnse of knowing between student 
and teacher.” Thankfully, there are models of this kind of profes- 
sional development, but there is a lot of work to be done to make it 
standard practice. 

These challenges are great, and they are only the tip of the 
iceberg. Even so, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation believes 
that school systems, schools, middle school educators, and commu- 
nities can meet them. I know of no school system that has done so, 
though individual schools have. The challenge is to move beyond 
isolated exemplars so that all middle level schools enable students 
to meet academic standards. This will require a sea change in atti- 
tude and practice. Middle schools will have to forge a new vision 
and mission, one that goes beyond grade configuration or enabling 
mechanisms or even nurturing and support. All students, particu- 
larly low performers, must significantly increase what they know 
and can do. It is essential that middle schools put the raging intel- 
lects of all their students at the center of their purpose. 

page 36 / Shooting for the Sun 

30 and Counting: Why the Middle School 
Movement Has Not Reached Its Potential 

This review of the 30-year history of the middle grades 
reform movement includes Hayes Mizell’s frank assess- 
ment of why middle schools have not yet reached their 
potential. He presented this talk at a conference for middle 
grades educators in April 1999, organized by the Southern 
Regional Education Board. 

Thirty years ago, the middle school movement began as a reac- 
tion to junior high schools that did not adequately take into 
account the development of young adolescents between the ages of 
11 and 14. As the movement picked up steam, more and more local 
school systems converted from schools with configurations of 
grades seven through nine, or seven and eight, and adopted 
schools serving only grades six through eight. School districts 
apparently embraced middle schools because they believed such 
schools would provide a better education for young adolescents. 

Today, however, throughout the United States, there is deep dis- 
satisfaction with education at the middle level. This stems prima- 
rily from the rise during the past fifteen years of state 
accountability and assessment systems, and the subsequent 
increase in information about the academic performance of stu- 
dents in grades six, seven, and eight. 

More and more people have become aware that academic 
achievement in the middle grades is unimpressive. Even recent 
publicity about the improved reading performance of eighth 

30 and Counting / page 37 

graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress 
(NAEP) is good news only in relative terms. The proportion of 
eighth grade students scoring at the “proficient” level on NAEP did 
increase by 4 percent between 1992 and 1998, but even with the 
increase only 33 percent of students are now scoring at the profi- 
cient level. 

As a long-time participant in the middle school movement, I 
would like to share some personal observations about why so many 
middle schools have failed to achieve their potential, and what 
must be done to ratchet up the performance of these schools, their 
staffs, and their students. 

Middle AchoolA are not where they Ahould be 

The first problem is that most school districts have been very 
unclear about their purpose in creating middle schools, and 
equally imprecise about exactly what they want middle schools to 
accomplish. If you check most school board policies, I suspect you 
will find no statement of either the purpose of middle schools or 
the results they should achieve. Instead, you may find some vague 
language about meeting students’ developmental needs or prepar- 
ing them for high school. Unfortunately, if you talk with most 
superintendents you will have a similar experience. They will be 
able to discuss in only the most general terms their expectations 
and plans for the middle grades. It is unlikely they will have a 
clear, concrete vision for middle schools or a coherent strategy for 
how to achieve it. Many school systems converted to middle 
schools not because the school board and superintendent under- 
stood and were committed to the philosophical, educational, and 
operational reasons for doing so, but because a committee recom- 
mended it. 

In other words, in most school systems the district leadership 
does not provide the clear direction and oversight that middle level 
educators deserve and must have to educate young adolescents 

PAGE 38 / Shooting for the Sun 

effectively. If the leaders of a school system do not understand the 
purpose of middle schools and are not committed to providing 
them the support necessary to carry out that purpose, and if school 
boards and superintendents do not clearly communicate their 
expectations for the results middle schools should achieve, it is not 
just principals and teachers who should be held accountable if 
their middle schools are adrift. 

Second, many middle schools fall short simply because they 
are not middle schools at all, although they may have some charac- 
teristics of middle schools. Even today, 30 years after the origin of 
the middle school movement, there are schools with grades six, 
seven, and eight that call themselves “middle schools” but have 
changed little from the junior high schools of previous genera- 
tions. Students change classes every 40 to 50 minutes, the faculty 
is departmentalized, and teachers give priority to presenting 
subject content rather than engaging students in learning. 

Other schools have tried to implement some of the commonly 
accepted practices of middle schools, but for various reasons they 
have not implemented them effectively or understood how to use 
them to improve student performance. For example, many middle 
schools use “teaming,” an approach in which a group of two to four 
teachers is responsible throughout the school day for the core 
instruction of about 150 to 175 students. This arrangement is sup- 
posed to facilitate collaborative planning among the teachers, 
promote the development of interdisciplinary curricula, and enable 
the teachers to work together over time to identify and respond to 
the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. 

However, teaming is not self-actualizing. It requires a great 
deal of hard work. The personalities and philosophies of the team 
members have to mesh. They have to be committed to planning 
lessons jointly and to engaging in deep discussion about how best 
to meet students’ academic and developmental needs. Teaming can 
work. Many schools use learning successfully. But teams must be 

30 and Counting / page 39 

supported, and they must be regarded as building blocks for 
increasing student performance. 

Third, many middle schools suffer from what we might call a 
plateau effect.” They work hard to implement the structures and 
processes associated with middle schools but— whether the imple- 
mentation is complete or incomplete, of high quality or only half- 
hearted— they consider their task accomplished once the structures 
and processes are in place. Again, this occurs because, from the 
beginning, the schools were unclear about the results they were 
seeking to achieve. Perhaps they thought that if they were named a 
middle school, had a middle school grade configuration, and had 
some of the structures and processes associated with middle 
schools, they would, in fact, be a middle school. This is when 
schools plateau. They focus on how the “middle school concept is 
working rather than on how much better students are learning. 
These schools move on to other agendas, and eventually the struc- 
tures and processes they implemented lose their vitality and their 
positive effects. What was once innovative and promising becomes 
business as usual, and students know it. That is why so many stu- 
dents characterize their middle schools as “boring.” 

Fourth, middle schools have not lived up to their potential 
because neither school systems nor schools have paid attention to 
the fundamentals. By fundamentals, I mean meeting the academic 
and developmental needs of students; increasing the expectations, 
support, and accountability of teachers and administrators; 
improving students’ preparation for and access to challenging aca- 
demic content; and engaging students in meaningful learning 

Young adolescents have unique needs 

The problem of low expectations and lack of support for students 
is complex. It begins with how schools perceive and treat young 
adolescents. It is true that these young people are unique. They 

page 40 / Shooting for the Sun 

enter middle school as they begin to emerge from childhood, and 
they leave the eighth grade on the threshold of young adulthood. 
Their journeys through those years occur in dramatically different 
ways and at significantly different rates. They are challenged by 
the rip tides of rapid physical, cognitive, psychological, emotional, 
and social development. 

As they seek to understand who they are becoming, and how to 
negotiate the temptations and opportunities of their culture and 
our adult world, young adolescents necessarily take risks. In fact, 
it is only by testing limits that they locate the boundaries of social 
norms and learn the consequences of crossing them. If many 
middle school students are difficult to tolerate, it is because their 
behaviors mirror the intensity of what they have to tolerate at this 
stage of their lives. Middle school students are, in other words, 
under normal developmental stress. Unfortunately, there is no way 
to get from age 10 to age 14 without passing through ages 11, 12, 
and 13. 

Even if educators understand intellectually why young adoles- 
cents behave as they do, on an emotional level they find it challeng- 
ing to respond to the ups and downs of their students. It is not 
unusual to encounter middle school educators who are so focused 
on responding to students’ developmental challenges, or so deter- 
mined to straight] acket students’ development, that they push 
student learning to the margins of the students’ educational expe- 
riences. It is not learning, but sympathy for students or control of 
students that sets the school’s agenda. 

You know educators who hold these beliefs and whose prac- 
tices reflect them. One group believes young adolescents are so vul- 
nerable that about all the school can do is take care of them, not 
expect too much of them academically, and hope that the students 
make it through middle school without harming themselves or 
others. These educators intend to help students but that is not the 
result. Instead of becoming stronger, students become weaker 



30 and Counting / page 41 

because their schools do not provide the quality academic chal- 
lenges and support students need to grow. 

Another group of educators see young adolescents as more 
volatile than vulnerable. They seek to control students’ behaviors 
by limiting opportunities that foster student interaction, move- 
ment, experimentation, discussion, questioning, debating, and 
even talking. In these schools, it is very difficult for deep learning 
to occur because the school’s priority is on controlling the inquiry 
and dialogue that foster learning. That is not the intention of the 
schools, but it is the effect. 

There are also many middle school educators who perceive 
their students quite differently. These teachers and administrators 
like the energy and unpredictability of young adolescents. They 
regard these qualities as assets rather than liabilities. They are 
sensitive to the developmental challenges students face, but they 
also recognize that their students are earnest young people, des- 
perately seeking to be taken seriously by adults and eager for 
adults’ respect and support. These teachers and administrators 
know that many students react negatively to schooling because it 
is often shallow and not serious. 

We need to expect more of middle grades educators 

To have higher expectations of middle school students, we must 
also have higher expectations of middle school teachers and 
administrators. Is it too much to expect that these educators 
should like and understand the age group for which they are 
responsible? Is it too much to expect that middle school teachers 
and administrators should be knowledgeable about the most effec- 
tive ways to engage students in learning? Is it too much to expect 
that they should be steeped in the content they are teaching and 
confident that they can help young adolescents learn that content 
at increasingly more difficult levels? Is it too much to expect that 
middle school principals should be leading, monitoring, support- 

page 42 / Shooting for the Sun 

ing, and assessing teachers’ performance, not just occasionally but 
for a significant part of every school day? 

These expectations are reasonable, but how can they be 
brought to fruition? The current preparation of teachers does not 
guarantee that middle schools will have teachers who are experts 
in their subject content, or who even understand adolescent devel- 
opment. A recent scholarly article reported that, across grades 
seven through twelve, students in the seventh and eighth grades 
are most likely to be taught by teachers without a college major or 
minor in the subjects they are teaching. As many as 75 percent of 
eighth grade students taking physical science are taught by teach- 
ers without a major or minor in this field. In mathematics, 48 
percent of seventh grade students are taught by teachers without a 
major or minor in this field. 

It is interesting that the author of the article attributes the 
responsibility for this problem primarily to how school systems 
and principals actually employ and assign teachers, in spite of 
state laws or regulations. The fact that “misassignment is an 
accepted administrative technique” is the problem, the author 
says, and he goes on to point out: 

Good teaching entails a complex combination of art, craft, and 
science that the best contemporary research has begun to insight- 
fully illuminate. It requires expertise in at least three areas: knowl- 
edge of the subject (knowing what to teach), skill in teaching 
(knowing how to teach) and (what a leading researcher on teaching 
has called) pedagogical content knowledge-knowing which method 
to use with particular topics, with particular kinds of students, and 
in particular kinds of settings. In short, the managerial choice to 
misassign teachers may save time and money for the school and, 
ultimately, for the taxpayer, but it is not cost-free. 

30 and Counting / page 43 

Middle schools provide abundant evidence that the cost is 
undereducated students who are unable to perform at the higher 
levels states are demanding of them. 

Everyone muAt be accountable for higher MandarcLs 

This brings me to the issue of academic standards. Nearly all 
states have promulgated standards of some type. When these stan- 
dards delineate what students should know and be able to do by the 
end of their middle school education, and when there are reason- 
able benchmarks of proficiency to determine whether students 
can, in fact, perform at standard, academic standards perform a 
useful function. Indeed, one of the problems in middle school edu- 
cation has been that neither teachers, nor students, nor parents 
have been clear on what students should know and be able to do as 
a result of their learning experiences in the sixth, seventh, and 
eighth grades. 

However, if states or school systems believe that standards, in 
combination with high stakes assessments of student perform- 
ance, will in and of themselves increase student learning, not just 
increase test scores, they are sadly mistaken. Students bear more 
than a little responsibility for their academic performance, but 
they should not bear all the responsibility. When students do not 
perform at standard, it is not appropriate to retain students in 
grade if there are not also comparable consequences for middle 
school teachers and principals. 

In standards-based reform, the maxim is that everyone has to 
work harder, everyone has to be supported at high levels, everyone 
has to perform better, and everyone has to be held accountable. 
Whether states and school systems have the intestinal fortitude to 
do that is another matter-but if standards and assessment are to 
have any significant across-the-board impact, accountability is 

PAGE 44 / Shooting for the Sun 

Better Maff development Ls crucial 

The only way middle school students, teachers, and administrators 
will perform better is if they all get a great deal more support than 
is now the case. Today, “professional development” exists in every 
state and every school system, but it tends to be diffuse and of very 
low quality, and there is virtually no meaningful evaluation of its 
results. Rarely does it engage teachers and principals in develop- 
ing the knowledge and skills they need to cause students to 
perform at standard. In fact, most staff development is held in 
such low esteem by practitioners that they seek to avoid it. 

I should mention that, under a grant from the Edna McConnell 
Clark Foundation, the National Staff Development Council has 
identified 26 subject-specific middle school staff development pro- 
grams for which there is evidence of increased student achieve- 
ment. The Council had to study more than 400 programs to 
find them. 

It may be tempting, based on the generally poor results 
achieved to date, to dismiss staff development as a key strategy for 
improving the performance of middle school educators. It would be 
a mistake to do so. Professional development has the potential to 
be an important tool for reform. First, however, staff development 
itself must be reformed so that it provides current teachers and 
principals with the support they need to improve their practice. 

The first step in this reform process is to abandon staff devel- 
opment practices that waste precious time and money while alien- 
ating the very educators they should be helping. These practices 
include discrete, “one-shot” workshops that may increase “aware- 
ness” but are not deep or engaging enough to enable educators to 
develop new knowledge and skills they can apply with confidence 
to their teaching or leadership. Instead, all staff development 
needs to be explicitly focused on helping middle school educators 
develop the three kinds of expertise I referred to earlier: knowl- 
edge of the subject, skill in teaching, and “pedagogical content 

30 and Counting / page 45 

knowledge -knowing which method to use with particular topics, 
with particular kinds of students, and in particular kinds of set- 
tings.” In light of the appallingly high percentage of middle school 
students taught by teachers without a college major or minor in 
the field in which they are teaching, there is no time to waste in 
making better use of currently available staff development 

It’A time to move to the next phaAe 

If the creation and development of middle schools was a first 
phase in reforming the education of young adolescents, it is now 
time to move into a second phase. One of the problems with the 
first phase was that many educators thought that merely creating 
middle schools would result in what they vaguely described as 
“more successful” students. With the benefit of hindsight, we now 
understand that the first phase of middle school reform placed too 
much emphasis on school structures and processes, as well as on 
the affective dimension of education. In the second phase of 
middle school reform it is necessary to emphasize increasing the 
knowledge and skills of principals and teachers, strengthening 
curriculum, and significantly increasing what all students know 
and can do. 

The state of the art of school reform is much more sophisti- 
cated now than it was 30 years ago. There are now designs for 
whole school reform-in effect, blueprints for how to reform an 
entire school systematically. These designs are not magic. They 
require money, hard work, and consistent, high-quality staff devel- 
opment over time. An advantage of employing such a design is that 
a school does not have to conceive its reform from scratch, or sub- 
sequently figure out how to get from one point to another on the 
reform continuum. Instead, it can draw on the expertise and expe- 
rience of the team of national researchers who created the design 
and have assisted other schools in implementing it. The use of the 

page 46 / Shooting for the Sun 

most promising of these designs can potentially accelerate the 
second phase of middle school reform so we begin to see higher 
levels of student performance sooner rather than later. 

Finally, we need to keep in mind that the focus of the second 
phase must not be “middle school improvement” but “improving 
middle schools’ results.” During the past three decades, there has 
been a lot of loose talk about middle schools being “student-cen- 
tered.” If this had truly been the case, we would not be meeting 
here today. If middle schools had truly been student-centered, they 
would be able to point to more impressive evidence of student per- 
formance. In fact, most middle schools have been more adult-cen- 
tered than anything else. It is, after all, the adults in the schools 
who have been the most resistant to change and who have been 
inclined to expect too little of themselves and their students. In the 
second phase of middle school reform, the emphasis must be on 
expecting, demanding, and strongly supporting adult performance 
that causes higher levels of student performance. 


Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / PAGE 47 

Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School 

What is an achieving middle school? Hayes Mizell outlines 
the characteristics of a middle school that is truly focused 
on student achievement and describes six challenging 
steps toward creating one. He made these remarks to a 
group of middle school teachers and administrators from 
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, in June 1999. 

How DID it come to THIS? Why did elementary and secondary 
educators default in their stewardship of student achievement? 
What happened to cause the public to believe that politicians, busi- 
ness leaders, and newspaper reporters care more about student 
achievement than do teachers and principals? How did it come to 
pass that standardized test results generate more apprehension 
among public school educators than among students and parents? 

If there are answers to these questions, they are debatable 
and complex. Some people would say it all began with the 1983 
report, A Nation At Ruk. Others would say, and have, that the 
report was a political document based on an incorrect analysis of 
student achievement data. People could, in turn, rebut that asser- 
tion by citing recent data from state assessments, the National 
Assessment of Educational Progress, or the Third International 
Mathematics and Science Study, that document lagging student 

Our purpose today is not to engage in one more defensive dis- 
cussion about whether schools need to increase levels of student 
achievement. I assume you are here because you are professionals 
who recognize that many students are not performing up to their 

page 48 / Shooting for the Sun 

academic potential, or because you are under pressure from your 
school system and state to demonstrate that you can increase 
levels of student performance in your classrooms and schools. 

An achieving middle Achool takeA lotA of hard work 

Whatever your motivation, it is right and good that you are think- 
ing about how to carry your middle schools to higher levels. In fact, 
it is more than right and good, it is essential, because you are the 
only people who can take the actions necessary to increase student 
achievement. Let me say it again. You are the only people who can 
take the actionA neceAAary to increase Atudent achievement. 

Yes, parents are their children’s “first teachers,” and they can 
and should foster their children’s achievement, but they do not 
have your training or experience. Yes, communities can and should 
provide young people the diverse developmental opportunities they 
need to build self-confidence and the desire to achieve, but commu- 
nity support is no substitute for what should be the schools’ aca- 
demic focus. If you cannot help your students achieve at higher 
levels, who can? 

I know your work is complicated by great obstacles. Classes are 
too big. Too many job requirements have too little to do with teach- 
ing and learning. Too many students seem to have everything on 
their minds but learning. Some of your colleagues are unwilling to 
invest the time and effort it takes to develop and apply the new 
attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, and skills necessary to increase 
student achievement. These and other obstacles are daunting, and 
you know better than I that it is not easy to overcome them. It 
takes steady, hard work. That is what you tell your students it takes 
to achieve, and it applies to you as well. 

We live in a culture that values convenience, short-cuts, expedi- 
ency, and painless learning. Teachers and principals are not 
immune from the influences of that culture. They look for the 
program, textbook, curriculum, or technique that will make their 



Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 49 

jobs easier. Indeed, there are a lot of resources in the education 
marketplace, and some of them are helpful, but if educators use 
them properly, nearly all those resources require more rather than 
less work. There are no shortcuts to increase student achievement. 
Raising the performance levels of your students means that you as 
individual professionals and your schools as institutions have to 
also perform at higher levels, and that takes will and effort. 

Let us assume that everyone here wants to increase student 
achievement, and that each of you has the will and is prepared to 
exert the effort it takes to reach that goal. How do you go about it? 

I cannot prescribe what I would call an IRP-an Individual Reform 
Plan— for each of you, but I would like to share some thoughts 
about steps you can take to turn your schools into achieving 
middle schools. 

What u an achieving middle school? 

What do I mean by “achieving middle school?” It is a school whose 
mission, ethos, culture, structure, organization, curriculum, co-cur- 
riculum, and instruction are explicitly dedicated to the achieve- 
ment of every student and every adult in the building. It is a school 
where from the time a visitor walks in the front door there is no 
doubt that the school’s focus is on advancing the achievement' of 
every student and every adult. It is not a school where the adminis- 
trators and teachers assume that they know all they need to know 
and that their work is limited to imparting their knowledge to stu- 
dents. In the achieving middle school, the administrators, teachers, 
and students understand that they all have something to teach and 
a lot to learn. This belief is stated and restated. It is a fundamental 
operating principle of the school. 

I want to outline six steps toward becoming an achieving 
middle school. But let me say right up front that I am not going to 
include some “basics” in these steps. For example, I am not going 
to say that everyone in your schools, from principals to school sec- 

page 50 / Shooting for the Sun 

retaries to teachers to food service and custodial staff must come 
to school each day prepared to care about every student they 
encounter. You cannot have an achieving middle school unless it is 
an authentically caring middle school. 

I am not going to say that your schools have to be safe, free not 
only of violence, harassment, and intimidation among students but 
between teachers and students. No school can be an achieving 
middle school unless both students and staff feel safe. But there is 
another kind of safety that is often overlooked and is just as basic. 
Middle schools have to be safe for students and adults to express 
their opinions, disagree, and even debate. Students and adults have 
to know they will be heard and that constructive dialogue will be 
practiced and honored. 

I am not going to say that everyone in your schools, from 
administrators to teachers to classified staff to students, has to 
demonstrate respect for one another. No school can be an achiev- 
ing middle school unless every person practices mutual respect 
every day. 

I am not going to say that your school has to be more dedicated 
to students who are low performing, socially alienated, or other- 
wise at the margins than to other students. No school can be an 
achieving middle school unless it allocates more talent, effort, and 
other resources to the students most in need. 

I am not going to include any of these practices in the steps its 
takes to become an achieving middle school because all of them 
are fundamental. If there is anyone here who does not know that 
caring, respect, safety, and disproportionate attention to those 
with the greatest needs are basic to an achieving middle school, 
there is nothing I can say that will help you. No matter what other 
steps you may take, if you ignore these basics you will never have 
achieving middle schools. Now let us consider the six steps. 


f*' rs 

Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 51 

Step 1: Make achievement the primary purpose 

Forge a con&en&uA among all the adults in the school that advanc- 
ing achievement la the Achool’A primary purpose. 

This step may be obvious, but it is surprising how many schools 
are not really clear about their overarching purpose. Those schools 
typically have a long list of priorities, even though it should be 
clear that not everything can be a priority. It simply is not possible 
to give equal attention to every issue or concern. Some things are 
more important than others, and the most important of all is 
student achievement. If the adults in the school do not agree on 
that, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the school to 
become an achieving middle school. 

Of course, it is not easy to get agreement that the school’s 
primary purpose is to advance achievement. There are teachers 
who, as one principal said, “consider themselves to be the last inde- 
pendent contractors.” In other words, they believe that once they 
have been hired by the school system, it is their right to do what 
they want in the way they want to do it. When administrators and 
other teachers in the school allow this attitude to prevail, there can 
be no achieving middle school. 

At one low-performing school I visited, I learned that some 
teachers act as though participating in faculty meetings is an 
optional activity; sometimes they participate, sometimes they do 
not. While it is essential for faculty meetings to be well-organized 
and substantive-many schools now use these meetings for staff 
development— it speaks volumes when teachers believe they can 
build a firewall between what they do and the welfare of the school. 
This is why, in so many middle schools, one or two teams may be 
very good but many more are mediocre or worse. 

In the achieving middle school, teachers cannot do their own 
thing and principals cannot hide in their offices or devote them- 
selves almost exclusively to administrative tasks. Instead, there 
must be visible manifestations of trust, give-and-take, extra effort, 


PAGE 52 / Shooting for the Sun 

community, and mutual accountability among adults, all focused 
on improving the performance levels of both students and adults. 
Unless there is agreement that this is the school’s central focus, 
and unless administrators, teachers, and classified personnel work 
together, there can be no achieving school. 

Step 2: Identify every one ’a talentA and interest a 

SyAtematically identify and uAe the talentA, abilitieA, and 
intereAtA of all adultA andAtudentA in theAchool, oa well qa 
A tudentA ’ familieA. 

Most of us experience school as a place where there is an underly- 
ing assumption that students do not know certain things and it is 
the school’s responsibility to help them learn those things. This is 
a deficit approach to education, where the emphasis is on what stu- 
dents do not know and cannot do rather than on what they do know 
and can do. In schools where students come from low-income fami- 
lies, or speak little or no English, or are from an ethnic or racial 
group different from the majority of teachers in the school, it is 
not unusual for these factors to influence educators’ assumptions 
about what students know and can do and their academic poten- 

The achieving middle school acknowledges this reality and 
seeks to compensate for it by systematically developing an inven- 
tory of the talents, abilities, and interests of each student and 
adult in the school. The purpose of this process is twofold: it makes 
concrete the school’s belief that every person in the school is 
valued and has something to contribute, and it provides the 
school’s administrators and teachers with a complete list of the 
human resources available to advance the achievement of individu- 
als within the school community. 

The process of developing this inventory could commence with 
the new school year by focusing on the class of rising sixth graders 

Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 53 

and the school’s staff. It could then be repeated with each succes- 
sive class of sixth graders, as well as updated for each class as it 
progresses through grades seven and eight. The task of developing 
the inventory and the database of talents, abilities, and interests 
could probably best be organized and carried out under the leader- 
ship of a small committee of school staff, students, and representa- 
tives of students’ families. 

It is important to understand that the use of the inventory 
would not be to identify people to perform support functions unre- 
lated to increasing achievement. The purpose is not to find people 
who will bake more and better cookies, or answer the telephone in 
the school office, or accompany students on field trips, but to 
uncover and put to work the human resources that otherwise go 
unidentified, unacknowledged, and unused in every school. 

Even though people would have to volunteer to participate in 
the inventory and share their talents with others, I am confident 
that most people would welcome the opportunity. Consider the pos- 
sibilities: Students who speak a language that teachers and other 
students do not speak could provide basic, practical instruction in 
that language. Teachers, regardless of the subjects they teach, who 
like youth literature could organize and facilitate book discussion 
groups with students. Students who are computer whizzes could 
help teachers improve their technology skills. School staff who 
have hobbies such as chess or gardening or photography could help 
students develop those skills. 

Each of these teaching and learning experiences might occur 
on a small scale, between individuals or in small groups, but the 
objective would be a school community in which everyone, not just 
students, is seeking to achieve a new proficiency. If those activities 
were sustained and pervasive, they could develop a powerful 
climate of achievement. 


page 54 / Shooting for the Sun 

Step 3: UAe AtandardA to define learning goalA 

Embrace and uAe content and performance AtandardA to clearly 
delineate Atudent learning goalA, and engage teacherA, AtudentA, 
and familieA in underAtanding what thoAe AtandardA mean. 

If your school system and schools want middle school stu- 
dents to achieve at higher levels, students need to know what you 
expect them to achieve, and the level of proficiency they must 
demonstrate as evidence that they have achieved it. In the past, 
and perhaps in too many classrooms today, the curriculum has 
been the textbook, even though schools did not really expect that 
students would learn everything in the textbook. 

Instead, the schools played a guessing game with students, 
saying, in effect, “Here is this book; we will cover what we can, and 
we think it is really important for you to learn some of what is in 
the textbook. We will not tell you what it is we expect you to learn, 
but at different points during the school year we will give you a 
test to determine if you have learned it. If you study what is in this 
textbook and if you are very good at guessing what we think you 
should learn, you will perform well on the tests.” This, of course, 
is not a process that fosters either good teaching or significant 

If schools really understand standards and use them effec- 
tively, standards can be a pathway to more effective teaching and 
deeper learning. Standards should result from asking the question, 
“What should students know and be able to do as a result of their 
educational experiences?” The challenge is to establish standards 
that answer that question in a concrete and limited way. The stan- 
dards should not include more than teachers can address or stu- 
dents can learn, but should be restricted to what is most important 
for students to know and be able to do. 

When standards meet this criterion, they can be a constructive 
force for better teaching and deeper student learning. The focus 
becomes what students should learn, and what and how teachers 


Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / PAGE 55 

should teach to cause students to perform at standard. If a student 
does not meet standards, the responsibility is shared equally by 
the student, the teacher, and the school. The student has to make 
greater effort. The teacher has to change his or her instruction. 
The school has to provide the student more time for learning, 
perhaps different learning contexts, and certainly additional 
opportunities to demonstrate that he or she can perform at 

The purpose of standards is not to penalize students but for 
teachers and schools to take whatever actions are necessary to 
cause students to meet the standards. 

Step 4: Focua Ataff development on Atudent achievement 

Ref orm Ataff development ao it iA rooted in what teacherA and 
adminiAtratorA need to know and be able to do to increaAe Atudent 
achievement, and evaluate the reAultA of Ataff development. 

If student achievement is going to increase, teachers and adminis- 
trators will have to make it happen. But they cannot increase 
student achievement unless they have and apply the attitudes, 
behaviors, knowledge, and skills that are correlates of increased 
student achievement. We know that if for whatever reasons teach- 
ers believe that students cannot achieve much, the result will be 
that the students do not achieve much. 

We know that if teachers are not deeply knowledgeable about 
the subjects they teach, and if they do not manifest a contagious 
excitement about those subjects, students will not believe those 
subjects are important and they will not devote much effort to 
learning them. We know that if the principal does not focus the 
faculty on high-quality instruction and student work, and consis- 
tently monitor and seek to improve teachers’ instruction, then sig- 
nificant increases in student achievement will not occur. 

Even though we know all this, most school systems and 
schools do not effectively use the greatest resource available to 

page 56 / Shooting for the Sun 

them-staff development-to increase the performance levels of 
teachers and administrators. Most staff development is not care- 
fully conceived to help teachers and administrators develop and 
use the specific skills they need to increase student achievement. 
Even worse, staff development is almost never rigorously evaluated 
to determine what educators learned or how effectively they 
applied what they learned to their classrooms and schools. Few 
school systems and schools invest enough in staff development, 
but most do not really know what their total expenditures are 
because staff development activities are diffuse, spread across 
many different functions and programs. 

In the achieving middle school, however, the principal and the 
school leadership team treat staff development as a precious 
resource. They carefully analyze the school’s budget and its activi- 
ties to identify both money and time for staff development. They 
also identify staff development that is required by other entities 
such as the central office of the school system or the state depart- 
ment of education. 

With this information as background, the leaders of the achiev- 
ing middle school then use student performance data to identify 
students’ and teachers’ greatest learning needs. If, for example, the 
math performance of students is not what it should be, the school’s 
leadership team engages mathematics teachers and the central 
office’s math consultant in creating staff development that will 
most likely increase teachers’ effectiveness in raising student 
achievement. The school does not stop there, however. It also 
implements a process for determining whether and how teachers 
benefit from the staff development, and whether and with what 
effect they adapt their instruction to use what they learned. 

This process of evaluation helps the school learn from the pro- 
fessional development experiences of its staff, and over time 
increases the school’s understanding of what types of staff devel- 
opment are most effective. 


Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 57 

Step 5 ; Engage everyone in diAcuAAion of Atudent work 

Collectively engage teacherA, administratorA, Aite councilA, and 
AtudentA’ familieA in analyzing and diAcuAAing the quality of 
Atudent work. 

How does a school know whether students are achieving? How does 
it know that the rate at which they are achieving is satisfactory? 
Sadly, most schools are dependent on the results of standardized 
assessments to gauge the academic progress their students are 
making. In one sense, these schools have turned over accountabil- 
ity for monitoring student progress to either the state or the 
central office of their school system. 

Given the high-stakes nature of these assessments, it is not 
surprising that schools are so dependent on them for information 
about student progress, but this is not healthy for schools or their 
students. The tests serve a purpose, but at best they are snapshots 
of what students know and can do; they do not provide schools 
with a sophisticated, comprehensive understanding of students’ 
levels of performance or academic growth. 

While the achieving middle school disaggregates and studies 
the results of standardized assessments to learn what to change 
about curriculum and instruction, it does not stop there. The 
achieving school also engages teachers and administrators, and as 
many representatives of students’ families as possible, in systemat- 
ically examining student work over time. This usually occurs in 
small groups, such as department or team meetings, but faculty 
meetings and special evening programs are also appropriate 
venues. At these meetings teachers bring samples of actual 
student work to analyze and discuss. 

This works best in schools where teachers are committed to 
using rubrics that describe varying levels of the quality of student 
work, from excellent to poor, for a specific assignment. Rubrics can 
also help teachers engage students in understanding the quality of 
work the teachers are seeking. Some teachers involve their stu- 

PAGE 58 / Shooting for the Sun 

dents in developing the rubric for a particular assignment, while 
others collaborate with students to develop a generic rubric for all 
work students produce. In other words, rubrics can help students 
understand teachers’ expectations and the criteria teachers use to 
assign grades to the work students submit. 

There are a number of different protocols for how a group of 
people might examine student work, but at one middle school it 
goes like this: Once a week the social studies teachers meet after 
school for two hours to examine and discuss student work. A 
teacher brings to the group a selection of work students completed 
in response to a major assignment. The teacher begins the session 
by explaining the content standard for the assignment addressed. 
She goes on to explain why and how she developed the assign- 
ment-in other words, how she intended the assignment to help 
students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the 
specific content standard. The teacher then describes the rubric 
she developed to assess the quality of the students’ work. Finally, 
the teacher discusses several pieces of student work which 
are illustrative of the range of students’ performance on the 

At that point, the teacher’s colleagues ask questions and 
provide feedback. They may praise the link between the specific 
content standard and the assignment. They may make suggestions 
for strengthening the assignment, or critique certain elements of 
the rubric. But this process is not a show-and-tell for the teacher to 
proudly show off the best work of her class. Instead, it is an oppor- 
tunity for a group of professionals to think hard about and discuss 
the relationship between their instruction and the performance of 
their students. This cannot occur unless each teacher is willing to 
learn from his or her colleagues, and unless there is enough trust 
and security among the teachers that they can give and take con- 
structive criticism. 

Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 59 

The objective of the collaborative examination of student work 
is to improve teacher practice so it will improve student perform- 
ance. This can be one of the most effective types of staff develop- 
ment, but like other potentially powerful investments in education 
it requires sustained commitment and effort. 

Examining student work is important because the bottom line 
in the achieving middle school is what students actually know and 
can do, not just how they perform on tests. In fact, student per- 
formance is a higher standard than test performance. As adults, we 
do not earn our livings by performing well on tests but by demon- 
strating every day what we know and can do. 

Student work is the window that enables us to understand 
what students actually know and can do, but it is only one compo- 
nent of the framework for increasing student achievement. That 
framework includes these elements: there must be challenging and 
engaging curriculum that is standards-based; the instruction of 
teachers must be rooted in their knowledge of the content they are 
teaching and their skillful use of pedagogy to engage students in 
learning that content; teachers must develop high-quality assign- 
ments for the specific purpose of causing students to progress 
toward performing at standard; and teachers must collaboratively 
and consistently analyze student work to determine if their 
instruction and assignments are producing the quality of work stu- 
dents must demonstrate to perform at standard. If not, then teach- 
ers must change their practice to achieve this result. Only when all 
these pieces are in place, consistently and faithfully implemented, 
will student performance increase significantly. 

Step 6: Make high Achool AucceAA a primary goal 

Focua the Achool on encouraging and preparing nearly allAtudentA 
in gradeA Aix, Aeven, and eight to enroll and Aucceed in high Achool 
courAeA leading to poAt-Aecondary education. 

PAGE 6o / Shooting for the Sun 

There is a statement that one often hears in discussions about the 
purpose of education: “Well, you know, not everyone needs to go to 
college or should go to college. It is quite possible to make a good 
living and be happy without going to college.” This is usually fol- 
lowed by an anecdote about a relative who did not go to college but 
has a good job and is making more money than another relative 
who did go to college. 

It is, of course, true that there are some highly motivated, 
strong willed, energetic, and creative people who have only a high 
school education and are successful in spite of it. It is also true 
that in the next millennium there will be fewer and fewer jobs for 
such people. 

I ask you, in light of that fact, why would a middle school not 
intentionally encourage and prepare nearly every sixth, seventh, 
and eighth grader to enroll and succeed in high school courses 
leading to post-secondary education? If middle schools really want 
the best for their students, if they really want to prepare them for 
the twenty-first century, why are they not encouraging and prepar- 
ing nearly every middle school student to seek and obtain as much 
education as possible? I believe this is what an achieving middle 
school must do. 

I want to point out that when I use the term “post-secondary 
education” I mean any level of education beyond high school, not 
just four years of college. “Post-secondary” should include techni- 
cal education, two-year college, or any structured educational 
opportunity that requires a high school diploma and has other 
entrance criteria. The same type of post-secondary education is not 
appropriate for everyone, but it is both appropriate and necessary 
to encourage and prepare nearly all middle school students for 
some type of post-secondary education. 

This does not mean that a middle school has any business 
deciding or even suggesting a specific type of post-secondary edu- 
cation for a particular student. It certainly does not mean that the 


Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / page 61 

school should assign students to classes based on what the school 
believes or assumes is the best preparation for a specific type of 
post-secondary education for a particular student. This is not the 
role of the achieving middle school. 

Instead, the school educates all students about all the many 
different types of post-secondary education available to them. The 
school does not make judgments that some students are not smart 
enough or come from families with too little money to pursue 
higher education. Rather, the school instills in all students the 
desire to seek additional education after high school. The achiev- 
ing middle school seeds and nurtures students’ interest in post- 
secondary education. It understands that student aspiration 
precedes student determination, and that in all matters the “what” 
must come before the “how.” 

But encouraging students to pursue higher education requires 
much more than handing out brochures, or pairing students with 
mentors, or even creating opportunities for students to spend time 
at post-secondary institutions. Students have to develop confi- 
dence that, with effort, they can perform at higher levels. This 
begins with middle school teachers and administrators consis- 
tently communicating their belief that higher education is a desir- 
able goal for students, and each day driving home their expectation 
that students will produce quality work in middle school. 

This, of course, presents a problem. Many middle school teach- 
ers and administrators do not believe that nearly all students can 
or should prepare for post-secondary education, and they do not 
expect them to produce high-quality work in middle school. In 
these cases, the attitudes and behaviors of the educators communi- 
cate so powerfully that anything else they may do has little effect. 
Middle school students are very discerning about how much their 
teachers care about and expect of them, and how well teachers 
prepare and how hard they work to help students develop academi- 
cally. Therefore, it is essential for middle school educators to get 

page 62 / Shooting for the Sun 

their attitudes and behaviors straight before they set out to 
encourage and prepare nearly all middle school students to pursue 
post-secondary education. 

Tackling this issue has other profound consequences for 
schools. To honestly prepare students to take high school courses 
leading to post-secondary education, schools will need to eliminate 
low-level courses and ensure that nearly all students participate in 
challenging, high content courses that are aligned with high school 
courses. I know what you are thinking: How is this possible when 
so many students come to middle school with poor literacy and 
math skills? Of course it is not possible if your middle schools are 
structured and operated as they are now. That is the point. No 
school can become an achieving middle school by merely tinkering 
here or tweaking there, making just a few changes at the margins 
and hoping for the best. 

If middle schools are to advance significantly the achievement 
of all students, schools will have to restructure, retool, and reallo- 
cate. More teachers will have to invest more time and effort in 
developing mastery of the content they teach and becoming more 
skillful in causing students to perform at standard. The curriculum 
will have to become more engaging and challenging. The school 
day and week, and perhaps even the school year, will have to 
change to create more time for high-quality staff development and 
much more time for student learning. Above all, attitudes will have 
to change. Educators have to believe that they can reform their 
schools fundamentally, and central office leaders to whom they are 
accountable have to believe it also. Unless teachers and principals 
believe that middle school reform is both necessary and possible, 
and unless they have both the permission and the support of 
central office leaders, it will not be possible for middle schools to 
become achieving schools. 


Six Steps to an Achieving Middle School / PAGE 63 

One more Atep: Believe in yourAelveA and your AtudentA 

These, then, are the six steps to develop an achieving middle 
school. At best, they represent a framework, not a recipe. Because 
each middle school is different, each will have to take the six steps 
in its own way. This is not a process for the timid, and I encourage 
you to be courageous and bold. Though I know the challenge is 
great, it is not as great as the challenges that will confront your 
students if you do not take these steps. 

During the next millennium, they will face an increasingly 
complex and competitive world. Some of you may be tempted to 
shrug your shoulders and say, “It does not make any difference 
what I do. Whatever I do, some of my students will succeed, some 
will not.” Yes, that is the human condition, but are you really so 
powerless that you cannot change lives? Are you really saying that 
you cannot make a significant difference in how your students 
prepare for the future? 

I do not believe that, and I hope you do not. But what is more 
important is what your students believe. Each day they take a leap 
of faith. They come to school believing that you have their best 
interests at heart and that, no matter what, you will help them 
prepare for the future. 

Your students almost never tell you that. Some act as though 
they believe just the opposite, throwing your best efforts back in 
your face. But the truth is that even those students believe in you 
and are counting on you. I will bet that some of you know that this 
is true because once, many years ago, you were such students. In 
spite of your behavior or apparent lack of motivation, some teacher 
convinced you that you could achieve. 

So do not ever believe that you and your schools cannot make a 
profound difference in the lives of all your students. The challenge 
is to reform your schools and your teaching so that all students, 
not just some students, achieve at significantly higher levels. 


page 64 / Shooting for the Sun 

Middle School Reform: Where Are We Now? 

Middle level education may be firmly established, Hayes 
Mizell explains, yet there is “disquiet in the middle school 
community.” Speaking to a gathering of middle school 
educators from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana in 
March 2000, Mizell laid out several difficult but necessary 
steps that educators must take to improve the perform- 
ance of middle school students. 

By some measures, we can judge the middle school movement a 
success. Among adults who work with young people, there exists a 
widely shared philosophy about the needs of young adolescents 
and how best to meet those needs. To educate young people 
between the ages of 11 and 15, there are now at least 12,000 
schools, more than half with sixth to eighth grade configurations. 
Conversely, during the past 30 years, there has been a dramatic 
decline in junior high schools with seventh to ninth grade configu- 

To lead and teach middle school youth, tens of thousands of 
principals and teachers hold special credentials, as mandated by 
state law or regulation. Thirty-five states require some kind of spe- 
cific preparation to teach in middle schools, and hundreds of insti- 
tutions of higher education train prospective teachers and 
administrators so they can qualify to seek employment at the 
middle level. In addition, countless entities— including textbook 
and magazine publishers, professional organizations, independent 
consultants, and nonprofit organizations-develop and provide 

Where Are We Now? / page 65 

goods, services, and programs targeted to the schools, teachers 
and administrators, and families of young adolescents. 

There L& dl&quiet in the middle school community 

There is no question that middle level education is now firmly 
established as an important link in the chain of young people’s 
educational experiences. Yet there is disquiet in the middle school 
community. Owing largely to the visibility that state accountability 
and assessment systems have given to performance on standard- 
ized tests, serious questions have arisen about students’ achieve- 
ment levels and the capacity of middle schools to challenge 
students academically. Many school board members and superin- 
tendents still have little or no practical understanding of the 
purpose of middle schools, or the levels of supervision and support 
necessary for middle schools to operate effectively. With this lead- 
ership deficit, it is no surprise that many middle schools are virtu- 
ally ignored by their school systems while others are essentially 
middle schools in name only. 

Too many middle level teachers continue to buy into the myth 
that young adolescents are so distracted by their social, emotional, 
physical, and psychological development that they have no interest 
in learning, and that there is no point in challenging them. This 
view alone is dangerous, but it is even more pernicious when it is 
part of a belief system that middle school students cannot perform 
at higher levels because of their race, language, culture, or family 
income or background. There are also too many middle school 
teachers who lack the necessary subject matter knowledge neces- 
sary to engage students in higher levels of learning and who 
demonstrate little interest in their own professional development 
to acquire the knowledge and skills they need. 

Finally, many families regard middle schools as unfocused, 
dangerous places where their children are not safe from physical 
violence, disrespect, bullying, and the myriad manifestations of a 

page 66 / Shooting for the Sun 

risk-taking peer culture. This is one reason why in some communi- 
ties there is growing interest in abandoning middle schools that 
include grades six through eight and replacing them with schools 
that include kindergarten through grade eight. Families are 
increasingly afraid of losing their connections with their young 
adolescent children, and they believe an elementary school envi- 
ronment will be more protective, nurturing, and conducive to main- 
taining positive family relationships. 

There is, then, a rising tide of doubt about the viability and 
effectiveness of middle schools. Some of these concerns are due to 
ignorance. Some show that people are genuinely troubled by how 
some middle schools operate and the poor results they achieve. It 
would be a mistake for middle school educators and advocates to 
dismiss these concerns or attempt to characterize them as ill- 
founded. Assuming a defensive posture is not the way to improve 
middle school education or increase the credibility of middle 
schools. Improvements will occur only when leaders at all levels 
identify and acknowledge the real problems of middle schools and 
take actions that result in solving the problems. 

Educators are acknowledging the need forreform 

There is evidence that educators are beginning to acknowledge the 
need for change. Increasingly, we find educators focusing on the 
issue of “middle school reform” and feeling comfortable with that 
term and that goal. There is less nervousness about embracing the 
task. Fewer people suggest that the term “reform” is a self-indict- 
ment or an admission that previous educational practices were not 
effective. More people recognize that, although the terms “middle 
school transformation” or even “middle school improvement” may 
be less threatening, they also do not communicate the urgency or 
the truth of what is required-literally re-forming middle schools so 
they serve students more effectively. 

Where Are We Now? / page 67 

Middle school reform is not about a few changes at the margins. It 
is about putting students first and the prerogatives and conven- 
ience of adults second, changing how the school functions and how 
students are taught so they learn more and become partners in 
developing and sustaining a caring school community. 

The creation of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle 
Grades Reform, a group of approximately 60 practitioners, repre- 
sentatives of national education organizations, researchers, advo- 
cates, and foundation officials, is therefore an encouraging 
development. Remarkably, this diverse group of leaders agrees that 
middle school reform is necessary. They even agree on a vision and 
criteria for what constitutes a high-performing middle school. The 
National Forum has identified four “schools to watch” that are well 
on their way toward fulfilling that vision and meeting those crite- 
ria. An affiliate, the Southern Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades 
Reform, includes 50 middle school educators and organizational 
representatives from nine states. Another encouraging sign that 
school systems are embracing middle school reform is the growth 
of the National Urban Middle Grades Reform Network, a support 
group composed of central office administrators who have primary 
responsibility for coordinating middle school reform in their 
respective school systems. 

But using the word “reform” and actually reforming middle 
schools are two different things. Where does one begin? I believe it 
is necessary to move simultaneously on many fronts. I want to 
discuss only several of these. 

We need to find a common language 

Middle school advocates face a major communications challenge. 
Most people simply do not understand why middle schools exist or 
why the opportunities they should provide for young adolescents 
are different from those at the elementary and high school levels. 
Even knowledgeable middle school practitioners lack a common 


PAGE 68 / Shooting for the Sun 

language for clearly communicating the practical strengths of 
middle schools. Instead, their rationale for middle schools is 
rooted in a philosophy they find difficult to articulate. 

The result is that, for most people, including many teachers, 
the purpose of middle schools is fuzzy, clouded by jargon that 
seems to have little relevance to the day-to-day challenges of teach- 
ing and learning. Middle schools have not been described in ways 
that speak to the core concerns of most families and educators. 
More important, too many middle schools have not functioned in 
ways that address those concerns. 

For example, teams are an important component of most 
middle schools. To operate effectively, teams must be carefully 
developed. A team has to function as a team, not as a group of indi- 
viduals who happen to occupy the same space and share responsi- 
bility for the same group of students. If schools make sure that 
teams operate as they should-and that is a big, big “if”-then 
teams should be assets that not only benefit students but manifest 
the strength of middle schools. There is potential to describe teams 
to a school board or a parent this way: 

Our school doesn’t just throw the sixth graders into a situation 
where they run from one class to another, banging into each other 
in the halls and dealing with a different teacher and a different 
group of students in each class. Instead, we assign our young 
people to a family of students supervised and taught by several 
teachers working together. This way, the students get to stay with 
the same classmates and the same teachers for most of the school 
day. They get to know their classmates and their teachers really 
well, they get to develop sustained and positive relationships, and 
the teachers collaborate to understand and address the learning 
needs of each student. When the teachers agree that some students 
need additional help in developing a particular skill, they have the 
flexibility to work with those students in a small, temporary group. 
Each team of teachers meets at least once a week to examine the 

Where Are We Now? / PAGE 69 

students’ work and discuss their progress, their problems, and how 
to address them. They work together to figure out the best ways to 
help students progress toward meeting our state’s academic 

As I said, this means nothing if it does not reflect the reality of 
what is happening in the school and in the teams, but if it does, it 
may illustrate how to communicate one of the strengths of middle 
schools. In any case, the middle school movement and its leaders 
need to hone their messages so that both policymakers and the 
public understand the tangible, not the philosophical, benefits 
middle schools offer, and what they should expect from middle 

Reform la about changing people, not juAt programs 

But even compelling descriptions of effective middle school prac- 
tices are no substitute for the hard work of reform. That work is 
often more about changing the attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, 
and skills of teachers than about new programs or school 

This hard work is somewhat less burdensome because of the 
evolution of what we might call the technology of middle school 
reform. There are now resources and tools that middle school 
leaders can use to advance reform that did not exist just a decade 
ago. For example, the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) 
offers its Standards for Staff Development: Middle Level Edition, a 
study guide that means administrators no longer have to fly blind 
in planning and managing staff development for their faculties. 
This resource helps them know potentially effective staff develop- 
ment from that which is ineffective. Another NSDC publication, 
What WorkA in the Middle: ReAultA-BaAed Staff Development, 
developed recently with support from the Edna McConnell Clark 
Foundation, describes a total of 26 staff development programs in 
language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and interdisci- 

PAGE 70 / Shooting for the Sun 

plinary programs that can help increase student achievement. 
Within a few months, the Education Development Center will 
publish guides to help middle schools identify curricula in math, 
science, and language arts that teachers can use to help students 
progress toward performing at standard. There is also an internet 
site, MiddleWeb (, that provides a wealth of 
information for middle school reformers, but its potential has not 
been fully tapped by teachers and administrators. 

The major development in the technology for middle school 
reform is the creation of designs for whole-school reform. 

Pioneered by New American Schools (NAS), each design is a blue- 
print for reorganizing an entire school rather than a single 
program or grade level within it, and includes technical assistance 
to help schools implement these designs successfully. All NAS 
designs have been validated through extensive researqh and 
testing. The NAS-authorized designs now include one specifically 
focused on middle schools; it is the Turning Points design, based 
on the report issued by the Carnegie Corporation in 1989. There 
are other whole-school reform models worth considering, as well, 
most notably the Talent Development Model Middle School. 

In fact, there are so many whole-school reform designs that 
there are also guides that schools can use to learn more about 
them and assess their potential use. Under contract from a coali- 
tion of major national education organizations, the American 
Institute for Research conducted a study of various whole school 
reform models and produced a report, An Educator ’s Guide to 
Schoolwide Reform, published by the Educational Research Service 
(ERS). ERS has also published three other helpful guides: 
Blueprints for School Success: A Guide to New American School 
Designs, Comprehensive Models for School Improvement: Finding 
the Right Match and Making It Work, and Handbook for Research 
on Improving Student Achievement. 

Where Are We Now? / page 71 

These resources are not “cookbooks.” They are not the “Idiots’ 
Guide to Middle School Reform.” If principals and teachers are 
waiting for that, we will probably never have reforms that will 
cause young adolescents to perform at the levels of proficiency of 
which they are capable. But there are now many very useful 
resources middle level educators can use to reform their schools. 
One can no longer say that there are no models, no best practices, 
no strategies, no techniques, no assistance, or no high-performing 
schools to see or from which to learn. The issue now is whether 
middle level educators have the will and determination to use 
available resources to reform their schools so they more demon- 
strably benefit students. 

We need clear evidence of the effectiveneAA of reform 

The last challenge to middle school reform centers on the issue of 
results. How will principals, teachers, and communities know 
whether students are performing at higher levels and whether they 
are becoming more caring and responsible young people? 

We know that the letter grades teachers give do not mean 
much because they reflect individual teacher judgment and are 
often based as much on whether a student completes an assign- 
ment or on the teacher’s perception of the student’s effort as on the 
quality of the student’s work. We know that students’ scores on 
state tests are one indicator of what students know and can do, and 
that the numerical score reports that appear in newspapers and 
even the disaggregated scores that states send back to schools are 
confusing both to the public and to teachers. The ways in which 
these scores are reported and interpreted do not help either the 
public or educators truly understand whether middle school stu- 
dents are learning more and, more important, whether students 
can remember and apply what they learn. 

The effect is that middle schools are captive to assessment 
systems that may be useful to states for accountability purposes, 


page 72 / Shooting for the Sun 

but which do not present a complete picture of how well students 
are learning. It is as if states are using out-of-date x-ray technology 
to track a young adolescents’ growth over time. You can see the 
skeleton develop, but you cannot see the development of muscles, 
brain, or values. You can tell whether a certain type of growth is 
taking place, but you cannot tell whether and how the young 
person is growing in other very important ways. 

As a result, most middle schools are not able to demonstrate 
that they are more successful than other middle schools in causing 
all students, in every quartile, to learn at higher levels, identify 
and develop their talents, and apply both their learning and their 
talents to strengthen their school communities. Instead, many 
schools are scrambling to satisfy demands for a higher, single 
numerical score that represents aggregate student performance. 
These demands will not subside, nor should they so long as middle 
schools are unable to provide more compelling evidence that 
student performance at all levels is increasing significantly. 

This is a major unmet challenge of middle school reform. There 
is a lot of work to do to develop and use processes that can produce 
clear evidence of the effects of reform. Some elements for doing so 
exist now but are rarely used. Student work that is tightly linked to 
standards-particularly student writing, science and social studies 
projects, and solutions to challenging mathematics problems-can 
be displayed more visibly throughout schools and in the commu- 
nity. Schools can bring in small groups of business leaders to see 
students engaged in applying their learning. Students can lead 
parent-teacher conferences to show and discuss what they are 
learning and how they are seeking to improve their performance. 

The models and experiences for how to do these things are 
available, but I know of few middle schools that have gone beyond 
the state test to weave such demonstration and assessment 
methods into a coherent strategy to provide evidence of the 
school’s benefit to students. This is an issue that middle schools 


Where Are We Now? / page 73 

and the movement for middle school reform must address. If they 
do not, middle schools will continue to be on the defensive and will 
fail to get the support they need to meet the education challenges 
that seem to increase each year. 

Reform depends on leadership 

There is no question that hopes for middle school reform are more 
promising now than they have been at any time during the past 
decade. There is growing consensus that reform is necessary. There 
is more certainty about the reforms that are necessary, and there 
are more resources for implementing the reforms. But there is a 
critical missing ingredient. There are not enough leaders to mobi- 
lize all the people necessary to bring middle school reform to 

I hope you will embrace the vision of middle school reform and 
provide the leadership your teachers and students need to under- 
stand and act on that vision. The fundamental message of that 
vision is that middle schools can be more rewarding for adminis- 
trators, teachers, and students, but for that to occur the perform- 
ance levels of administrators, teachers, and students must increase 

This will happen only through thousands of individual actions 
and just as many collaborations. I do not have to tell you that many 
of the people who must act and collaborate-administrators, teach- 
ers, and students— merely want to get out of bed every morning, 
come to school, and do their job pretty much as they have always 
done it, without any greater inspiration or effort. Those people 
need you. They need you to help them learn and grow and become 
more powerful and effective than they ever thought possible. They 
need you to provide the support and safety that makes it possible 
for them to learn and change. This is a prerequisite for middle 
school reform, and it will not happen without your leadership. 

PAGE 74 / Shooting for the Sun 

The War We Are In 

In this address, Hayes Mizell urges an audience of state 
education department staff, school administrators, and 
teachers to use the weapons at their disposal-including 
academic standards, professional development, and the 
power of their own will-to mount an all-out campaign 
to increase student achievement among young adoles- 
cents. The conference was held in July 2000 in Nashville, 
Tennessee, and was sponsored by the Southern Regional 
Education Board. 

About 160 miles from here there is a small city that did not exist 
58 years ago. In 1942, the federal government carved the town of 
Oak Ridge out of 60,000 acres of wooded ridges and hilly farm- 
land, sweeping away four existing small communities and displac- 
ing 1,000 families. By mid-1945 there were three huge plants on 
the site, operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day, employing 
82,000 people. The plants consumed 20 percent more electricity 
than New York City. In just three years, Oak Ridge grew from a 
sparsely populated rural area to the fifth largest city in Tennessee. 

The federal government created Oak Ridge to produce pluto- 
nium for the atomic bombs that the United States used to end its 
war with Japan. The spare-no-expense and do-whatever-it-takes phi- 
losophy that led to the creation of Oak Ridge was the result of our 
country’s wartime desperation to manufacture the atomic bomb 
before Germany did so, and to use it to end the war as quickly as 
possible. The development of Oak Ridge demonstrated what people 
are capable of doing when they are under attack. 

The War We Are In / page 75 

Today, it is hard to imagine our nation focusing and mobilizing 
with the intensity that led to the development of Oak Ridge and the 
atomic bomb. Yet we clearly need that same kind of resolve if we 
want to meet a daunting challenge that threatens our youth and 
perhaps in the long term our national security. 

The education of young adolescents is under threat 

In the year 2000, the education of young adolescents is seriously 
threatened. It does not face the overt destructive force of missiles 
or tanks or infantry. Yet the educational development of young 
people ages 11 to 15 is besieged by a set of complex but independ- 
ent forces. Their approach is indirect, and the wounds they inflict 
are largely invisible; many of the casualties will not be apparent for 
years to come. The forces of attack operate in three divisions: low 
expectations, ineffective instruction and leadership, and schools 
that resist reform. They are present in every community and have 
many allies. 

Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but many people in this 
country believe we are in a war where the education of young ado- 
lescents is the battleground. In past decades, such a war would 
have been fought only by public schools, and it would have been 
the public schools’ war to win or lose. But this is a new day in 
which other entities are not waiting to see how the public schools 
respond. Others are joining the fight, whether you want them 
to or not. 

For example, experts estimate that by the beginning of the new 
school year there will be nearly 2,000 charter schools in operation 
throughout the United States, serving approximately 500,000 stu- 
dents. Twenty percent of these will be charter middle schools, and 
24 percent will serve both middle and elementary students. Many 
families are also fighting the battle by themselves through the use 
of home schooling. Researchers estimate that families are school- 
ing a total of between 1.2 and 1.8 million children at home. And 


page 76 / Shooting for the Sun 

according to a recent report in the New York TimeA, the mayor of 
that city is exploring “the possibility of allowing private companies 
to manage some of the city’s worst schools.” 

There is still more evidence of the accelerating movement to 
expand the educational options of families who have no alternative 
but to enroll their children in public schools serving their atten- 
dance areas. In a news article describing a recent United States 
Supreme Court decision, the Wall Street Journal reported: “Public 
money can be used to supply library books, computers and other 
teaching materials to religious schools, the Supreme Court ruled, 
giving a boost to school-voucher proponents and poking a hole in 
the wall separating church and state.” If there is one thing you can 
count on, it is that in the coming months and years these trends 
will accelerate rather than diminish. 

Some have choAen to fight 

It remains to be seen who will gain the most ground in the war to 
increase the education outcomes of young adolescents, but those 
of you here today are certainly in the front lines. You have chosen 
to take a hard look at how your states and schools are educating 
youth in the middle grades, the achievement results you are pro- 
ducing, and the reforms you need to make to increase student per- 

This is a daunting task because many of you work in institu- 
tional and cultural contexts that make it difficult for you to carry 
out the tasks necessary to increase student achievement. Many of 
your bosses would like for you to produce better student achieve- 
ment results, but few of them are supporting you to make the fun- 
damental changes it will take for all students to perform at higher 
levels. Many of your principals and teachers are under tremendous 
pressure to raise test scores, but where is the intensive, sustained, 
high-quality staff development they need to increase their knowl- 
edge of subject content and improve the effectiveness of their 


The War We Are In / page 77 

instruction? And, of course, few families are breaking down the 
schoolhouse doors demanding more challenging and engaging 
instruction for their children. 

These difficulties lead some educators to conclude that the war 
is not worth the fight, that trying to reform public schools is like 
waging war in Vietnam; “waist deep in the big muddy,” as a song of 
that era declared. That is why I am glad you are here. You have 
chosen to fight, knowing that there are major obstacles in your 
way, and that you do not have all the support you need to overcome 
them. Thank goodness there are soldiers like you in the field. 

Standards are thefirM weapon at your command 

I imagine that one of the reasons you are here is to learn more 
about the weapons at your disposal. Given that the terrain over 
which you must fight is rugged and that the opposition is formida- 
ble, what can you use that will turn the tide? 

Some educators perceive content and performance standards 
to be so formidable that they do not believe they can make them 
work. Unfortunately, so many states and school systems have 
bungled the development and implementation of academic stan- 
dards that they have badly damaged the credibility of standards. 
Under the headline, “Academic Standards Eased as Fear of Failure 
Spreads,” the New York TimeA reported: “The states are acknowl- 
edging that, often because of financial concerns, they have not put 
in place the training programs for teachers, the extra help for stu- 
dents, and the other support necessary to meet suddenly acceler- 
ated standards. In some instances, they have also suggested that 
they may have expected too much, too soon.” 

Standards, however, are not the enemy. Fear of change is the 
enemy. Weak curriculum is the enemy. Lack of will and effort is the 
enemy. What makes the difference is how you think about stan- 
dards and use them. Standards are not for the purpose of punish- 
ing students for their academic deficiencies. Standards are not an 


PAGE 78 / Shooting for the Sun 

excuse for narrowing a teacher’s instruction to prepare students to 
pass a high-stakes test. For the middle grades, the purpose of stan- 
dards is to focus school systems, schools, teachers, students, and 
their families on understanding what students should know and be 
able to do by the end of the eighth grade. You can use standards to 
make clear to everyone the academic mission of the middle grades. 

Yes, there are problems with the language and interpretation of 
standards. They do not come to you on a silver platter of clarity. 

But whether and how standards make a difference depends on how 
you respond. Do you passively accept or resist the standards, or put 
them on the shelf, or try to pound the square peg of your curricu- 
lum and instruction into the round hole the standards represent? 

Or do you try to understand the standards, deconstruct them to 
root out their meaning and implications, and reshape your curricu- 
lum and instruction in whatever ways are necessary to enable stu- 
dents to perform at standard? It is up to you to use standards to 
prompt discussion, reflection, and action about how schools, cur- 
riculum, instruction, assessment, and communications need to 
change to increase student learning. 

Various organizations are publishing more and more materials 
to help you put standards to good use. For example, the website of 
the Collaborative Communications Group includes materials 
written in plain English that schools can use to organize a “stan- 
dards-based back-to-school night,” or “an open house for parents to 
look at student work,” or “a standards scavenger hunt.” There is 
even an example of one school system’s “standards-based report 
card.” You can find a wide range of materials developed specifically 
to help middle school educators make sense of and use standards 
through the web site Middle Web, which I hope you know about and 
are using on a regular basis. 

7 ^ 

The War We Are In / PAGE 79 



Staff development can be a potent force 

There is another effective weapon you can use in the war to 
increase the academic performance of middle school students. It is 
a weapon many educators take for granted and abuse, a weapon 
with great potential although it is often loaded with blanks. 
Educators euphemistically refer to it as “professional develop- 
ment,” but in too many cases the people responsible for conceiving, 
organizing, and implementing it use staff development in ways 
that impede the development of professionalism and effective prac- 

Research by the Southern Regional Education Board docu- 
ments the region’s desperate need for high quality professional 
development. Consider these findings: almost two-thirds of sixth- 
grade mathematics classes are taught by teachers with elementary 
majors, while two out of five eighth-grade science classes are 
taught by teachers without a science major. In grade eight, 70 
percent of the English classes are taught by teachers with a major 
in either elementary education or home economics education. In 
addition, there is the pervasive problem of low reading perform- 
ance in the middle grades, and its ripple effect on student achieve- 
ment in the core content areas. Very few middle school teachers 
have the knowledge and skills to attack this problem. 

Under these conditions, it is no wonder that so many middle 
school students are unable to perform at standard. How can we 
expect them to do so? Some people may think that a teacher’s 
knowledge of subject content is not so important because they 
believe any reasonably literate and intelligent adult should be able 
to keep several steps ahead of the students. Some people may 
argue that any such adult should be able to know more than the 
students. I would simply ask those people if they would want such 
a teacher to be responsible for the education of their child, or their 
grandchild, or their niece or nephew. No, a teacher’s knowledge of 
subject content matters, and it matters a lot. It has everything to 


page 8o / Shooting for the Sun 

do with how confident the teacher feels, how creative the teacher is 
able to be, and how effective the teacher is in engaging students in 

But as the SREB data indicate, states, school systems, and 
schools have a massive adult remediation job to do. They have to 
both remedy the inadequate content preparation many teachers 
received in college and develop teachers’ skills and confidence as 
classroom managers and instructional leaders. They cannot wait 
for the reform of pre-service education. There are no shortcuts. It 
is wrong to place on students the whole burden for raising student 
achievement. That is like expecting the nonmilitary population to 
win the war. Besides, placing a disproportionate burden on stu- 
dents will yield only incremental gains. To get significantly higher 
levels of performance from students, teachers will also have to 
perform at much higher levels. 

Professional development is the means toward that end. But 
not just anything called “professional development” will do the job. 
We already know that many traditional types of staff development 
do not work. They do not increase teachers’ knowledge of subject 
content, and they do not improve teachers’ instructional effective- 
ness. They waste money, and they waste teachers’ time. 

Nevertheless, the discredited and unproductive forms of pro- 
fessional development continue. They do not continue by accident. 
In every school system, in every school, someone, a specific person, 
makes a decision about the staff development a school system or a 
school will offer or support. Those people need to hear from 
leaders like you that the teachers you work with, and their stu- 
dents, cannot afford staff development in the future that is as inef- 
fective as staff development has been in the past. If you do not do 
this, who will? 

If you are part of the decision-making process about staff 
development, I urge you, I beg you, I plead with you to think deeply 
and critically about how to create staff development opportunities 


The War We Are In / PAGE 81 

that will demonstrably increase teachers’ subject matter knowl- 
edge and instructional effectiveness. I hope you will ask two very 
simple questions to judge whether a certain type of professional 
development deserves your support: Will it cause teachers to 
perform more effectively in the classroom? Will you be able to see 
evidence that teachers are using what they have learned? 

There are other weapons, too 

Many weapons are available for your fight to help all students 
perform at significantly higher levels. Everything depends on 
whether you choose to use those weapons and whether you use 
them correctly, which is to say, so that they impact student achieve- 
ment, or incorrectly, so they make little or no difference. 

You have the weapon of data about student achievement. Your 
challenge is to use the data sooner rather than later to reform your 
schools, and make necessary but difficult changes in curriculum 
and instruction. 

Another weapon is collaboration among teachers to examine 
and analyze student work. This process can help teachers under- 
stand the links between what and how they teach, the assignments 
they develop and give, and how students perform in relation to 


Rubrics are a weapon for helping students assess their own 
work and understand the need for practice and effort if they want 
to reach higher levels of performance. The consistent use of 
rubrics can sharpen the thinking of teachers and students about 
the quality of work teachers expect from students and the relation- 
ship between various levels of quality and the grades students 


You also have the multi-stage weapon of eliminating low level 
courses, assigning students to classes so all receive instruction of 
comparable quality, and going the extra mile to provide low- 

page 82 / Shooting for the Sun 

performing students with significantly more hours of higher- 
quality instruction. 

But do you have the will ? 

But perhaps the most effective weapon at your disposal is what 
people call “will.” My dictionary lists nine definitions of “will,” but 
I call two of them to your attention: (1) “The mental faculty by 
which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action,” 
and (2) “The power to arrive at one’s own decision and to act upon 
it independently in spite of opposition.” In terms of increasing 
student achievement, we might rephrase the definitions in the 
form of two questions: (1) “Do you really want to do it?” and (2) “Are 
you willing to do almost anything to get it done?” 

Everything depends on how you answer those questions. No 
matter how effective the weapons are at your disposal, whether 
those weapons are money or time or strategies or methodologies or 
techniques or programs or projects, they will make no difference 
for students if you do not have the will to pick them up and use 
them effectively to increase student achievement. No weapon to 
improve student performance will jump into your hands and 
operate automatically. And no weapon is foolproof; all of them can 
be used carelessly and dangerously, and they often are. Everything 
depends on your will to find the weapons you need to increase 
student learning. Everything depends on your will to prepare your- 
selves and your colleagues to use those weapons effectively. 

WarA produce heroeA, AlackerA, and deAerterA 

Each of you is here because in your respective states and school 
systems you are in the vanguard of educators who want to reform 
middle schools so they help students perform at standard. In any 
war, there are risks to being on the front lines. It is no different in 
the war to increase student achievement at the middle level. It 
takes courage to be among the first to step onto new ground. It 

The War We Are In / page 83 

takes will to break out of old, ineffective patterns of practice and 
learn how to make the best use of promising new weapons for 
middle school reform. 

The war to increase student achievement, like any war, will be 
messy and unpredictable. There will be advances and setbacks, but 
it will be necessary to press forward every day. In the war to 
increase student learning in the middle grades, as in any war, there 
will be heroes and slackers. There will also be deserters. This war, 
like other wars, will be won by the ordinary foot soldier who every 
day struggles over rugged and dangerous terrain to defeat the 
forces of low expectations, ineffective instruction and leadership, 
and resistance to reform. You are the foot soldiers. 

Like other wars, this war cannot be won by the individual 
soldier acting alone. Each person must fight hard, but battles can 
be won only by determined and brave soldiers working together as 
an organized unit, trusting each other, supporting each other, com- 
municating with each other, and learning from each other. In your 
school systems and schools, people engaged in this fight have to 
work together to be successful. They may not love each other or 
even like each other, though that helps, but they do have to respect 
each other and work together as a unit, no matter what. 

You are the foot soldiers. Your gallantry and your sacrifice may 
never receive the recognition you deserve, but this war cannot be 
won without you. I thank you for choosing to join the growing 
ranks of educators who are answering the call to educate young 
adolescents more effectively. I thank you for taking up arms to win 
this war, and not leaving the fight to others. 


PAGE 84 / Shooting for the Sun 

Who Will Advocate for Middle School Reform? 

According to Hayes Mizell, everyone-parents, communi- 
ties and especially educators-has an obligation to become 
a determined and practical advocate for middle school 
reform and student achievement. He explained why advo- 
cacy is important at a meeting sponsored by the Southern 
Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, in June 2001 
in Memphis, Tennessee. 

According to the dictionary, an advocate is one who “pleads 
the cause of another,” and advocacy is “the act or process of advo- 
cating or supporting a cause or proposal.” When people hear the 
word “advocate,” they often think of lawyers. A few of you may 
remember that many years ago a popular television program about 
lawyers was simply titled, “The Advocates.” But for some years 
now, other professions have adopted the concept of advocacy. I 
recently received a newsletter from the Partnership for Kentucky 
Schools with an article titled, “Turning Principals into Advocates.” 
A year ago the National Staff Development Council devoted an 
entire issue of its journal to advocacy. It seems that even educators 
are now recognizing the need for and value of advocacy. 

The role of the advocate is an ancient concept. For example, in 
Deuteronomy 24, verses 14 and 15, we find an advocate’s statement 
that is relevant even today: 

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, 
whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are 
in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the 


Who Will Advocate for Middle School Reform? / PAGE 85 

day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets 
his heart upon it).” 

In the New Testament there are many examples where Jesus is 
an advocate. Beyond that, Jesus also demonstrated a keen under- 
standing of one of the basic strategies of advocacy. To illustrate to 
the disciples that they should persist in their prayer, according to 
Luke 18: 1-5, He told this story: 

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God 
nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept 
coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adver- 
sary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 

‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this 
widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that 
she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!”’ 

An advocate repreAentA the ignored and the vulnerable 

Despite these endorsements in the Bible, advocacy is rarely well 
received by the established institutions of our society. This is 
because advocates usually seek to advance the interests of people 
who are ignored or ill-served by those institutions. 

For example, the Center for Patient Advocacy is dedicated to 
“securing patient access to quality health care.” The National AIDS 
Treatment Advocacy Project “strives to provide the very latest HIV 
drug development, research, and treatment information.” Every 
state has an organization similar to the one in California named 
Protection & Advocacy, Inc., which “works in partnership with 
people with disabilities to protect, advocate for and advance their 
human, legal and service rights.” The State of Kentucky even has a 
Department of Public Advocacy which “stand[s] up for citizens who 
are accused by the state of having committed a crime.” And the 
National Coalition of Advocates for Students, a group of 20 organi- 
zations in 14 states, “works to achieve equal access to a quality 

page 86 / Shooting for the Sun 

public education for students who are most vulnerable to school 

These and hundreds of organizations like them-most without 
the word “advocacy” or “advocates” in their titles-have sprung up 
during the past 30 years for three major reasons: (1) new laws have 
extended services that public institutions are obligated to provide 
and defined client rights that institutions are required to observe; 
(2) the laws and subsequent administrative regulations have 
become increasingly complex, exceeding the capacity of individu- 
als to understand and use them; and (3) many citizens have learned 
from experience that major public institutions do not always 
operate as they should or provide equal access to their benefits. 

It is not surprising, then, that advocacy is usually valued by 
people who may potentially benefit from it-that is, ordinary citi- 
zens — but it is usually less welcomed by employees of institutions 
who are on the receiving end of it. 

Young adolescents need our advocacy 

What does any of this have to do with middle school reform? After 
all, for the past few decades, several national organizations have 
advocated educational practices that they believed would better 
serve young adolescents. Many schools implemented those prac- 
tices, yet the results were often mixed, usually because the imple- 
mentation was untouched by the factors of quality, consistency, 
and continuous improvement. 

As policymakers have increased their demands that students 
demonstrate higher levels of performance, middle level schools 
have come under greater scrutiny. Everything from the viability of 
schools’ grade structures to their curricula and the preparation, 
content knowledge, and pedagogy of teachers is now under review. 

In this context, advocacy is both appropriate and necessary. 
Left to themselves, many middle level schools will not improve sig- 
nificantly. Every year, every day, there are hundreds of thousands 


Who Will Advocate for Middle School Reform? / PAGE 87 

of young adolescents who are attending schools that do not provide 
the educational opportunities their students deserve and need. 
Most of these students have no advocates. Many of their parents 
are burdened, or distracted, or simply do not know how to begin to 
advocate for the reforms necessary for their children to participate 
in more engaging, meaningful, and challenging academic work. 

The officials in charge of the schools, particularly the school 
boards and superintendents, continue to rationalize their neglect 
of the middle grades by believing that if they can only get students 
to read proficiently by the end of the third grade, then challenges 
at the middle level will diminish. In doing so, they turn a blind eye 
to the developmental realities and intellectual appetites of young 
adolescents, choosing to believe that those students need little 
more than a firm hand and a kind heart. 

This will not change unless and until advocates step forward, 
organize, and act for more effective middle level education. Anyone 
can be an advocate— a citizen, a parent, a businessperson, an educa- 
tor, or a community-based organization— but because advocacy 
requires a good deal of intestinal fortitude, most people are more 
comfortable and effective acting as part of a group. 



EducatorA muAt become advocateA, too 

Can we really expect educators to be advocates for improvements 
in middle level education, especially when the types and scale of 
the improvements necessary will require the educators themselves 
to become serious learners? Will educators become advocates if 
they know that one result will be that they have to understand the 
developmental needs of the children they teach, master their 
subject content, hone the craft of their pedagogy, and demonstrate 
improved performance? Can we really expect teachers to advocate 
for interests other than their own if a potential consequence is that 
they will no longer be able to exercise absolute discretion over 
what and how they teach? 


page 88 / Shooting for the Sun 

These are open questions, and thus far there is little evidence 
to encourage us. But one thing is certain-accelerating middle 
grades reform depends not just on parents or concerned citizens or 
advocacy organizations. Educators must also pick up the mantle of 
advocacy for middle school reform. 

There are many types and styles of advocacy, but advocacy is 
likely to be more effective if it is buttressed by moral authority and 
long-term commitment. In the arena of middle school reform, this 
means that advocacy for improvements that benefit students are 
more likely to be taken seriously than advocacy for the status quo. 
If advocacy is just about preserving a school’s grade structure or 
maintaining two preparation periods for teachers, it will probably 
be seen as self-serving and unrelated to serious reform. 

This suggests that advocates have a special obligation to focus 
on improvements that will make a significant difference in stu- 
dents’ learning and development. Advocates will have the best 
chance of achieving that result if their goals, at least for the near 
term, are narrow and if the advocates are thoughtful and clear 
about the steps that will most likely lead them to those goals. 
Advocates seldom achieve their goals quickly but, armed with a 
just cause, time, tenacity, patience, courage, credible information, 
and the ability to identify and work with others of like mind, advo- 
cates often achieve great things. 

Effective perAuaAion la at the heart of advocacy 

The test for all of us who believe that middle level schools can and 
must improve is whether we can become effective advocates, with 
the focus and savvy to have an impact on education policymakers 
and school system leaders. Above all else, advocacy is about per- 
suading institutions to change their policies and practices. That is 
the task that confronts us. 

It is not enough to have a compelling vision or criteria schools 
should meet to fulfill that vision. It is not enough to develop and 

Who Will Advocate for Middle School Reform? / page 89 

issue policy statements. The real work takes place in face-to-face 
encounters with people who have the authority to set new direc- 
tions and provide greater support for the educators who must pull 
themselves and their schools out of the muck of fatigue, resigna- 
tion, and low expectations. 

Yes, advocacy can be difficult, but it is not nearly so hard as 
sitting in a classroom bored out of your skull, wondering if anyone 
gives you credit for having a brain. It is not nearly so hard as 
knowing that you have a lot to learn even though you lack the self- 
confidence and support you need to learn it. It is not nearly so hard 
as coping with a climate of fear and disrespect, wondering from 
which quarter the next put-down will come. 

If we keep this in mind, we will advocate for middle school 
reform not by proposing arcane educational practices but by per- 
suading people in authority to implement practical policies and 
practices that will enhance the learning and development of young 

Part II. 

Getting it Done 

Working to improve our middle school’s takes significant 
commitment and resources. Here, Hayes Mizell reminds 
his audiences that the key to successful reform is an unwa- 
vering commitment to help Students learn. And while some 
might “hit walls” on this “rocky trail” to better schools, 
everyone must keep his or her eye on the ultimate goal- 
serving “all children well.” •. - ’• 


SHAZAM! No Lightning Bolts 
in School Reform 

Everyone involved in improving middle schools sometimes 
wishes for special powers. Hayes Mizell reports that, 
unfortunately, there are no lightning bolts. In this address, 
delivered to a group of the Foundation’s middle grades 
grantees in March 1997, he recommends greater clarity of 
purpose and a commitment to going deeper in the quest 
for standards-based middle grades reform. 

When I was YOUNGER-much, much younger-I read comic books. I 
should add that I also read literature other than comic books, but I 
enjoyed comic books. I bought them, I traded them, and, when I 
didn’t have money to go to the cowboy movie on Saturday after- 
noon, I sold used comic books from the front porch of our house. 

My favorite comic books were those that featured characters 
we now call “super heroes”: Superman, Batman, Captain America, 
the Green Lantern, the Torch, the Submariner, Plastic Man, and, 
yes, even Wonder Woman. One of my favorites was Captain Marvel. 
As you know, characters like Superman and Batman disguised 
their powers in the persons of adults, like Clark Kent or Bruce 
Wayne. This allowed them to mingle with regular people except at 
critical moments, when they could transform themselves and use 
their super powers or talents to bring criminals to justice. But 
Captain Marvel was unique. In ordinary life, Captain Marvel was a 
young adolescent, a newsboy named Billy Batson. 

At some time in his life, Billy Batson had had the good fortune 
of encountering a wizard named Shazam, who bestowed special 


page 94 / Shooting for the Sun 

powers on him. When confronted with a crisis, Billy called upon 
those powers by shouting the word “Shazam!” which is not a word 
but an acronym: S for Solomon (meaning wisdom); H for Hercules 
(strength); A for Atlas (stamina), Z for Zeus (power); A for Achilles 
(courage), and M for Mercury (speed). As soon as Billy yelled 
“Shazam!” the god Zeus would hurl a lightning bolt to Earth, it 
would hit Billy Batson, there’d be a cloud of smoke, and Billy would 
be transformed into Captain Marvel. Then, with bulging muscles, 
in red tights and the symbol of a yellow lightning bolt on his chest, 
he would speed off after the bad guys. 

I am thinking of Captain Marvel today because I suspect that 
what made that super hero appealing to me many years ago lingers 
in the unconscious of those of you engaged in middle school 
reform. Is there not a teacher among you who has wished that at 
certain times on certain days you could say “Shazam!” and be 
instantly transformed into a less vulnerable, more powerful class- 
room leader? Is there not a principal here who has fantasized about 
hurling a lightning bolt down the hall, hitting the teacher whose 
instruction is as ineffective today as it was three or five years ago, 
and instantly changing that teacher into a wholly new person? Is 
there not a central office staff person here who dreams that 
someday the Billy Batsons in principals’ offices and teachers’ 
lounges will recognize that they are in trouble, see the need for 
change, want to change, and at least cry for help? 

We know, of course, that middle school reform is not a comic 
book experience, but that does not stop us from yearning for a 
Zeus— whether the school board, the superintendent, someone from 
central office, a principal, or even a foundation— to hurl the light- 
ning bolt that will change everything. 

No lightning boltA will rain from the^ky 

We are here today to become stronger and more powerful, not by 
yelling “Shazam!” but by learning from one another and bolstering 


one another’s resolve to forge ahead in the face of daunting obsta- 
cles. No lightning bolts will rain from the sky or from this podium. 
No one will magically transform you into more effective educators. 
That is up to you. 

You will hear a lot of talk today about standards, but this 
meeting is not “about” standards, just as it is not “about” imple- 
menting standards. This meeting is about learning. It is about 
teachers learning. It is about principals learning. It is about 
central office staff learning. It is even about the foundation learn- 
ing. Unless we all learn more and become much more proficient at 
what we do, the middle school students we care about will not 
perform at the higher levels of which they are capable. Student per- 
formance is directly linked to our performance. Standards are a 
means to improve both. 

We cloak standards in a lot of complex concepts and education 
jargon, but at their core they are a way for us to communicate our 
academic expectations for students. For far too long, middle level 
educators have been unclear and confused about how to do this. In 
fact, I believe this continues to be true for most middle school edu- 
cators. This is one reason we need standards. 

Unless we are clear about what we want students to know and 
be able to do, students’ lives will be torn by rip tides of conflicting 
messages about the purpose of their schooling. This is the current 
situation in many of your schools. Students do not read your 
schools’ mission statements or school improvement plans, and, if 
they did read them, those statements would make no more impres- 
sion on the students than they do on adults. 

A school communicates its purpose through the attitudes and 
actions of individual teachers and administrators. Some teachers 
communicate that their purpose is to get through the day 
unscathed. Students understand this message very well, and their 
performance reflects their teachers’ lassitude and focus on the 
clock. Other teachers communicate that their purpose is to teach 



page 96 / Shooting for the Sun 

“the students who want to learn.” This message is not lost on the 
other students, whose performance reflects their teachers’ lack of 
commitment and misplaced priorities. Conversely, there are teach- 
ers, many of them in this room, who communicate every day 
through their fiery determination, dogged preparation, and unflag- 
ging support that their purpose is that students can and will learn. 
It is not surprising that the academic performance and on-task 
behavior of their students is the envy of many less successful 

The middle level schools in your communities are sending 
many different messages to young adolescents. Some of those mes- 
sages are like a mantra on an auto-reverse cassette tape, so inces- 
sant, so numbing, and so divorced from positive action that no one 
pays attention any more: be responsible, be quiet, be on time, 
behave. Other messages suggest that, because they are placed at 
risk by their own developmental issues and by many negative 
forces in their communities, students are powerless, that they 
bring nothing to their school experience except the need to be pro- 
tected. In effect, the school communicates not only that the stu- 
dents are weak, but that the school must respond in kind by 
lowering its expectations for both students and itself. 

Student learning la thefirM priority 

If we want students to learn, we have to get our message straight. 
Standards can help us. If standards are clear and meaningful, we 
can use them to communicate among ourselves and to others what 
students should know and be able to do as a result of their experi- 
ences in the middle grades. Standards can provide educators, fami- 
lies, and communities with a better understanding of the purpose 
of middle school education. We can use standards to focus our- 
selves, our schools, and our students on learning and performance. 
Standards can help us become more conscious of the quality of 
student work and prompt us to scrutinize that work more closely 

on/\z,MJvi! / mut 97 

and agonize over it more productively. Standards can be a tool for 
teachers to use to help students understand that effort and comple- 
tion of work are important steps toward carrying out an assign- 
ment, but that the quality of their work indicates the level of their 
performance. If we do it right, students will learn more and 
perform at higher levels. Even test scores will increase. 

To achieve these results, however, we will have to work our way 
out of a lot of bad habits. If student learning is going to become the 
most important thing in your schools, everything else cannot be 
equally important. The priority is the priority. Number one is 
number one. Standards are not number one; they are a means to 
achieve number one, student learning. Middle school reform is not 
number one; it is a means to achieve number one, student learning. 
Staff development is not number one; it is a means to achieve 
number one, student learning. Testing is not number one; it is a 
means to achieve number one, student learning. 

If students do not learn more, then our use of standards is 
flawed. If students do not learn more, then we are reforming the 
wrong things or reforming the right things in the wrong ways. If 
students do not learn more, then we either are not developing staff 
effectively or they are not using their development in ways that 
benefit students. If students do not learn more, then our testing is 
for the wrong purpose or we are using the test results in the wrong 
ways. There are really two challenges here: to work ourselves out of 
the bad habit of making everything the priority, and to hold our- 
selves accountable for the means achieving the ends. 

Schools miLAt embrace standards 

Your school systems and schools have taken important steps 
toward using standards to increase student learning and perform- 
ance. While politicians and pundits debate the virtues of national 
and state standards, your school systems are among the very few 
in the nation trying to make standards work. You know better than 


page 98 / Shooting for the Sun 

the critics that advocating standards is one thing, putting them to 
work for students is quite another. 

In most of your school systems, standards are now at least a 
topic of considerable conversation. More teachers and administra- 
tors and parents understand why standards are important and are 
beginning to use them to focus their teaching and their schools’ 
missions. There are also those who have put the standards on the 
shelf, waiting to see if performance standards and assessments 
will follow. These are the people who have decided that, rather than 
do what is right, they will wait to see if the price of not doing what 
is right becomes too high. 

Some of you still consider standards-based reform as one more 
project, one more activity on your schools’ very long list of priori- 
ties. However, you cannot achieve this reform at the margins. If 
you try, you will see marginal results. Your schools will either use 
standards to mobilize the entire school community for student 
learning and hold yourselves accountable for the extent to which 
students do or do not perform at standard, or your schools will con- 
tinue to conduct business as usual with the usual results. These 
may sound like harsh words, but they are not nearly so harsh as 
the consequences students will face if we do not help them learn 
how to perform at higher levels. If we do not believe that most stu- 
dents can perform at standard, and if we are not serious about 
implementing reforms that will enable them to do so, then there is 
no point in having standards because students will never know the 

Most of your school systems have now passed through the first 
phase of standards-based reform. You have content standards in 
place and are well on your way toward developing performance 
standards or grading guidelines. More teachers are becoming 
knowledgeable about standards and rubrics. There is more agree- 
ment among schools and across districts about what to teach and 
when to teach it. Some teachers display standards prominently on 

SHAZAM! / page 99 

their classroom walls and, more important, make sure students 
understand that a lesson or a project is linked to one or more spe- 
cific standards. You have made a good beginning, but it is only a 

Each of your school systems has made a commitment that a 
certain percentage of graduating eighth grade students in each 
school will perform at standard by the year 2001. In most cases, the 
percentage is quite high. Some people doubt that the eighth grade 
class of 2001 will be able to perform at the levels necessary for you 
to meet the goals you have set for yourselves. The fact that some of 
your school systems are getting out of the starting gate more 
slowly and less efficiently than others is not encouraging. It causes 
us to wonder if some school systems have fundamental problems of 
priority, culture, management, or strategy. 

In all the school systems, however, whatever their stage of 
development, efforts toward enabling students to perform at stan- 
dard have been wide but not deep. Most schools and classrooms 
have changed little, and there has been little change in teacher or 
principal performance. Perhaps this is to be expected because so 
far your emphasis has largely been on systemic efforts to develop 
standards, disseminate them, educate people about them, and train 
teachers how to implement them. We have to move beyond this 
phase. Schools must aggressively embrace standards-based reform, 
not simply as one more project but as the centerpiece of schools. 

The term “standards-based reform” is broad and includes many 
actions and activities. What characterizes them all is that schools 
use these actions and activities to help students learn what is nec- 
essary for them to perform at standard, that they hold some 
promise of being more effective than current practices. Under stan- 
dards-based reform, no school or classroom practice is. politically 
or professionally or educationally or bureaucratically “correct.” 

The only criterion for what you do is whether the practice enables 
students to learn what they need to perform at standard. Learning 

page 100 / Shooting for the Sun 

and evidence of learning as they relate to standards must become 
the driving force of every middle level school. 

I realize that this will not be easy. It will require many teachers 
and principals to take the radical step so vividly described in the 
chorus of an old spiritual: “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, 
down by the riverside.” There are a lot of educators out there 
crouching defensively behind the swords and shields of personal 
preferences, comfortable teaching styles, and cherished beliefs 
about middle school education, all unsupported by evidence that 
they benefit students. There are schools that are so cold, so 
focused on everything but learning, and so obsessed with daily 
operations that they might as well be swords and shields. Students 
will not perform at standard if this continues. Teachers and admin- 
istrators have to lay down their swords and shields and pick up the 
challenge of doing whatever is necessary to increase student 

StandardLs-bchsed reform neecU to go deeper 

If your school systems and your schools are going to meet the per- 
formance goals you have set for yourselves, standards-based 
reform will have to penetrate much more deeply into schools. This 
is not to say that central offices should abandon their systemic ini- 
tiatives to advance standards-based reform across all middle level 
schools throughout their districts. In fact, it means just the oppo- 
site. School boards, superintendents, and central office staffs must 
be even more strategic and aggressive to get schools to take stan- 
dards seriously and implement reforms that will enable students to 
perform at standard. 

School systems cannot take this step, however, if they value 
site-based decision making more than increasing student perform- 
ance and if they are excessively patient with schools that fail to 
take whatever action is necessary to increase student learning. It 
is essential for school systems to communicate consistently to all 

Q P 


their middle schools that it is important for students to meet stan- 
dards, to hold schools accountable for increasing levels of student 
performance, and to provide schools with the freedom and support 
to implement reforms for that purpose. 

Systemic initiatives are important, and we must sustain them, 
but increasing proportions of students will perform at standard 
only in places where teaching and learning come together. Schools 
are not the only places where this can and should occur, even in 
relation to standards, but schools bear most of the burden for the 
formal teaching-and-learning process. In schools, we find this 
process most visibly and intensely manifest in interactions 
between teachers and students. If more students are going to 
perform at standard, we are going to have focus much more on 
improving the substance and quality of teaching and learning. 

Recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress 
released the results of its latest mathematics assessment. 

Although it reported some encouraging gains in student perform- 
ance, it also reported that only 25 percent of eighth graders 
reached the competency level of “proficient.” In California, 49 
percent of eighth graders could not solve a problem that involved 
money or identify the fraction represented by a shaded portion of a 
rectangle. Let’s face it, these problems of student performance will 
not be solved in state legislatures or central offices. The only way 
we will obtain better results is to focus expectations, resources, 
and support directly on teachers and students. Standards can 
help us. 

If students are going to perform at higher levels, teachers must 
be central to the next phase of standards-based reform. We have to 
create conditions under which teachers increase their knowledge 
about and their comfort with the content they teach; only then will 
they become creative and flexible enough to meet the learning 
needs of all their students. We have to provide the expectation and 
support that will cause teachers to sharpen their pedagogical and 

PAGE 102 / Shooting for the Sun 

classroom management skills to more effectively engage all stu- 
dents in learning. We have to make sure teachers have access to 
and effectively use standards-based curriculum and materials, 
rubrics, and assessments. We have to provide teachers with the 
time and support not only for all this, but also for collaborating 
with one another to carefully examine student work and change 
their practice to improve the quality of student work. 

If we are going to put a new emphasis on teaching and learn- 
ing, tied explicitly to students performing at standard, we will have 
to come to grips with important infrastructure issues. One starting 
point is for schools and school systems to understand in greater 
detail how they currently use existing staff development resources 
and with what effect. I believe that in most school systems, and 
certainly in most schools, there is a very weak link, or no link at 
all, between staff development and teachers using what they learn 
through staff development to enable students to perform at stan- 
dard. Schools must become much more intentional and vigilant 
about using all forms of staff development resources as means to 
increase student learning. Yes, I agree that schools need more 
resources for staff development, but I believe they must also 
demonstrate that they use their current resources strategically and 
effectively to increase student learning. 

None of this is possible, of course, without true reform at the 
school level-and without principals providing strong leadership. It 
is not enough for principals merely to rally the troops. Principals 
must become much more familiar with the landscape they are 
asking their teachers to traverse. In other words, they need to 
know almost as much as their teachers about content and perform- 
ance standards, assessment, rubrics, and similar issues. If princi- 
pals expect teachers to improve their knowledge of content and the 
effectiveness of their instruction, and if principals are going to 
position themselves to make better use of staff development 
resources to achieve those results, then principals will have to 



increase their own knowledge base and skills. School systems that 
take the initiative to provide quality professional development for 
this purpose will be making a wise investment and increasing the 
likelihood that principals will provide effective leadership for the 
second phase of standards-based reform. 

You’re not Billy Batson 

None of this will come easy. There are all manner of potholes and 
washed-out bridges along the way. Experience has taught us that 
few of your current superintendents will be with you at the end of 
this journey. The same will be true of many principals. There will 
continue to be budget crises, illnesses, scandals, and more proj- 
ects, initiatives, and special programs, some of which will con- 
tribute to student learning but many of which will not. All will be 
distractions from the task of helping students learn what they 
need to perform at standard. Even worse, they can lead to detours 
and serious setbacks. 

There is only one way to make sure your school systems 
provide the expectation and support you will need to press forward 
in spite of these obstacles. Standards-based reform and its connec- 
tion to student learning must be understood, really understood, 
and embraced by your communities, school boards, superintend- 
ents, central office staff, and building-level administrators and 
teachers. People other than you have to care about student learn- 
ing and understand why and how standards-based reform is a 
means to achieve it. That means you will have to do a much better 
job of making standards understandable to many more people and 
of providing more useful information about school and student 
performance to all segments of your communities. 

You will know you are making progress when the next time 
your school board interviews candidates for superintendent, the 
community demands that the school board focus the candidates on 
this central question: “How will you make sure that our principals 

page 104 / Shooting for the Sun 

and teachers get the professional development, support, and super- 
vision they need to enable students to perform at standard?” You 
will know you are not the only ones willing to do almost anything 
to increase student learning when even the poorest and least 
English proficient parents crowd school board meetings demand- 
ing better use of resources, more support, and more accountability 
for student learning. 

None of this is possible without your leadership. Many of your 
school systems and schools have made the progress they have only 
because day after day you have kept pushing for middle school 
reform, winning converts one by one to the cause that all middle 
level students should and can achieve at significantly higher 
levels. Even though you have been pushed and tugged in different 
directions, you have kept your focus on student learning, always 
circling back to standards-based reform. 

We continue to expect a lot of you. We know it is tempting to 
stick with the planning, with putting the building blocks in place, 
because you know how to do that. You have done it many times 
before. Students have come and gone, but the horizon of increased 
student learning has continued to recede. When are we simply 
going to focus on student learning, and do whatever is necessary to 
make sure that all students learn at significantly higher levels? 

We are not asking you to do what you know how to do. We are 
asking you to do what you do not know how to do, or to do what you 
know how to do for some students, but to do it for all. We are 
asking you to increase student learning not in the long term but in 
the near term. Like Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century 
English essayist, we believe, “Our main business is not to see what 
lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” 

The task at hand is hard, and I know you are sometimes tired 
and dispirited, wondering if anything is really getting better, won- 
dering if you are making progress. When you have those moments 
of doubt, I hope you will reflect on where your schools are, and 


where they were three years ago. Most of you will see that you have 
made demonstrable progress, and that you have done it through a 
lot of faith and hard work. 

Yes, it would be nice to be Billy Batson, to cry “Shazam!” and 
change in a flash of lightning, but you are not Billy Batson. You 
have more in common, it seems to me, with the Apostle Paul. He 
also went on long and dangerous journeys, carrying a new message 
of hope many people did not want to hear. Like Paul, you might 
also say, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; per- 
plexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck 
down, but not destroyed. ..Therefore, we do not lose heart.” 

You can increase student learning. For the sake of your stu- 
dents, you must increase student learning. Do not lose heart. 



PAGE 106 / Shooting for the Sun 

The Rocky Trail of Standards-Based Reform 

Hikers on a difficult trail spend much of their time looking 
down at the ground, being careful where they place their 
feet. It’s also important, Hayes Mizell proposes, to look 
around to see how far they’ve come-and gauge how far 
they have yet to go. In this talk to representatives from 
the Foundation’s grantee districts in September 1998, 
Mizell reviews their progress so far and maps some of 
the challenges ahead. 

Perhaps like my family, you went hiking this summer. Or if you 
have hiked at any time you may have noticed a certain phenome- 
non of this activity. People hike to renew their contact with nature 
and enjoy sights and sounds that differ from those they experience 
in everyday life. Most people choose to hike where there is nice 
scenery: woods, lakes, meadows, or mountain vistas. Yet most 
hiking trails are not smooth paths; they may consist of loose 
stones, or be filled with exposed and tangled tree roots, or there 
may be a small stream or even trees right in the middle of the trail. 
No matter how beautiful the scenery is, hikers know they have to 
pay attention to the trail. If they don’t look where they are going 
they may slip or trip and fall. 

In fact, hikers often spend so much time looking down at the 
trail, being careful where they place their feet, that they need to 
pause frequently not only to catch their breath but to see how far 
they have come, to enjoy the scenery, and to gauge how far they 
have yet to go. 

The Rocky Trail of Standards-Based Reform / page 107 

Like hikers, the teachers and administrators of your school 
systems have been spending a lot of time looking down at the trail. 
We have been very conscious of our footing, perhaps too conscious 
of it; sometimes we have been more cautious than we should have 
been. This meeting is an opportunity for us to pause on the trail, to 
assess how far we have come, to think about the trail ahead of us, 
and to make plans for reaching our destination. We hope you will 
use this opportunity to enjoy the comradeship of your fellow hikers 
and the scenery represented by the progress you have made to date. 

Where are we? In truth, we are scattered all along the trail, 
some way ahead of others one day, only to fall behind and yield the 
lead the next. 

Priorities: “Performance is important” 

I think we can safely say that you have begun to shift the focus of 
middle level schools in your communities. You have delineated 
what students should know and be able to do, either by the end of 
the eighth grade or at each of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade 
levels, and are using those standards to focus the attention of 
teachers, administrators, students, and families on learning. 

Because you have either adopted performance standards or are 
in the process of doing so, you are stimulating more conversation 
about the level of performance students must demonstrate as evi- 
dence they meet your academic standards. It has taken longer than 
we had hoped for you to develop and begin to use content and per- 
formance standards, but they are beginning to take hold in more 
schools and classrooms. 

Through your various initiatives for student accountability you 
are sending new messages to students and their families: 
“Performance is important.” And “We believe you can meet the 
standards we have set and we expect you to work hard to meet 
them.” And “There are consequences if you do not take these stan- 
dards seriously.” 

page 108 / Shooting for the Sun 

For both the senders and the receivers, these messages are 
hard. They communicate new expectations, and if they are to mean 
anything your school systems and schools must have the resolve to 
live with the consequences. When significant proportions of your 
students do not perform at standard, it is not only a problem for 
them and their families, it is also a problem for the teachers and 
administrators who are responsible for educating those students. 
Teachers and administrators, as well as students, must be account- 
able for student performance, and they too must be subject to con- 

Your school systems and schools have also made progress in 
devoting greater attention to students whose poor levels of previ- 
ous preparation, lack of motivation or school skills, personal prob- 
lems, or a combination of those, have caused them not to meet your 
academic expectations. You are providing more second chance 
opportunities than ever before and are more concerned with stu- 
dents not just acquiring additional seat time but actually demon- 
strating that they have attained the skills and knowledge 
embodied in your standards. 

It is important to continue providing and mending those safety 
nets, but it is also important to evaluate them carefully. If during 
the next several years there is not convincing evidence that they 
are benefiting students academically, you will need to develop 
more effective approaches. 

Staff development la focusing on teachers’ needs and 
principals’ leadership 

Your school systems are also beginning to improve staff develop- 
ment. Increasingly, the staff development you provide is more stan- 
dards-based, more responsive to teachers’ real needs, and closer to 
the daily lives of schools and classrooms. But there is still a long, 
long way to go. You still know very little about whether and how 
teachers really benefit from staff development; whether they effec- 

The Rocky Trail of Standards-Based Reform / page 109 

tively apply the new behaviors, knowledge, and skills you hope they 
learn from it; and whether the hundreds of thousands of dollars 
you spend on staff development results in more students perform- 
ing at standard. Until you understand much, much more about the 
value and effects of your staff development, it will only be, at best, 
a shot in the dark. 

It is also no small accomplishment that your school systems 
have begun to emphasize the role of principals in organizing and 
leading their schools to help students perform at standard. Again, 
there is more work to do, but there are greater numbers of princi- 
pals who understand standards, who know what teachers must do 
to bring the standards to life in their classrooms, and who are 
willing to restructure their schools to increase teacher and student 
learning. The fact is that standards-based instruction and learning 
will not occur without principals who give more attention to 
improving teaching than to their more traditional management 
tasks. For this to happen, school systems will not only have to com- 
municate that expectation to principals and assess their perform- 
ance accordingly, but reduce the bureaucratic burdens that 
currently cause principals to spend more time in their offices than 
in their classrooms. 

You have every reason to feel good about the progress your 
school systems and schools have made, but of course I don’t want 
you to feel too good about it. Until there is more convincing evi- 
dence, and I don’t just mean test scores, that significantly greater 
proportions of students are performing at standard, we can find 
little comfort about progress on the input side of the ledger. There 
is more work to do, and more of the right work to do. You have to 
keep focused. You have to think harder, not about planning and 
implementing activities but about executing reforms that are most 
likely to make the greatest difference in student learning. 


page no / Shooting for the Sun 

Some remaining barriers to reform are deeply embedded 

There are many barriers you have to eliminate or get over. Some 
barriers are deeply imbedded in the psychology, culture, and prac- 
tice of your school systems and schools. For example, if you hon- 
estly look at who and what are the direct objects of your attention 
and energy, I think you will conclude that student learning suffers. 
Yes, you provide students with transportation, safe and comfort- 
able learning environments, a wide variety of instructional media, 
meals, health and social services, co-curricular activities that 
promote their development, and adult supervisors and teachers 
who meet certain qualifications. 

Providing that infrastructure necessarily consumes a great 
deal of your energy, but I think you will acknowledge that in the 
pie chart of schooling the adult and bureaucratic interactions 
occupy more space than interactions between adults and students 
devoted directly to student learning. The fact is that each day your 
school board members, superintendents, central office administra- 
tors and staff, and principals make important decisions about how 
they will use the money, time, opportunities, and priorities over 
which they have direct control. Unless you consciously reallocate a 
much greater share of those resources to increasing the learning of 
teachers and students and devote much less to maintaining the 
existing structure, operations, and cultures of school systems and 
schools, you will not see significant increases in student perform- 

I implore you to be less tolerant and less timid. For reasons 
that are quite understandable because, after all, they have every- 
thing to do with maintaining your livelihoods, you defer more often 
than you should to adult rules, regulations, procedures, and prerog- 
atives that undercut other efforts you are making to increase 
student learning. You take too few risks on behalf of students. 

Students understand quite well who should not be leading a 
classroom or a school, and you too know who they are, but it is the 

The Rocky Trail of Standards-Based Reform / page m 

students, not you, who each year suffer those people’s ineffective- 
ness. I don’t care about their tenure. I don’t care about their race. I 
don’t care who their relatives are. I care that so long as they are in 
their current positions students will not perforin at the levels of 
which they are capable. This will only change if you act. 

Move more of your attention to the building and claAAroom 

While you must continue to make the systemic changes necessary 
to advance and support standards-based learning, most of your 
attention now needs to be at the building and classroom levels. 
There are big gaps there. You need to know where they are and 
address them. However, I doubt that any of your school systems 
has a way to qualitatively and quantitatively assess the extent to 
which each school and each classroom is using standards and 
seeking to enable students to perform at standard. This is equiva- 
lent to a sports league where each team, and even each player, may 
or may not be playing well, but all the league commissioner knows 
is that some teams win more games than others. 

Unless your school systems are clear about what standards 
implementation should look like at the building and classroom 
levels, and unless you can assess and report the extent to which 
standards are being used by each school and each teacher to 
increase student learning, standards implementation will mean 
little more than casting bread upon waters. I look forward to the 
day when your school systems are able to report-simply, under- 
standably, and honestly-to your boards of education and to the 
Foundation the extent to which schools and teachers are using 
standards effectively. Until you are able to do that, you will not 
have the information you need to strengthen the teams and 
their players. 


page 112 / Shooting for the Sun 

Beyond AtandarcU: Getting to the real core of learning 

Improving their performance will mean going beyond standards 
development and dissemination to the real core of learning: (1) the 
quality of teachers’ assignments, (2) the quality of students’ work, 
and (3) the quality of teachers’ assessments of student perform- 
ance. Standards posted in classrooms won’t increase student learn- 
ing, nor even will assignments keyed to specific standards. 

To date you have been cutting through the epidermis, dermis, 
and subcutaneous tissue of standards-based reform; now you are 
hitting the muscle, torn but flexed to resist your incursions. This 
will not change unless you develop and execute building-level 
strategies that increase expectations for teachers’ learning and 
cause teachers to collaborate to improve their assignments and 
assessments, and the quality of students’ work. 

I do not underestimate the difficulty of this cultural and opera- 
tional shift at the building level. This is why school reform, not just 
instructional reform, is necessary. Schools have to take the initia- 
tive to create the structures and processes that make it possible for 
teachers to engage every day in learning how to improve their prac- 
tice. This is not an option. School boards and superintendents and 
central office administrators must be firm that this reform will 
occur and provide schools with the leadership, support, and flexi- 
bility to achieve it. 

Each of you has pledged that by June 2001 a specific proportion 
of students completing the eighth grade will perform at standard. 
The students who entered your sixth grades this year do not know 
that you have set this goal for them and for yourselves. They 
merely assume that their schools and teachers will help them learn 
what they need to complete the eighth grade performing at levels 
that will serve them well in the future. 

1 IIC rvULivy ii an ui Jianuaiuo uaocu ivgivi m 

Students are betting their live a 

Your students are betting their lives that you will do whatever is 
necessary to make it possible for them to succeed in the future. 
They don’t know about and they don’t care about existing para- 
digms, your personal or professional relationships, or whatever it 
is that keeps you from taking actions that will help them perform 
at standard. They can only trust that you will act courageously and 
effectively on their behalf. 

We share their trust. We marvel at the dedication and energy 
you bring to your task. We wonder how you get out of bed every day 
and how you balance the demands of your professional and per- 
sonal lives. We hope that our partnership with you in this endeavor 
is more support than it is burden. If at any point this is not the 
case please tell us. 

In a few days we will begin again our hike on this rocky trail, 
watching our footing as we take one step after another. For now, 
however, we can learn a lot from each other. Those in front can tell 
those behind where the dangers are, and which path to take when 
the trail diverges. Those behind can tell those in front to accelerate 
their pace because we are beginning to bunch up on the trail. We 
have a long way to go. It is dusk and soon night will fall. 



page 114 / Shooting for the Sun 

Hitting the Wall 

“Hitting the wall” is a painful sensation familiar to long- 
distance runners and high-altitude mountaineers. 
Recognizing that the educators in his audience maybe 
feeling something similar, Hayes Mizell urges them to 
keep going on the road to reform. His comments were 
made at a September 1999 meeting of team members from 
the Foundation’s four grantee districts to review their 
progress in implementing standards-based reform. 

I am sure most OF you are familiar with the expression “hitting 
the wall.” This phrase was originally used by runners to describe 
what happens between the eighteenth and twenty-fifth mile of a 
marathon. At that point, a runner’s legs stiffen and hurt, and the 
work of running becomes much harder. High-altitude climbers 
experience a similar debilitation. Here is how one writer described 
the experience known as hitting the wall: 

It usually happens high on the mountain, when every muscle is 
screaming to quit. Here, the climber must mentally will the body to 
take each small and halting step. Like the staggering marathon 
runner, the climber must set small goals such as taking a hundred 
steps before looking up or going just to the next corner and then the 
next and then the next. At the same time, he or she must make sure 
each of thousands upon thousands of steps are safely placed, a 
daunting task when the body is exhausted and the oxygen-starved 
brain has difficulty concentrating. This muddled brain must also 
contend with crampons that come loose or headlight batteries that 

Hitting tne wan / haul 115 

go dead-apparently simple things that at high elevation can take 
many minutes to correct. Overlying all this is the constant tension 
of knowing that one mistake can send you hurtling to your death. 

These symptoms of hitting the wall are not unfamiliar to those 
of you who have now reached the higher altitudes of systemic, 
standards-based reform. You have been trudging through knee- 
deep snow, cautiously climbing over rocky ledges, and learning 
how to get across yawning crevasses. For some of you, the summit 
represented by eighth grade students performing at standard is 
within sight; for others it appears only momentarily before heavy 
clouds obscure it again. All of you, I suspect, are tired. You have 
been the leaders of your respective expeditions, trying to find the 
best route to the summit while many others remain at the base 

There are many reasons why you may be feeling you are hitting 
the wall. Maybe you underestimated just how long and difficult the 
climb would be, getting harder with each step, not easier. Maybe 
you put too much faith in your equipment-not just in the written 
standards, but in all the materials and accompanying tools that 
seemed so logical and compelling on their face but which have 
failed to meet the real-world tests of teachers’ lack of time, or 
know-how, or incentive, or will to use them. 

Or maybe for you hitting the wall is simply not knowing what 
to do next, or not coming to grips with doing what you know in 
your heart must be done. You have learned that no matter how 
inclusive your process for developing standards might have been, 
or how committed your school board and superintendent are to 
using them, this will not cause students to perform at standard. It 
may finally be dawning on you that long-standing structures and 
practices in your school systems and schools are more powerful 
than the standards. You may be realizing that merely making 
changes at the margins of those structures and practices is not 


page 116 / Shooting for the Sun 

enough to effect the deep changes in teaching and learning that 
must occur to cause students to perform at standard. 

The author of Matthew’s gospel had it right: “Neither is new 
wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is 
spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh 
wineskins, and so both are preserved.” The new wine of standards 
requires the new wineskins of reformed schools and classrooms. 

Hitting the wall can be a valuable experience 

Hitting the wall in standards-based reform is not a bad thing. 
Facing up to the very real limitations of schools is one of the 
toughest things to do in public education. The limitations I am 
talking about are not those of inadequate resources or time, but 
rather the assumption that little or nothing can be done that is 
substantially different from what is currently being done. It is 
almost as if there were wide agreement among the public and edu- 
cators that the ways schools have operated for most of this century 
are, in fact, the best ways to educate children. So long as we 
assume that schools and classrooms must function substantially 
as they do now, what schools can do to cause students to perform 
at standard will be severely limited. 

When we use the term “standards-based reforms,” we are refer- 
ring to reforms to school systems, schools, and instruction that 
achieve a particular result: many more students performing at sig- 
nificantly higher levels than is now the case. We are not talking 
about a vague awareness among teachers that standards exist, or 
that teachers have standards posted in their classrooms, or even 
that teachers link their lessons to standards. We are talking about 
changing schools and instruction so both cause all students to 
perform at standard. 

Hitting the wall, then, is a signal for you to think more deeply 
about how to focus your energy. By now you should have learned 
that, in spite of pressures from many sources, you have to focus the 


Hitting the Wall / page 117 

strategies and activities that have the greatest potential to 
increase student performance. If you do not know what those 
strategies and activities are, then it is no wonder you feel that you 
are hitting the wall. If you cannot look back over the past four 
years and confidently describe whether and how you know that 
your strategies and activities contributed directly to improved 
student learning, it means you have been wasting your energy and 
that of many other people. If you do not have such evidence, and if 
that evidence has not propelled you forward toward better results, 
you may just as well have been rolling dice. 

Failure is acceptable if you know why you failed, and if you 
forthrightly acknowledge that failure, and talk about it and 
analyze it, and subsequently apply the lessons the failure taught 
you. Failure is acceptable if it causes you to act smarter, and to 
achieve better results. This, after all, is what learning is all about 
in the real world. Failure is not acceptable if you just keep trying, 
making the same mistakes over and over, throwing the dice again 
and again, never really understanding or acknowledging the 
reasons for the failure, never really acting differently or achieving 
better results. Hitting the wall is an opportunity to reassess your 
beliefs about how schools and instruction have to change if they 
are going to cause nearly all students to perform at standard, and 
how you will know whether the actions you take move students 
closer to that goal. 

Your knowledge and AkillA have limitA 

Hitting the wall can also be a valuable experience because it should 
cause you to recognize the limits of your knowledge and skills. No 
matter what your position, there comes a point when you do not 
know what to do to cause people to behave differently. Effective 
strategies and activities are elusive. Teachers hit the wall when 
they lack the content knowledge or pedagogical skills to cause stu- 
dents to perform at higher levels. Principals hit the wall when they 

page 118 / Shooting for the Sun 

lack an understanding of standards and the skills to guide teach- 
ers toward improving instruction. Superintendents and central 
office staff hit the wall when there is little evidence that their 
interventions and special programs are increasing student learn- 
ing in persistently low-performing schools. Even school board 
members hit the wall when they realize that their policies have 
only limited effect on the day-to-day practices of principals and 

Hitting the wall means that you are human, not all-knowing or 
all-powerful. If you can recognize that and take .the initiative to 
find and draw upon resources outside yourselves and beyond your 
classrooms, schools, and school systems, you may be able to move 
forward more efficiently and productively. It is very unlikely that 
you will find convenient, risk-free solutions, or approaches that do 
not require courage and a strong will, but that is the price of 
achieving significant results rather than merely engaging in sym- 
bolic activity. We all admire the student who asks for help and uses 
the resources of the school and the community, but too many edu- 
cators do not model those behaviors in their professional lives. 

Some schools and classrooms can show persuasive evidence 
that, when schools operate differently and teachers learn and teach 
differently, even low-achieving students will perform at higher 
levels. Are you looking for those places? Are you learning from 
them? Are you breaking through the parochialism of your class- 
rooms, your schools, your school districts, and your cultures and 
ideologies to find and use practices that can cause many more stu- 
dents to perform at standard, or are you clinging to that which is 
comfortable and low-risk, even if it is ineffective? What I am saying 
is, if you feel like you are hitting the wall, use those feelings in 
ways that will help you keep moving forward. 

Hitting the Wall / page 119 

Students really know what hitting the wall is all about 

As frustrated as you may sometimes feel about your progress, keep 
in mind that you share that feeling with many students in your 
classrooms and schools. They really know what hitting the wall is 
all about because every day they experience it in the educational 
settings you provide. They encounter structures and practices that 
are quite often mysterious and sometimes malevolent. 

The wall students hit is made of many bricks: teachers who do 
not have a deep understanding of the content they teach, curricu- 
lum units that are as boring as they are arbitrary, standards that 
even the teachers do not understand, grading practices that 
depend more on the mood of the teacher than on the performance 
of the student, and pedagogy fashioned from the straw and mud of 
another time, for another people. Even this does not deter some 
students: they are the success stories you cling to and recount over 
and over to colleagues and friends. 

But what about all the other students? What about those who 
hit the wall at the very time in their lives when they need someone 
to tell them they can reach the summit and help them find their 
way? Just keep in mind that when you feel you are hitting the wall, 
and it makes you feel tired and powerless and unsure what to do 
next, that is exactly, exactly, how many students feel. It is useful to 
reflect on that, and to use that awareness to shed your fear and 
exhaustion and to plow ahead, “taking a hundred steps before 
looking up,” or going “just to the next corner and then the next and 
then the next.” 

Your students are counting on you. Some students are satisfied 
because they are performing well, but they should be performing at 
even higher levels. Some students are quite literally stuck in the 
middle, satisfied with their average performance because it seems 
to be all their teachers and schools require. Many, many students 
have no idea what academic success is because there are no living, 
breathing, practical performance standards that delineate the spe- 


page 120 / Shooting for the Sun 

cific levels of proficiency that represent academic success. None of 
these students can perform at increasingly higher levels unless 
their schools and teachers routinely and demonstrably expect 
them to do so, and unless their schools and teachers obtain and 
use the knowledge and skills necessary to help them. 

Standards are not enough. Accountability is not enough. What 
will really make the difference is the educational contexts you 
provide, and your will to provide only those that cause students to 
make significant progress toward performing at standard. 

What You’re Cookin’ and What They’re Smellin / page 121 

Standards: What You’re Cookin’ 
and What They’re Smellin’ 

Playing off a saying used by professional wrestler and 
popular culture icon “the Rock,” Hayes Mizell challenges 
his listeners to ask themselves whether their work on 
standards is actually showing up in students’ academic 
performance-the real proof , he argues, that students are 
smellin’ what their districts are cookin’. His audience was 
made up of educators from the school systems receiving 
support from the Foundation in September 2000. 

Some of you have not attended previous gatherings of the 
Program for Student Achievement, and I suspect you are wonder- 
ing what the program is all about. You may have heard that we are 
interested in standards. Maybe you have participated in profes- 
sional development the foundation has supported. Or perhaps you 
think we are just providing support to help improve your middle 
schools. Let me correct those impressions. 

First, the Program for Student Achievement is about students. 
Students are the people we want to benefit from the foundation’s 
grants to your school systems and organizations. Students matter 
more than anyone or anything in public education. How students 
perform is a barometer of a school’s effectiveness. If students 
perform poorly, it means schools are performing poorly. If students 
are performing well, it means schools are performing well. The 
reality is that most schools perform well for some students and 
poorly for other students. 

PAGE 122 / Shooting for the Sun 

Too few schools demonstrate that they are willing to do what- 
ever it takes, and I do mean whatever it takes, to perform well for 
all students. There are such schools, but few others seek to learn 
from them or have the will to apply the principles and practices 
that make the achieving schools effective. I know many people 
reject this simple construct of school and student performance, 
and that is why so many schools continue not to meet the learning 
needs of so many students. Students have to come first, and their 
performance has to be the gauge by which schools measure their 

Student performance u what really counts 

We believe there are thousands of students in your school systems 
who have the intellectual capacity and the need to perform at much 
higher academic levels. They need to do so because if they learn 
how to conquer content they now believe is difficult, it will prepare 
them to milk their secondary education for all it is worth. It will 
put them on the path to obtaining additional education after high 
school, and it will reward them with meaningful options when they 
seek work. 

Most young adolescents cannot see this horizon, but you can. 
You can and should encourage, cajole, harangue, and preach to stu- 
dents to help them understand that the investment of their effort 
now can produce big returns in the future. We all know, however, 
that most of this will fall on deaf ears. Students will be far more 
impressed by what you do than by what you say. Students benefit 
when they see you using your authority to establish school cul- 
tures with high standards of performance for both educators and 
students. Standards matter when you translate them from words to 
deeds that help educators and students achieve more that they ever 
thought was possible. 

We believe, then, that students come first. School systems have 
to be committed to that proposition. School systems do not exist to 


What You’re Cookin’ and What They’re Smellin’ / page 123 



be employment agencies or provide fringe benefits. School systems 
do not exist to develop policy manuals or issue administrative 
directives. School systems do not exist to be political playpens for 
adults. School systems exist for students, and unless every year, 
every student is learning and achieving more than he or she did 
the previous year, school systems are not doing their jobs. 

What does this rather hard line mean in terms of your relation- 
ship with the foundation? It means that if you are a school board 
member or central office leader and you spend less than 75 percent 
of your time and energy on issues that directly shape, support, and 
improve student learning, we wonder what in the world you are 
doing. It means that if you are a teacher or administrator who par- 
ticipates in professional development funded by the foundation, it 
is because we believe it is important for educators to develop and 
apply new attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors that will 
improve student learning. If professional development does not 
benefit students, and if there is not evidence that students benefit, 
we are disappointed. If you participate in a foundation-funded 
project that helps parents and citizens learn more about their 
schools and become more active in improving their schools, it is 
because we believe that communities are just as responsible for 
increasing student learning as schools are. If parent and citizen 
involvement does not benefit students, and if there is not evidence 
that it benefits students, we are not satisfied. 

Second, the Program for Student Achievement is about increas- 
ing the learning of all students. We know this goal is difficult to 
reach, as is providing credible evidence that students are really 
learning at higher levels. Yet we believe this must be the goal of 
public schools, and that schools must focus all their efforts on this 
goal and on collecting and sharing credible evidence that they are 
achieving it. More specifically, we really do expect that between the 
first day that students enter the sixth grade and the day they leave 


PAGE 124 / Shooting for the Sun 

the eighth grade, each year they should increase significantly their 
performance levels in mathematics, science, language arts, and 
social studies. We do not accept that an achievement dip is 
inevitable in the middle grades, or that attention to students’ emo- 
tional and social needs is incompatible with attention to their aca- 
demic needs. Both are important; students learn more when they 
simultaneously experience higher academic expectations and 
receive more intensive personal support. 

Third, the Program for Student Achievement is about results. 
We know there can be no results without process; that is, without a 
sequence of dialogue, decisions, plans, and actions that produce 
results. We recognize that good process is necessary for good 
results. But we also know that in many school systems and schools 
the process is not of a high quality, or the process is endless, and 
the evidence is poor results or no results at all. When it comes to 
your need to meet and meet and plan and plan, we are understand- 
ing, we are tolerant, and we are patient, but we are not deaf and 
blind. One way or another we learn what the process yields. We not 
only expect results, we expect results that benefit students. This is 
to say that we are not impressed with what you say you are going 
to do, or what you describe on paper, or even with your site-based 
plans for school improvement. Those become credible only in the 
light of subsequent results supported by evidence that your efforts 
have benefited students. 

There are, of course, many ways the Foundation could choose 
to try to advance student achievement in the middle grades, but in 
1994 it decided to encourage a few urban school systems to use 
academic standards as a means to focus and improve teaching and 
learning. You will recognize that 1994 was slightly ahead of the 
curve of states’ widespread development and promulgation of stan- 
dards. We began with six school systems, but over time the 
Foundation chose not to continue funding three of them. The 
school systems that you represent are currently the only ones 

1 2 - 

■ / 

What You’re Cookin’ and What They’re Smell in’ / page 125 

assisted by the Foundation. This indicates that we also believe in 

The development and use of content and performance stan- 
dards is not a comprehensive strategy, and we do not intend it to 
be. Developing standards is not enough to increase student 
achievement. Disseminating standards or posting them in every 
classroom will not cause students to perform at higher levels. 
Standards are necessary for teachers, and administrators, and stu- 
dents, and families, and communities to understand what students 
should know and be able to do, but that is only the first step. The 
more difficult tasks are to align and reform curriculum, instruc- 
tion, assessment, and staff development to cause students to 
perform at standard. 

Are they j>mellin’ what you’re cookin’ ? 

In the world of popular culture, there is a very interesting fellow 
called “the Rock.” For those of you who are not familiar with this 
entertainer, he is a charismatic professional wrestler with a huge 
public following. The Rock has several intriguing public relations 
gimmicks, and one of these is a question he uses to challenge his 
opponents and excite his fans: He shouts, “Do you smell what the 
Rock is cookin’?” 

Well, if your standards are what your school systems are 
cookin’, they may not be not what your students are smellin’. There 
may be a disconnect between the standards that your school 
systems say students should meet and the curriculum and instruc- 
tion your school systems are providing. Your curriculum— written 
lessons, activities, exercises, assignments, and supporting materi- 
als-may not provide the level of content or rigor that cause stu- 
dents to develop the knowledge and skills they need to perform at 
standard. The quality of instruction in your schools may not 
engage all students in opportunities to learn what they need to 
perform at standard. Classroom assessments may not be rooted in 

page 126 / Shooting for the Sun 

performance standards. As a result, teachers, students, and fami- 
lies may have no idea whether students can demonstrate the profi- 
ciencies that indicate that students know and are able to do what 
the school system or the state expects. 

The results of professional development may indicate that it is 
falling far short in helping teachers and administrators develop 
and apply the skills they need to ensure that students benefit from 
standards-based curriculum, instruction, assessment, and staff 
development. What your school systems are cookin’ is represented 
by your content and performance standards. What your students 
are smellin’ is indicated by their performance on standards-based 
assessments, or the closest thing to them. If your students are not 
smellin’ what your school systems are cookin’, then you need to 
work even harder to identify, trace, and eliminate the gaps that are 
preventing students from performing at standard. 

Very few Achool AyAtenu are really AeriouA about AtandardA 

Your school systems are among a very small number that are seri- 
ously trying to use standards to improve the education of all stu- 
dents. There are many school systems that are using standards, in 
most cases because their states insist on it, but few of these school 
systems seek to reform curriculum, instruction, assessment, and 
staff development so as to become interconnected, moving parts 
that cause all students to perform at standard. This is your chal- 

In each of your school systems, some components of stan- 
dards-based reform are much stronger and more effective than 
they were five years ago, but they are still separate parts, some- 
times even working at cross purposes. Your challenge is not to 
merely implement standards. Your challenge is not just for schools 
and students to be more accountable for their performance. Your 
challenge is to develop and activate a standards-based system in 
which you focus and align all its components to achieve the goal of 


What You’re Cookin’ and What They’re Smellin’ / page 127 

nearly all students performing at standard. As you are learning, 
standards-based reform really means whole system reform, not just 
a tweak here and a tuck there. 

Your school districts are not yet exemplars of this kind of sys- 
- temic, standards-based reform, but you can point to many solid 
accomplishments. You have mounted multiple intervention and 
support programs to better meet the academic needs of students 
who have the greatest difficulty performing at standard. You have 
provided school-based staff developers who work with teachers in 
their classrooms to help them learn how to engage students in 
standards-based lessons. You have reconstituted some persistently 
low-performing schools to provide students with more effective 
administrators and teachers. 

Some of your school systems have recognized the literacy 
crisis in the middle grades and have launched major initiatives to 
improve students’ basic reading skills and raise their comprehen- 
sion levels. To communicate to your teachers, students, and fami- 
lies that your school systems are serious about standards, you have 
either developed standards-based report cards or are in the process 
of doing so. These actions are simple to describe but they are 
complex to execute effectively. The fact that you have done so is 
evidence that your school systems want to use standards to lever- 
age reforms that will benefit students. 

A critic might reasonably ask whether all this attention to 
standards is really necessary. Is it possible to provide students 
with a more challenging, engaging education without standards- 
based reform? The answer is no, and yes. Educators who believe in 
their students— who believe that, regardless of a student’s family 
background or economic status or race or language, he or she is 
capable of performing at high levels in at least some subjects- 
these educators push and support their students to meet high aca- 
demic standards. This has always been true, and everyone in this 
room can identify at least one teacher in their past who fits that 

page 128 / Shooting for the Sun 

description. Standards in those days were not set down in writing, 
but those teachers knew what they wanted their students to know 
and be able to do as a result of their education. The problem was 
that only some teachers had such high standards, and that led to 
the current efforts to codify standards to guide teaching and learn- 
ing for all students. 

Yes, standards are essential, and they always have been. 
However, there is a danger that standards-based reform will 
become a new orthodoxy, shrouded in a language all its own, 
guarded by acolytes of correctness, and accompanied by rituals so 
complex that no ordinary teacher or administrator can make sense 
of them. 

Keep it Mmple and reAiAt the demons 

Some things in education really are simple. There is no substitute 
for energetic, caring teachers who are excited about their subjects 
and who, because of their commitment to their subjects and their 
students, become masters of the content they teach. There is no 
substitute for principals and assistant principals who are not 
content to be building managers but have the courage to become 
education leaders who do whatever it takes to ensure that both 
adults and students in their schools perform at high levels. 

There is no substitute for teachers and administrators who do 
not shrink from critical self-assessments of their own perform- 
ance, and who relentlessly learn and apply practices that demon- 
strably benefit students. These people are the meat and potatoes of 
good education, and standards-based reforms cannot replace them 
or compensate for their absence. Indeed, standards make it all the 
more necessary for you to find and develop and support educators 
so they are all like this. If your school systems are not attending 
to this task, all your efforts to implement standards will be 
for naught. 

What You re Cookin and What They re Smellin / page 129 

Sometimes, of course, there is a chasm between what you and 
your school systems must do to significantly increase student per- 
formance and what you and your school systems actually do. Like 
all educators-indeed, like all people-you struggle with your 
demons, or you do not struggle enough. These demons take many 
forms, but the result is that you do not always do what you should 
do to change practices that prevent your students from performing 
at standard or at levels even higher than your current standards. 
For example, you may say that you do not know what to do, but you 
do not take the initiative to seek out other experiences and lessons 
that may be instructive. Or perhaps you know what you should do 
but, in the face of real or imagined bureaucratic or political con- 
straints at the district or school level, you ask for neither permis- 
sion nor forgiveness. 

Then there is the three-headed demon of endless excuses, 
wishful thinking, and no follow-through. It is so easy to find legiti- 
mate reasons not to take action: too little time, not enough money, 
nobody cares as much as you do, too many other “priorities,” and 
on and on and on. In other cases, you express good intentions, even 
commitments to act, but they seem to vaporize when it comes to 
follow-through. No matter what has been said or written or prom- 
ised, little or nothing happens. There is also wishful thinking, 
hoping that your reforms will achieve good results, but failing to 
draw on your good common sense and wealth of experience as you 
develop implementation plans. Even though you know better than 
anyone how schools work and what teachers value, you do not 
always take that into account, implementation falters, and pro- 
grams with good potential do not benefit students. 

Finally, there is the demon of self-satisfaction. Because you 
have embraced systemic, standards-based reform more seriously 
than most school systems, and because you have taken major steps 
to bring reforms to fruition, you are leaders in this field. Maybe 
you feel that you have done enough, and that you should be able to 



page 130 / Shooting for the Sun 

relax. The problem is that your reforms are not being measured by 
how innovative they are or even by how hard you have worked to 
implement them, but by their effects on students. Can you demon- 
strate that your reforms have caused significantly greater propor- 
tions of students from all demographic groups to perform at 
standard? Can you provide evidence that your reforms are enabling 
students with the greatest academic disadvantages to make 
achievement gains disproportionate to those of other students? 
Until you can, relaxing will have to wait. 

Get beyond patchwork reforms 

You are only at the end of the beginning of standards-based reform. 
Much remains to be done, and in the year ahead it is important for 
you to do three things. 

First, build on what you have achieved to date, and learn from 
your mistakes. Back in 1995, your school systems established June 
2001 as the date by which a specific proportion of students com- 
pleting the eighth grade would perform at standard in mathemat- 
ics, science, language arts, and social studies. Your school systems, 
not the Program for Student Achievement, established your respec- 
tive performance targets, and since then one school system has 
amended theirs, but those targets continue to represent the goals 
your school systems are trying to achieve. How close will you be by 
next June? How far from the goals will you be, and why? 

Second, reflect on, assess, and document what your school 
systems and middle schools accomplished between September 
1995 and June 2001, and determine how you will engage internal 
and external audiences in dialogue about the progress you have 
made and what you have yet to achieve. Unless you make inten- 
tional efforts to capture your past and learn from it, you will not 
gain all you can from your years of experience. This is something 
school systems seldom do, and it is one reason they continue to 
make the same mistakes over and over gain, as well as fail to 

What You’re Cookin’ and What They’re Smellin’ / page 131 

sustain and build on the genuine achievements they have made. Do 
not let this happen to you. 

Third, begin to consider, discuss, and plan for what will happen 
to systemic, standards-based reform in your school systems and 
your middle schools after your relationship with the foundation 
ends. When January 2002 arrives, will that be the end of your focus 
on making the systemic and school reforms necessary to cause 
young adolescents to perform at standard? Will your hard work and 
the momentum you have built during the previous six years simply 
wither away? This is usually what happens. School systems typi- 
cally do not create internal or external mechanisms for the specific 
purpose of keeping the focus on reform and continuing to drive it 
forward. Can you do better? Can you push your communities, your 
school boards, and yourselves to consider the levels of performance 
that students entering the second grade this year should demon- 
strate by the time they leave the eighth grade in June 2007? How 
will your school systems and schools have to change to cause those 
second graders to perform at the levels you believe are necessary 
when they leave the eighth grade? 

What you do this year to move beyond patchwork reforms to a 
true system of standards-based reform is important because that is 
what it will take for many more of your students to perform at 
standard. Only you can create the system of interconnected, 
moving-parts reforms in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and 
professional development, all focused on significantly increasing 
student performance. Only you can attend to the meat and potatoes 
of good education, finding and developing caring teachers and 
administrators who believe that all students can perform at much 
higher levels and who are devoted to achieving that result. Not all 
of us have the knowledge it takes, or the guts, but we are here, 
seeking more understanding and more courage. Let us help one 
another, because students matter more that anyone or anything. 

PAGE 132 / Shooting for the Sun 

All Children Well 

Speaking in October 2001 at the last annual gathering 
of educators involved with the middle grades reform 
through the Program for Student Achievement, Hayes 
Mizell reflected on the achievements of the grantee dis- 
tricts over the years and the continuing work of middle 
school reform. The audience was made up of teachers and 
administrators from Corpus Christi, Long Beach, and San 
Diego and guests from around the country. 

Six years ago, the Program for Student Achievement launched a 
systemic, standards-based reform initiative to improve the aca- 
demic performance of middle school students. Our plan was to 
support a few urban school systems to implement reforms they 
believed would have a positive impact on the achievement of stu- 
dents in the middle grades. We asked the school systems to estab- 
lish performance targets that would specify the proportion of 
eighth graders who would perform at standard in mathematics, 
science, language arts, and social studies by June 2001. To support 
the school systems in their reforms, we also provided them with 
some technical assistance and evaluation resources. 

But we never conceived the initiative as one focused solely at 
the local level. We knew that across the nation the middle grades 
were not, generally speaking, producing satisfactory results for 
students. There was a pervasive culture among middle school edu- 
cators that disproportionately emphasized personal support for 
students over developing students’ knowledge and skills to a high 
level. It was clear to us, therefore, that the Program for Student 

All Children Well / page 133 

Achievement also needed a national focus to advocate for greater 
academic purpose in the middle grades. Toward this end we sup- 
ported national and regional initiatives that forced this issue, 
raised the expectations of middle school educators, and created 
new resources to assist them. 

This has been an intensive six years. In fact, it has been so 
intense that at the oddest times I find myself thinking about you, 
your school systems and schools, and our own efforts. Much in the 
popular culture seems to speak to our experience in this initiative. 
For example, as I was driving from Atlanta, Georgia, to Anderson, 
South Carolina, I heard the musician John Hiatt sing about a per- 
sonal relationship that did not quite work out. The chorus says: 

“We were shooting for the sun; I guess the darkness finally won.” 
That line grabbed me because there are times when it seems like 
an accurate distillation of our reform initiative. Yes, we were shoot- 
ing for the sun, and I do not apologize for it. But no, I do not think 
darkness won. That is much too bleak a characterization for what 
has been a useful growth experience for so many educators and 

It is true that what we asked you to do has not been easy. I 
know it has been and continues to be difficult for many of you. I 
was thinking about that as I stood in the hallway of the primate 
research center at Bucknell University, near an office door covered 
with cartoons from various magazines. One of these was by Gary 
Larson. In it, Rex the circus dog is under the big top, in the center 
ring, on a highwire, without a net, far above the upturned faces of 
the crowd. Rex is at the center of the wire, halfway between the 
platform where he started and the platform toward which he is 
headed. He is precariously perched on a unicycle, trying to keep his 
balance while peddling the unicycle. He is also holding a cat in his 
teeth, using two of his paws to juggle three balls; he has a clay jar 
on his head and a hula hoop spinning around his waist. The 
caption to the cartoon reads; “High above the hushed crowd, Rex 

PAGE 134 / Shooting for the Sun 

tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging 
thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.” I know that 
many times you feel like Rex, and that you wonder if you will make 
it to the platform at the end of the highwire or if you will fall to the 
center ring. 

Like Rex, some of you get stuck. I thought about that as I was 
sitting on an airplane, waiting for it to take off, listening to the 
piped in music. Otis Redding was singing “(Sitting on) The Dock of 
the Bay,” and one verse seems to come from some of your teachers 
and principals: 

Looks like nothin’s gonna change; 

Everything still remains the same. 

I can’t do what ten people tell me to do, 

So I guess I’ll remain the same. 

For teachers and administrators on the front lines of middle 
school reform, the most expedient course of action often seems to 
remain the same.” I think there is abundant evidence that the edu- 
cators who have remained the same during the past six years have 
produced the least impressive results. We have emphasized 
throughout this initiative that effective school reform requires sig- 
nificant change at many different levels— institutional, profes- 
sional, and personal. These changes are more difficult than the 
public appreciates, and the degree of difficulty is one reason 
reform has proceeded incrementally, with such mixed results. 

I think of our shortcomings when I am in church, and this line 
from the Confessional strikes home: “Lord, forgive us for those 
things we have done that we ought not to have done, and for those 
things we have not done that we ought to have done.” In that spirit, 
I apologize for the times when my words were harsh, my attitude 
was arrogant, and my requests were intrusive and inconsiderate. I 
am sorry for the times I did not listen when I should have, when I 
did not act when I should have, and when I was so focused on the 


All Children Well / PAGE 135 

half empty glass that I did not celebrate the fact that it was 
half full. 

There have been some real improvements 

There is, in fact, a great deal to feel good about. Many middle 
school teachers and administrators in your school systems are per- 
forming at higher levels today than they were six years ago. There 
are at least two reasons for this. Your school systems recognize to 
a greater extent than they did six years ago that middle school edu- 
cators need and deserve much higher quality professional develop- 
ment. Also, it has become clearer to you that the performance of 
students is directly proportional to the performance of teachers 
and administrators. There are still plenty of middle school educa- 
tors in your school systems who have neither the skills nor the self- 
efficacy to prepare all students to perform at standard, but most of 
your school systems have recognized this problem and are demon- 
strating greater resolve in addressing it. 

I also know that the middle level in your school systems is no 
longer ignored. School boards and central office staff understand 
that education in middle schools is just as important as in elemen- 
tary and high schools. Among middle school educators there is a 
greater collective esprit than there was six years ago. These educa- 
tors are less isolated, and within their respective school districts 
they frequently meet and work together to share experiences and 
seek to improve. Also, your middle schools are much more commit- 
ted to an academic focus and are struggling to translate that focus 
into more substantive, deep, and engaging content and instruction. 

What about the students? After all, the purpose of any reform 
initiative is to benefit them. As far as I know, beyond collecting, 
analyzing, and reporting test scores, none of your school systems 
makes an effort to describe how either individual students or 
groups of students perform as a result of your interventions. This 
is not surprising. The pressure on you is to produce “tofu data” 

PAGE 136 / Shooting for the Sun 

that on the one hand is dry and tasteless and on the other hand can 
absorb nearly any flavor of interpretation. It is no wonder, then, 
that the quantification of student performance prevails and that 
there continues to be so little understanding of what students 
really know and can do, or what makes a difference in their learn- 
ing. I am confident that there are compelling stories in your 
schools of how students are responding to the challenges that stan- 
dards present, and how standards-based instruction is causing 
them to raise their performance levels. I hope that one day your 
school systems will document those stories and learn from them. 

We encouraged you to develop and use standards to provide a 
greater academic focus for the middle grades. You did that, though 
because we were somewhat ahead of the curve of the national stan- 
dards movement, your standards were subsequently eclipsed by 
those that came down from the state level. Nevertheless, I believe 
that your engagement in developing standards was a productive 
experience and positioned you to respond more positively to state 
standards, and to understand how to use them. The standards have 
been one factor that has increased the academic focus of your 
middle schools and helped spur reforms. 

We also asked you to establish student performance goals by 
delineating the percentage of students completing the eighth grade 
in 2001 who would perform at standard. This assumed that your 
school systems had the technical expertise to set realistic perform- 
ance targets, and that the state of the art of establishing such 
targets was more sophisticated that it was. In addition, we had 
hoped that your school systems would use the performance goals, 
consistently and over time, to mobilize middle school educators 
and the community to make the reforms and provide the supports 
necessary for students to meet the performance goals. In other 
words, we hoped you would use the performance targets to hold 
yourselves accountable for improving student performance. On all 
counts we were wrong. The performance targets were neither real- 

All Children Well / page 137 

istic nor did you use them consistently to focus and motivate inter- 
nal and external constituencies. Consequently, only one school 
system has come close to meeting its goal. In that case, the goal is 
linked to the state assessment-a strategic and useful approach, 
but not one that necessarily means that students are performing 
high-quality work. 

Consider implementing three levels of reform 

Now that you have had a taste of reform and understand how diffi- 
cult it is and what it requires of you professionally, personally, and 
politically, what additional reforms are you committed to, for what 
purpose, and to achieve what results? As you think about the 
future, please consider how you will move forward in relation to 
three levels of reform. 

The first level-we might call it “common sense reform”-is one 
with which you are familiar. These reforms are well within your 
reach. For example, it is a truism that the quality of a school 
depends to a great extent on the quality of leadership provided by 
the principal. Research proves it and experience demonstrates it. 
Yet school systems often act in ways that are contrary to what they 
know. They assign new principals to schools without providing 
strong, consistent support and oversight. They continue to expand 
the role of principal rather than fighting to redefine it so that 
instructional leadership and student performance are the priori- 
ties. They provide little or no professional development that causes 
principals to become deeply knowledgeable about instruction. They 
cough up streams of memoranda and directives, again and again 
sending the wrong signals about where principals should focus 
their energy and how they should use their time. And each year 
they shift principals from school to school, acting as though prin- 
cipals are interchangeable parts that can come and go with little 
consequence to schools. 

PAGE 138 / Shooting for the Sun 

Another common sense reform would be to give greater atten- 
tion to the quality of the implementation of new curricula or 
instructional programs. Many people seem to believe that if only 
they select the “right” program, then teachers will implement it 
effectively. Experience demonstrates this is not the case. Even a 
quality program is only as effective as teachers’ understanding of 
and preparation for how to implement the program to achieve the 
desired results. Yet school system leaders often seem to be in a 
“wind it up and watch it go” mode, devoting little effort and few 
resources to the gritty challenges of what happens when the 
program reaches the classroom. It is not surprising, then, that even 
strong curricula and programs often fail to have the effects hoped 
for by the people who selected them. 

The second level of reform, which I call “hammer reform,” con- 
sists of policies and practices that are broad in scope. Many school 
systems leapfrog to these second-level reforms, bypassing the first 
level, because in some ways they are easier to put into place. They 
permit school systems to avoid coming to grips with entrenched 
policies and practices because the second-level reforms are new. 
Examples of second-level reform are standards, standards-based 
report cards, multifaceted literacy initiatives, and grade level 
retention policies. School systems often use these second-level 
reforms as an indirect way to address first-level issues. 

It has been interesting to me that none of your school systems 
has chosen whole-school reform, another second-level reform, as a 
strategy to improve persistently low-performing schools or even 
schools that are not among the best or the worst but could be doing 
much better than they are. There are now 20 or more such models, 
yet apparently your school systems have not seen them as poten- 
tial resources for school improvement. Perhaps there are good 
reasons for this. You may believe that a model is too expensive, or 
its outcomes unimpressive, or its requirements too intrusive. 
Certainly none of the reform models is principal proof or teacher 

mi Gnuaren wen / fag 1 139 

proof or school culture proof. All of them require at least a 
modicum of will and good faith to have a chance of succeeding. Yet 
I think it is a mistake to ignore the potential benefits of drawing 
on the advances in school reform technology that have occurred 
during the past 15 years. If over time a school system’s own inter- 
ventions have proven to be ineffective, reform models are worth 
serious consideration as a means to prompt and support school 
improvement. But whether it is this approach or some other 
second-level reform, your school systems should continue to con- 
sider broad strategies that have potential to strengthen the per- 
formance of middle level schools. 

The third level, or “big idea reform,” is probably the most diffi- 
cult. It represents a vision that seems to be beyond how education 
and political leaders think school systems should function. After 
many years of experience, the public education system is skilled in 
the mechanics of how to educate all children, but it is does not 
know how to educate all children well. 

Currently, the mission of school systems is to provide a free 
education to all children whose families choose to send them to 
public schools. This is a massive and complex enterprise, helping 
millions of children develop knowledge and skills prescribed by the 
state. Most people who are now adults were educated by this public 
system, survived the experience, and have been able to keep them- 
selves and their families out of poverty because of their public edu- 
cation. On the other hand, this system has often fallen short in 
educating students to levels commensurate with their native 
talents and abilities. 

The past 35 years have seen increasing demands that public 
school systems make changes necessary to educate all children to 
higher levels. The systems have responded at a glacial pace. They 
are slowly learning that meeting this challenge is not just about 
providing more services; it is about more seriously and substan- 

page 140 / Shooting for the Sun 

tively attending to the fundamentals of education: curriculum, 
instruction, assessment, and results. 

Reform L& a continuoiu procej>2> 

How, then, do public school systems reform themselves? If their 
primary mission, day in and day out, is to educate all children, how 
do school systems learn how to educate all children well, and trans- 
late that learning into routine practice? The truth is that most 
school systems have not figured this out. They find it very difficult 
to provide basic education services while also learning and practic- 
ing new skills that will increase student performance. This is made 
all the more difficult by the fact that institutions that should help 
them, like higher education, are of little practical use. 

It also difficult because school systems have virtually no 
capacity to learn and apply that learning to improve student 
results on a large scale. To compensate for this lack of capacity, 
school systems seek knowledge and expertise elsewhere by pur- 
chasing special programs, hiring consultants, contracting for tech- 
nical assistance, partnering with external funders, and requiring 
teachers and principals to work harder and smarter. These strate- 
gies may prove to be helpful or they may produce little change, but 
none of them is permanent. In the end, if a school system is lucky, 
some of its staff know more and improve their practice as a result 
of their relationship with outside experts, but even then the school 
system has only incrementally increased its capacity. 

This suggests that school systems need to come to grips with 
the reality that reform is a continuous process. It cannot be limited 
to the few years a foundation may fund it or a President may 
emphasize it. Turning large numbers of emergency certified teach- 
ers into productive professionals or turning large numbers of 
limited English proficient young adolescents into students who 
perform at standard is not a temporary challenge. 

All Children Well / PAGE 141 

One possible way to address this need is for school systems to 
create their own research and demonstration capacity. I am not 
suggesting that school systems become institutions of higher edu- 
cation, but they do need to recognize that they are in the business 
of knowledge development and utilization, not just for children but 
for themselves. This is the only way they can develop their own 
capacity to understand systematically, over time, what works and 
does not work, and how to grow and inculcate effective practice. 
Using the tools of ethnography, qualitative and quantitative evalua- 
tion, project management, and even journalism, a research and 
demonstration office could help a school system become a true 
learning organization. 

Whether school systems are willing to admit it or not, they are 
giant laboratories. Individual teachers are constantly trying new 
ways to help students learn better, but school systems understand 
almost nothing about some teachers’ effective practices or how to 
help other teachers learn and apply them. There is an increasing 
wealth of student performance data that reveals which teachers are 
most successful with the most difficult to educate students, but 
school systems make little or no effort to identify those teachers 
and learn from them. Though unions may balk, some teachers are 
much more effective than others, and it is a waste of the valuable 
resource they represent not to learn from them and use that learn- 
ing to shape policy and practice on a larger scale. And even though 
school systems invest hundreds of staff hours and large amounts 
of money in launching new initiatives, they make virtually no 
effort to assess the implementation and results of those initiatives. 

A prerequisite for allocating resources, personnel, and time for 
research and demonstration is for school systems to develop much 
tougher skins. Maybe we should make this a sub-category of level 
three reform called “get over it!” reform. School systems not only 
do not try to learn systematically from what they are already doing, 
they resist learning that reflects negatively on their practice. 

page 142 / Shooting for the Sun 

School system leaders seem congenitally unable to receive and use 
critical feedback, interpreting it as an assessment of their person 
rather than an opportunity to identify and correct problems that 
impede more effective performance. If these attitudes prevail, then 
there is no point in mounting a research and development effort 
because school systems are not really ready to learn. Learning is 
all about not getting it, screwing up, falling on your face, and 
trying not to make the same mistakes again. School systems, on 
the other hand, seem to turn a blind eye to their own experience 
and repeat the same fundamental mistakes over and over. Unless 
they are prepared to direct a research and demonstration office to 
root out and document the truth and nothing but the truth, and 
unless they want to learn from and use all the information it pro- 
duces, good and bad, then school systems should not go through 
the charade of pretending to increase their capacity for learning. 

A critical friend can increase your learning 

On many occasions you have been kind enough to say how much 
you value the Foundation as an external critical friend. If this is 
true, who or what entity will be your critical friend once your rela- 
tionship with the Foundation ends? As I have suggested, school 
systems are not known for creating or soliciting relationships with 
critical friends. Yet if this role has value, why not sustain it in 
some form? 

There is potential to do so in your own communities. There 
may already be organizations in each of your cities clearly commit- 
ted to public education and increasing its effectiveness but with 
enough independence to speak honestly about the school system’s 
needs and weaknesses. Such an organization may be an advocate, 
maybe at times even a pain in the neck, but there is no question 
about its integrity and commitment to improving public education. 

Perhaps your school systems are not now reaching out to these 
organizations because you fear more criticism. As I said, get over 


All Children Well / PAGE 143 

it. School systems need all the friends they can get, and they 
should not keep their distance from some potential friends just 
because on occasion they might be critical. Indeed, in a true friend- 
ship each person is quite aware of the virtues and limitations of 
the other, and that knowledge fosters open, honest communication 
that strengthens the bonds between the two parties. This kind of 
friendship is possible between a school system and a community- 
based organization, but it too requires frequent communication, 
sharing of information and experiences, and honest dialogue. If 
your school system does not have a local organization that is a true 
critical friend, not just a slavish supporter, I encourage you to find 
or help develop one. 

What you know la not enough 

There is at least one more big idea reform you might consider. 
What if you reconceived the purpose of your school system as the 
intellectual development of both students and educators? This 
would not replace the basic mission of helping students develop 
the knowledge and skills they need to become productive and inde- 
pendent adults, but it would place that mission in a larger frame- 
work. If more than mere rhetoric, this approach would send the 
message that developing minimum skills, no matter if that 
minimum is higher than it once was, is not sufficient. 

And what if a school system makes it clear that it expects this 
of teachers and administrators as well? What if your school 
systems said to each new teacher or principal: 

We are glad to have you. We believe you have talentA and abilities 
that canfoAter the intellectual development of thiA community ’a chil- 
dren. But you Ahould be aware that we expect you aL&o to develop 
intellectually. No matter how much you think you know, it L& not 
enough. Even if you know more and are smarter than the AtudentA 
you teach, it L& not enough. For AtarterA, we expect that each year 
you will keep learning more about the content you teach and how to 

engage students more successfully in learning that content. We 
expect more. We expect you to engage your colleagues in figuring out 
how to improve classroom instruction, curriculum, assessment, and 
results. We expect you to seek out and test promising new ideas 
from your colleagues and from others outside this school system. We 
expect you to pursue your own new learning aggressively, and to 
apply what you learn to help your students perform at standard and 
to improve your school. We will support you, and periodically we will 
be interested to see how your intellectual growth is making you a 
more effective teacher. And by the way, if you ever have reason to 
believe that this school system or your school is doing anything that 
gets in the way of your intellectual development or that of your stu- 
dents, you are obligated to let us know about it. If you are not pre- 
pared to do these things, then perhaps you would be happier in 
another school system. 

Developing the intellectual capital of your school systems’ 
staffs will be the best investment you can make, but it will take 
courage to reconceive and redesign your school systems to make 
that happen. 

As I have done on so many previous occasions, I want to con- 
clude by reminding you why we are all engaged in this noble 
endeavor of reforming public schools. We are not doing it because 
of the competition of alternative forms of schooling, we are doing 
it because we know that most students in your communities 
depend now and will depend in the future on your school systems. 
Each day, parents of these students send them to your schools as 
an act of faith. There, their children encounter myriad relation- 
ships and experiences, some remarkably affirming and others 
incredibly hurtful. Somehow, most students take those relation- 
ships and experiences and learn from them and use them to 
become the bedrock of this nation. 


All Children Well / page 145 



There are many educators who are satisfied with this result, 
but I hope you are not among them. You know students who have 
abilities and talents their schools do not recognize or seek to dis- 
cover. You know students who are satisfied with achieving the 
minimum because their schools establish that as the maximum. 
You know students whose intelligence is devalued because their 
teachers do not know enough to tap it. You know principals and 
teachers who drag themselves to school each day because they 
understand their job to be one of disseminating their own limited 
knowledge. You know that if your schools were truly performing at 
high levels, nearly all your students would be performing at high 

You have learned a lot, you have accomplished a lot, but there 
is much more to be done. Look toward the future and determine 
how you want it to be different from the past. Most of all, be res- 
olute, be brave, be determined, be tenacious in creating school 
systems that serve all children well. 

Part III. 

Academic Standards and Accountability 

According to Hayes Mizell, two key components of 
successful middle school reform are improving the ability 
of teachers to teach effectively and tracking the success of 
students as they learn. In the speeches that follow he cau- 
tions that “academic standards do not guarantee success.” 
However, when coupled with. professional development 
they can be useful tools to help ensure students move 
forward academically and “help schools and educators 
become more accountable for their results”. 


is Stall Development a Smart Investment? / page 149 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? 

Speaking as a repentant school board member-one who 
once voted to cut staff development from his school 
system’s budget-Hayes Mizell explains that weak prac- 
tices and lack of clarity have given professional develop- 
ment a bad name among policymakers. He goes on to 
argue that staff development could be a powerful tool for 
reforming schools, if only educators would learn to clarify 
its purpose and use it effectively. Mizell delivered this 
address at the annual conference of the National Staff 
Development Council in December 1997, in Nashville, 

I come TO YOU THIS MORNING as a repentant former school board 
member. More than twenty years ago, when the school board on 
which I served was faced with cutting the budget, I voted to reduce 
funding for staff development. 

In retrospect, I believe I probably did it because all I knew 
about staff development was that periodically teachers from 
throughout the district would gather in the school system’s largest 
high school auditorium to hear a speaker, attend a few workshops, 
and go home. I had heard teachers complain that these meetings 
were not useful. I never heard that staff development improved 
teaching or student performance. From this perspective, I thought 
it was not only necessary but appropriate to reduce the school 
system’s funding for staff development. 

It was not until later in my tenure as a school board member 
that I learned how important effective staff development can be for 

PAGE 150 / Shooting for the Sun 

teachers. I recall a group of teachers who made a presentation to 
the school board, describing how they had spent the summer 
writing curriculum. With great excitement, the teachers told us 
how much it had meant to them to have uninterrupted time to 
work and study together and engage in deep, reflective discussions 
about how to strengthen the curriculum. I remember the event 
clearly, not only because the teachers were enthusiastic, but 
because it was the only such presentation I heard during my eight 
years as a school board member. 

As I reflect on those two experiences, on the one hand voting to 
reduce the budget for staff development and on the other hand 
being impressed at the power of effective staff development, I am 
now painfully aware of contextual issues that I did not see or 
understand at the time. 

If staff development had the potential to empower other teach- 
ers just as it had those who made the presentation to the school 
board, why didn’t the superintendent, or central office staff, or the 
teachers’ association advocate more forcefully for similar types of 
staff development? If large meetings of teachers passively listen- 
ing to speakers were not effective means for teachers to develop 
the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors they needed to be 
more effective, why did these meetings go on and on and on, year 
after year? If staff development was important, why didn’t some- 
body tell me? Why didn’t the school system act as though it was 

The demand for reform la real 

Like many people in this country, from President Clinton, to busi- 
ness and political leaders, to frustrated parents of every race, 
ethnic group, income level, and social class, I believe that public 
schools need to be more challenging and engaging. This is just as 
true for schools in advantaged suburbs as it is for schools in disad- 
vantaged urban and rural areas. The need for reform is even more 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / PAGE 151 

acute, however, in schools that serve large numbers of students 
from low-income families or whose first language is not English. 
Those families depend on the public schools to educate their chil- 
dren well so they will read, write, and compute with a high degree 
of proficiency and have the self-confidence and skills to master 
challenging content and solve difficult problems. 

Increasingly, families are exercising their power to re-form 
how they educate their children both within and outside the public 
schools. They aren’t waiting for public schools to reform them- 
selves; they are seeking any means necessary to provide their chil- 
dren with what they believe will be a better education. Within the 
public system, they will use legal or extralegal means to get their 
children into schools or classes with better reputations or select 
magnet or charter schools. Outside the public system they will use 
private schools, home schools, charter schools, or choice or private 
scholarship programs. 

Families are no longer turning a blind eye while public schools 
hold their children hostage to inadequate education. This under- 
scores the need for public schools and school systems to imple- 
ment reforms that will result in better education for all children, 
particularly those who are most dependent on the public schools. 
Real reform, the reform that parents and citizens and business 
leaders and politicians want, results in children learning at pro- 
gressively higher levels as they move through each successive 
grade, and children being able to demonstrate their increasing pro- 
ficiency at each grade level. This is what real reform should be all 
about. Reform is not neat, clean, and convenient. It is not about 
adding another program or project to make teachers’ jobs easier. It 
is not about protecting the privileges and prerogatives of the 
adults in the school. Reform is about students, all students, 
increasing what they know and are able to do, and demonstrating 
what they know and are able to do. 

page 152 / Shooting for the Sun 

Reform is a human enterprise 

Reform, then, means personal change. It means teachers and 
administrators re-forming what they think, what they know, and 
what they are able to do. This is why reform is unpopular, difficult, 
and slow. Reform is not something that educators do to schools or 
students, nor is it laws or memoranda or binders filled with cur- 
riculum materials. Reform is a human enterprise that depends on 
real people changing what they think, what they do, and how they 
do it. Meaningful school reform-that is, reform that significantly 
increases what students know and can do-is life altering for every- 
one who makes it happen and for the students who benefit from it. 

Reform is hard work and often painful, but it is why staff devel- 
opment is so important. Staff development is one of the few posi- 
tive tools school systems and schools have at their disposal to 
support educators who must change themselves as well as their 
schools and classrooms. Staff development is important because it 
can help educators prepare themselves and enlist the support of 
their colleagues to change what they think, what they do, and how 
they do it to benefit the education of students. 

I believe this very strongly, but I wonder if staff development is 
up to the task of playing this role. Is staff development simply one 
more bureaucratic function, one more exercise of going through 
the motions, just another educational shell game where substance 
is forever elusive? Or does staff development stand apart, with a 
clear purpose, a focus on results, and is it accountable for achiev- 
ing those results? Just how important is staff development, not as 
an ideal, but as a reality? 

One reality is that the general public doesn’t know or care 
much about staff development. For most parents it is a periodic 
inconvenience that occurs several times a year, a half or full day 
when their children don’t attend school. Newspapers may report on 
school board meetings, test scores, school building construction, 
unusual classroom projects, discipline problems, and the occa- 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / PAGE 153 

sional school scandal, but there is hardly ever a story that men- 
tions staff development. 

Frustrated legislators, seeking leverage for school reform, may 
mandate staff development and even support it financially, but 
they really don’t understand much about staff development or how 
it can help achieve the goals they seek. Rarely do they try to find 
out what school systems did with the resources the legislature 
appropriated for staff development, or what results the school 
systems achieved with those resources. 

There’j* good reason to worry about the Mate of Maff development 

As an external observer, I look at staff development in practice and 
I worry. It would be great if staff development in every school and 
school system was of high quality. It would be wonderful if all staff 
developers had vision and knowledge. But you know and I know 
that is not the case. There is good reason to worry about the state 
of staff development in this country. 

From my perspective, from the outside, it seems there is still 
some confusion about the purpose of staff development. For 
example, one school system says its staff development program is 
“built upon the assumption that education for all students will be 
enhanced by continuous growth in knowledge, skills, and commit- 
ment of all staff members in the District.” Note that the program 
rests on an assumption, not on a belief and certainly not on 
research. The assumption seems to be that almost anything the 
school system chooses to do in the name of “continuous growth” is 
value added. The goal of staff development appears to be to 
enhance the education of students, but what does that really mean? 

One state’s regional educational service center defines staff 
development “as the totality of educational and personal experi- 
ences that contribute toward an individual’s being more competent 
and satisfied in his/her professional role.” Under this definition, it 
seems that staff development is everything and the desired 

PAGE 154 / Shooting for the Sun 

outcome is so broad that it provides no anchor for accountability. 

If staff development is everything, does it really amount to 

Still another school system described its goals for a specific 
staff development activity this way: “1. Provide a comfortable learn- 
ing environment for all staff members. 2. Provide for skill develop- 
ment that can be used in the classroom setting.” I don’t know why 
the school system wrote the goals this way, but they seem to reflect 
a view that a “comfortable learning environment” takes precedence 
over “skill development.” Nevertheless, at least these goals empha- 
size the importance of skill development and communicate the 
expectation that developing new skills has some relation to teach- 
ers’ classroom performance. But why does the statement use the 
words “can be used in the classroom setting” rather than “will be 
used”? If teachers have the option of applying or not applying the 
skills they develop, why does the school system offer the staff 
development in the first place? 

These examples from three different school systems illustrate 
the confusion about the role of staff development, confusion that I 
believe is widespread among educators and the public alike. In at 
least one state, however, the legislature does not appear to be in 
doubt about what it expects of staff development. In 1996, the 
Minnesota legislature mandated each school board to create a com- 
mittee to plan for how its school system would use state funds for 
staff development. According to the law, each committee must 
“adopt a staff development plan for improving student achieve- 
ment outcomes.” Here is a clear, unequivocal statement of what 
Minnesota sees as the role of state-supported staff development. I 
suspect that this reflects the views of most taxpayers, not only in 
Minnesota but in most school systems. 

The Teaching and Learning Academy of the Memphis City 
Schools has also adopted an exemplary mission statement: “to 
guide the professional growth and development of all Memphis • 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / page 155 

City Schools educators through high quality professional develop- 
ment experiences in effective teaching and learning, innovative 
leadership, and school redesign for the purpose of ensuring that all 
students learn to high standards.” This statement not only allows 
no possibility of misunderstanding the purpose of staff develop- 
ment but offers the potential to hold staff developers and other 
educators accountable for the desired result. 

If staff development is important, its purpose has to be clear 
both to educators and to the diverse publics who support staff 
development and make it possible. This is not yet the case, perhaps 
because in many school systems staff development has no focus. It 
is simply unclear what it is seeking to accomplish. 


Who benefits from Maff development? 

Who should be the primary beneficiaries of staff development, 
staff or students? I am sure this question strikes many of you as 
hopelessly naive, yet it is a central problem. You might argue that, 
while it is possible to organize and deliver staff development to 
affect the attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, and skills of adults, and 
while one hopes that students will benefit, there can be no guaran- 
tee that students will benefit. I understand this. 

What concerns me, however, is that a great deal of staff devel- 
opment seems intended to benefit neither adults nor students. 
After all, if the goal is to improve the performance of teachers and 
administrators, why does so much staff development ignore what 
we know about learning, regardless of whether the learner is a 
student or an adult? Why is so much staff development so ill-con- 
ceived, so hit-or-miss, so ineffective? Why do so many school 
systems’ staff development centers pride themselves more on the 
breadth of their course offerings than on whether teachers become 
more effective leaders and instructors in their classrooms? Why do 
so many teachers and administrators dread staff development 
rather than seek it? 



PAGE 156 / Shooting for the Sun 

You may feel that this is an unfair critique. Yes, I do know that 
more and more schools and school systems understand what high- 
quality staff development is and are nurturing it. There certainly is 
no shortage of information about how to improve staff develop- 
ment, how to make it more meaningful for teachers and adminis- 
trators, and how to use it to improve student learning. I am 
concerned, however, that high-quality staff development, intended 
to benefit both educators and students, is still the exception. I am 
concerned that staff development is a precious resource and that it 
is unfair to educators, students, and the public at large not to make 
the best use of it. 

Among teachers and administrators there are still too many 
anecdotes about short-term, one-shot workshops led by glib pre- 
senters with transparencies where the emphasis is on the efficient 
sharing of information rather than learning. There are still too 
many staff developers scrambling during the several weeks before 
the opening of school to find inspirational speakers. There is still 
too much staff development that is not directly addressing needs 
of teachers and administrators that must be met if they are going 
to improve student performance. 

Too often, thefocuA onAtudent performance getA loAt 

The primary purpose of staff development must be to increase 
what students know and can do. Many people now say that “of 
course” students should be the ultimate beneficiaries of staff 
development, but the problem for me is that word “ultimate.” 

In most cases, the links in the chain between the process of 
conceiving staff development and the effects on students are too 
many and too weak. The focus on student performance simply gets 
lost in the “delivery” of staff development. This is particularly the 
case in schools and school systems where there is not a strong 
focus on improving student learning, but it also occurs even where 
school reform is a priority. The intentions of education leaders may 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / page 157 

be good, but they may not give the same attention to reforming 
staff development that they give to accountability systems they 
hope will improve schools. The result is that staff development 
stays nestled in the cozy culture of school system operations, 
largely unexamined and unchanged. 

Staff development does not just happen. People with authority 
and options make decisions about the purpose and means of staff 
development. If staff development is going to serve teachers, 
administrators, and students better, people in authority have to 
make different decisions. They have to decide that improving 
student performance will be the priority of staff development. This 
decision will have consequences. It will mean that staff develop- 
ment cannot meet the professional growth needs of all the staff. 
Some things are more important than others. 

When only nine states require mentoring for new teachers, 
when students in high poverty and high minority enrollment 
schools have less than a 50-50 chance of getting a math or science 
teacher who has a license or degree in the field, and when more 
than 20 percent of all newly hired teachers lack the qualifications 
for their jobs, the need is clear. Opportunities to learn about time 
and stress management, the requirements of various state and 
federal regulations, textbook adoption, or desktop publishing are 
not the highest priority. 

This is not to say that staff development can or should substi- 
tute for badly needed reforms in pre-service education and state 
certification of teachers. That is not the role of staff development. 
However, once teachers become employees of a school system and 
are responsible for educating students, the priority of staff devel- 
opment should be to help those teachers become as effective as 
they can be in the classroom. Providing opportunities for self- 
directed professional development is not enough. The school and 
school system must develop and implement coherent staff develop- 

PAGE 158 / Shooting for the Sun 

merit strategies for the explicit purpose of improving student 

There is a desperate need to create consensus and new profes- 
sional norms among staff developers about the purpose of their 
enterprise, but it is also necessary to take a more critical posture 
about what constitutes effective and ineffective staff development. 
Again, staff development resources are precious, and the needs of 
teachers and administrators are great. The priorities must be 
improving principals’ skills as leaders of whole-school reform and 
classroom instruction and expanding teachers’ knowledge of the 
content they teach and their effectiveness in engaging students in 
learning that content. 

EducatorA need to advocate effective practiceA and 
condemn weak oneA 

In this context, not all staff development is of equal value. For 
example, there seems to be broad agreement that mandated after- 
school workshops are, in the main, a waste of time and effort. 
Teachers tend to be tired at the end of the day, and the format of 
most after-school workshops does not promote deep engagement. 
Although some teachers choose to work after school in small study 
groups and find it valuable, many people agree that mandated 
after-school staff development is not the best use of staff develop- 
ment resources. If so, why does it continue? Why is it going on this 
very day in some schools, in some school districts? 

Even when educators have whole days devoted to staff develop- 
ment, it is not unusual for the opportunity to be misused. An 
observer at a staff development day for faculty members from 
several schools recently reported the following: “Our interviews 
with teachers and administrators. ..revealed that the day’s activities 
were only minimally helpful to them. Most said they were never 
aware of the purpose of each of the sessions or how the three ses- 
sions were to tie together. They had been given no overview, in 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / page 159 

other words, of what they were to learn and be able to do as a result 
of the day’s activities. ...Each session seemed self-contained and 
insufficiently developed. ...The afternoon session [at a school] had 
not been planned in light of the morning’s work and so did not 
serve as a strong follow-up. Those in charge of the session said 
that they had not gotten instructions about how to focus the in- 
school session. ...Teachers in our sample did not feel that the day 
was closely connected to what they need in order to better teach 
their children.” 

I should add that this occurred in a school system that is 
implementing major education reforms and participates in several 
national reform networks. This is a school system where one would 
expect staff development to make sense for the teachers who par- 
ticipate in it. It is discouraging to learn that apparently ineffective 
staff development grinds on in ways that show disrespect for the 
needs of teachers and erode the credibility of staff development 
itself. Apparently these practices are acceptable because hardly 
anyone speaks out against them. 

So long as there is no professional opprobrium for ineffective 
practice, it will continue, and policymakers and taxpayers will con- 
tinue to think of staff development as marginal to school reform. 
This situation will not change until there is a broad consensus 
among staff developers, a consensus reflected in practice, about 
both the purpose of staff development and what constitutes the 
most effective means to achieve that purpose. It will not change 
until people who care about staff development not only advocate 
effective practices but condemn ineffective ones. 

Many Achool diAtrictA don’t know what Ataff development 
reAourceA they have 

For school systems to make the best use of their staff development 
resources, they need to know what resources they have and what 
they do with them. Many don’t. There may be a staff development 


PAGE 160 / Shooting for the Sun 

line in a school system’s budget, but it probably includes only allo- 
cations from local operating funds. Staff development resources 
may also be embedded in categorical funds, such as Title I and 
IDEA, and in state mandates for re-certification. 

Staff development resources, in other words, maybe frag- 
mented throughout the school system, some clearly identifiable 
but others less so. For example, the day teachers use to attend the 
state education association’s annual conference is a staff develop- 
ment resource, but school systems do not think of it that way 
because they do not control the content or know whether teachers 
participate. The effect of fragmented resources is diffuse activities 
with little effect. 

If school boards and superintendents don’t know where all the 
staff development resources are, how can they marshal and focus 
them to increase student learning? Many school systems would do 
well to mount an action research project designed to identify all 
activities in the school system one might reasonably describe as 
“staff development.” What is the purpose, mode, and intensity of 
each activity? What is its source of funding? Who makes the deci- 
sions about how to allocate the resources, and who conceives and 
plans the staff development? What specific groups participate in 
each staff development activity? The answers to these and other 
questions should provide a “map” of the landscape of staff develop- 
ment in a school system, or even a school. 

The system may find that its total staff development resources 
are greater than it thought but that decisions about those 
resources are made by many different people throughout the 
school system, not always with a common goal or a powerful effect. 
If staff development is truly important, then school systems and 
schools need to understand the total resources available in terms 
of money and time and use those resources wisely to improve the 
performance levels of teachers and administrators, a prerequisite 
for increasing student learning. 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / page 161 

Evaluation can help explain the reAultA of Ataff development 

Staff developers can learn something from the Gospel of Mark: “A 
farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, 
some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some 
fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up 
quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, 
the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no 
root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the 
plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good 
soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, 
or even a hundred times.” 

Like the farmer’s seed, some staff development falls on good 
soil, but more fails to produce a crop because school systems and 
schools do not prepare the soil or choose a good place to put the 
seed. When staff development is not focused, it is difficult to evalu- 
ate its effects. 

Expectations are part of the problem. Judging from the nature 
of much staff development, a reasonable person might ask, “Did 
the people responsible for this really expect it to have much effect 
on the participants? If so, wouldn’t they have conceived the activity 
very differently, devoted greater care to involving representatives 
of the audience in its planning, and invested more effort in plan- 
ning follow-up activities? Wouldn’t they have designed the staff 
development to have a direct effect on student learning, and, from 
the beginning, clearly communicated that intent to the partici- 

Yet the expectations of participants are also a problem. From 
past experience, teachers and administrators probably know not to 
expect much. In most cases, they know they have the option not to 
participate because most staff development is voluntary. If they 
choose to participate they know they have the option to be passive 
because most staff development is not truly engaging or perform- 
ance-based. Even if they participate conscientiously, they know it 

PAGE 162 / Shooting for the Sun 

is unlikely anyone in authority will ever try to determine what the 
participants learned or whether they ever applied what they 
learned. They know that, even if they do apply what they learned, 
no one in authority will try to assess the school and classroom 

In this context, where expectations about the results of staff 
development are so low among planners and participants alike, the 
absence of rigorous evaluation only aggravates the problem. If no 
one is asking hard questions, there is no incentive for expectations 
to change. I question whether staff development will ever have the 
impact it should unless school systems and schools, as well as 
researchers, become much more serious about evaluating its 
effects on the performance of teachers, administrators, and stu- 
dents. This type of evaluation will be difficult, but those who 
believe staff develdpment is important have got to try. 

The evaluation process will be easier if the people responsible 
for conceiving and planning staff development opportunities force 
themselves to answer certain basic questions at the outset. What 
do participants really need to know and be able to do to increase 
student learning? (The answer to this question may be different 
from what planners initially think participants need to know and 
may not necessarily even be what participants say they need.) 
What kind of staff development will be most effective in engaging 
participants in learning? What kind of staff development is most 
likely to cause them to apply what they learn and how will I know 
whether and how they applied it? What evidence will I look for and 
accept as indication that applying what they learned actually 
increased student learning? I should add that when I use the word 
“learn,” I am referring not only to knowledge and skills but also to 
professional and personal insights and changes in attitude and 

Is Staff Development a Smart Investment? / page 163 

Good Ataff development need& per^L&tent advocates 

Finally, if staff development is really important, it requires visible, 
vocal, persistent advocates. If you believe that focused, effective, 
high-quality staff development can be a powerful force to increase 
student learning, then you need to take that message to state poli- 
cymakers, school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, 
school site councils, teacher unions, and taxpayers. As you know, 
on any given day each of these groups is fully capable of acting 
without knowledge or understanding when it comes to staff devel- 
opment, much as I did more than 20 years ago. Even worse, they 
are capable of perpetuating ineffective staff development practices 
simply because that is all they have ever known. 

You can change attitudes about staff development, but to do so 
you must make your voices heard, particularly by your bosses and 
your peers and by those in other school systems. You have to have 
the will and the courage to tell them the hard facts— that current 
staff development practices are not working and must be reformed 
if they want to improve student performance. 

How important is staff development? When it comes to increas- 
ing student learning, I can think of few things more important. 
Whether they know it or not, the families of low-performing stu- 
dents are counting on staff development to help teachers engage 
children in significant learning. Administrators who never 
expected or prepared to be instructional leaders and monitors and 
evaluators are desperate for staff development that will improve 
teacher and student performance. The public, whether it knows it 
or not, depends on staff development to fill the gap-no, the 
chasm-of totally inadequate pre-service education. Even the stan- 
dards movement will succeed or fail based on the ability of staff 
development to help teachers learn how to enable students to 
perform at standard. The challenges to staff development are huge, 
and it is an open question whether or not it is up to the task. 


PAGE 164 / Shooting for the Sun 

Academic Standards: The Beauty and Terror 

In these remarks, made during a panel presentation to 
middle school administrators from Kansas City, Kansas, 
and Kansas City, Missouri, Hayes Mizell puts state-level 
academic standards into context and explains that high- 
quality standards can be the catalyst for a powerful chain 
of events in school reform. The forum was held in January 
2000 and sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman 

Ten years ago the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation initiated a 
relationship with a few urban school systems to encourage and 
support them to reform their middle schools. We believed then and 
we believe now that middle schools need to have a much greater 
academic focus and be more academically challenging and engag- 
ing than is the case in most schools serving the middle grades. 

This is not to suggest that middle schools should abandon or 
devote less attention to addressing students’ developmental, social, 
and psycho-emotional needs. Indeed, no middle school can succeed 
if it fails to value, respect, and support young adolescents as 
people, and if it does not devote great efforts to developing them as 

These roles of middle schools are complementary and interde- 
pendent, not in opposition to one another. However, it was our 
belief that the equation for successful middle schools was seri- 
ously out of balance. Many, many middle schools were devoting 
more attention to nurturing young adolescents than to creatively 
challenging and engaging them academically. 

The Beauty and Terror / page 165 



But the problem was even greater. There were too many middle 
schools that felt too good about simply being middle schools, or 
that devoted more effort to developing the structures and 
processes typically associated with middle schools than to making 
sure those arrangements directly benefited students. These 
schools seemed to care more about what Howard Johnston and Ron 
Williamson call the “orthodoxy of middle schools” than about 
whether student achievement increased and young people were 
developing into caring members of the school community. 

By “orthodoxy,” Johnston and Williamson mean unquestioning 
allegiance to such middle school components as teams, advisories, 
interdisciplinary curricula, and block scheduling. We agree that 
the existence of these structures and processes is less important 
than using them effectively as means to the end of more academi- 
cally proficient students. 

As we gained experience with middle schools in Baltimore, 
Milwaukee, Oakland, and several other cities, we learned how per- 
vasive the problems really were. We also became aware of another 
related problem. Many middle schools did not have a clear aca- 
demic focus because they did not have clear academic goals. It was 
not readily apparent what the schools wanted students to achieve 
academically by the end of the eighth grade. The schools could not 
describe what they expected all students to know and be able to do 
as a result of their education in the middle grades. In most cases 
administrators and teachers could only say that they were “prepar- 
ing students for high school” or would simply refer to the school’s 
vague and sometimes incomprehensible mission statement. 

It seemed to us that if schools were unclear about the aca- 
demic outcomes they wanted students to achieve, then it was no 
wonder that students were not striving to achieve specific aca- 
demic goals or that families were not supporting the schools or the 
students. In other words, many middle schools were examples of 
the old saying: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road 


pagei66 / Shooting for the Sun 

will do.” For these reasons, we became interested in standards and 
supported several urban school systems to develop and use content 
and performance standards. 

“Having AtandarcU” la not enough 

On the surface, the concept of standards is simple and compelling. 
Content standards are broad statements of what students should 
know and be able to do by certain points in their academic careers. 
Some states and school systems delineate standards for each 
grade, while others establish standards only for certain grades, 
such as four, eight, and eleven. Performance standards define the 
proficiency levels students must demonstrate to indicate that they 
have learned what the state or school system expects. We believe 
that standards have the potential to help middle schools clearly 
delineate academic goals for students and to engage teachers, fam- 
ilies, and even whole communities in helping students achieve 
those goals. 

While the concept of standards is simple, experience is teach- 
ing us that in practice all standards are not created equal nor 
implemented with equal effectiveness. For example, although all 
states but one now have standards, only 44 states have promul- 
gated standards in the four content areas of mathematics, science, 
language arts, and social studies. Standards make sense only if 
they are accompanied by assessment systems that help determine 
whether students can perform at standard. The most recent survey 
indicated that only 21 states assess whether students perform at 
standard in all four of the core content subjects. Forty-one states 
have some type of assessment for one or more subject areas, yet 
only 10 ask students to maintain portfolios of written projects or 
write extended responses to questions in subjects other than 

Clearly, “having standards” is not enough, just as “being a 
middle school” is not enough. Neither ensures more effective edu- 

The Beauty and Terror / page 167 



cation or higher levels of learning. If the quality of standards 
matters, and it does, then Missouri and Kansas have real problems. 
Two ideologically opposite organizations, the “conservative” 
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the “liberal” American 
Federation of Teachers, have separately analyzed the standards of 
every state that has them. The Fordham Foundation gave the 
Missouri standards a grade of D- in 1998 and a grade of D+ this 
year. It gave Kansas a grade of D- in 1998 and a C+ this year. 

In these states, the standards are better in some subjects than 
in others. In the critical area of English (which the Missouri “Show 
Me Standards” calls “communication arts”), the Fordham 
Foundation concluded that the standards “are not specific or meas- 
urable” and “do not show increasing complexity through the 
grades.” The American Federation of Teachers found that the 
Missouri standards in communication arts “do not provide the 
basic knowledge and skills students need to learn to develop into 
proficient readers and writers.” The AFT further concluded that the 
clearest standards relate to what students should be able to do, 
“resulting in a heavy skills focus with little or no specific content.” 

This suggests that the state standards may be doing more 
harm than good. Under the guise of providing direction about what 
teachers should teach and what students should learn, the stan- 
dards are misleading educators to believe that by using the stan- 
dards they are doing the right thing, when in fact they are doing 
the wrong thing. If the Fordham Foundation and AFT analyses are 
correct, then the standards are fraudulent; they are not what they 
purport to be. Even worse, they foster teaching that ill serves stu- 
dents. I want to make sure you understand that not all the stan- 
dards in all the subjects are this bad, but the standards I have 
described suggest that both Missouri and Kansas need to devote 
serious attention to strengthening their standards so they are 
more useful to educators and more productive for students. 


PAGE 168 / Shooting for the Sun 

Does this mean that standards are an inappropriate catalyst to 
improve middle school education. No, it means that standards 
must serve the needs of educators and students, rather than educa- 
tors and students serving standards that have been poorly con- 
ceived and are of low quality. My advice would be that school 
systems take their states’ inadequate standards and strengthen 
them through a deliberate, inclusive process that involves repre- 
sentatives from among principals, teachers, unions, parents, stu- 
dents, business people, and community-based organizations. 

Ironically, low-quality state standards may give local school 
systems an opportunity to collaborate with their communities and 
engage more people in developing and understanding valid, high- 
quality standards than would otherwise be the case. One way or 
another, educators and communities need to come together and 
agree on what students should know and be able to do, and be com- 
fortable and secure in the means for assessing how well students 
know it and can do it. 

What AtandarcU can do: the beauty and the terror 

Even high-quality standards will not guarantee that students 
will perform at higher levels. For that to happen, middle schools 
will also have to perform at higher levels. And middle schools can 
perform at higher levels only if their principals and teachers 
perform at higher levels as well. This is the beauty and terror of 
standards. They set in motion a chain of events that spark change 
throughout the school system. 

Let us examine that chain: 

• First, standards shift the emphasis from what teachers 
should teach to what students should learn. 

• Second, for students to learn what the standards describe 
and to perform at the higher levels the standards set, teach- 
ers have to deepen their knowledge of their subject content 
and improve the effectiveness of their pedagogy. 

The Beauty and Terror / PAGE 169 

• Third, for teachers to become more knowledgeable and 
effective, principals have to learn how to monitor teachers’ 
classroom practice, guide teachers’ professional develop- 
ment, and asses whether teachers are, in fact, causing more 
students to perform at standard. 

• Fourth, for principals to become instructional leaders, they 
have to have more support from the central office, more pro- 
fessional development focused on instruction, and fewer 
bureaucratic demands. 

• Fifth, for the central office to be more supportive and facili- 
tating of reforms at the building level, and less controlling, 
school boards and superintendents have to be deeply com- 
mitted to standards and their implementation, and they 
have to reallocate school system resources to prompt more 
high-quality, school-based staff development. 

The central office also has to establish sophisticated systems 
of data collection and analysis, as well as qualitative evaluation, to 
understand which school and classroom practices most effectively 
cause students to perform at standard. It has to engage principals 
and teachers in analytical and reflective experiences that use the 
results of the school system’s data. Finally, there is the bottom line 
of how the school system reports to families whether and to what 
extent their students are performing at standard. This will require 
a new report card system based less on letter grades and more on 
information about what students actually know and can do. When 
school systems use standards as this kind of linchpin of reform, it 
can provide focus and coherence that are currently lacking. 


Teachers’ belief a will need to change 

You will want to know whether there is a school system that has all 
of these elements in place, and the answer is “of course not.” Very 
few school systems are really serious about either the middle 
grades, student achievement, or standards. The few that are 


page 170 / Shooting for the Sun 

serious about all three are finding that there is a massive job to do 
in changing teachers’ beliefs and attitudes, as well as their skills. 
Because the challenge of standards is that all students will 
perform at significantly higher levels, teachers have to believe that 
all students can potentially do so, and that teachers can cause that 
result. This is counter to the beliefs of many teachers. 

One way, and it is only one way, some schools are addressing 
this problem is to engage teachers systematically and consistently 
in analyzing student work. While this can operate in many differ- 
ent ways, in its simplest form it involves a small group of subject 
area teachers meeting regularly and sharing with each other exam- 
ples of their students’ work. The teachers do not share their stu- 
dents best work but rather a collection that represents the full 
range of performance levels. 

The teachers use a common rubric to review, assess, and 
discuss the students’ work and even the assignments that 
prompted it. In most cases, this process quickly reveals that the 
teachers have their own “internal standards” that cause them to 
grade student work differently. They begin to understand that, by 
using standards-based assignments and standards-based rubrics, 
they can improve the quality of students’ work and accelerate their 
progress toward performing at standard. 

In this way, the teachers support each other, share critical feed- 
back, and collectively advance their professional development, all 
within the context of their students’ actual performance. This 
process of analyzing student work also has the benefit of providing 
teachers with immediate feedback as they begin to alter their 
practice; it can increase their self-efficacy as they see that 
changing their practice in certain ways can improve their students’ 

There are many, many challenges in standards-based reform, 
and these challenges are both exciting and scary. They require a 

The Beauty and Terror / page 171 

great deal of will and a relentless determination to find, try, and 
refine more effective practices, and to evaluate, evaluate, evaluate 
whether the application of those practices cause students to 
perform at standard. For too long, too many middle schools and 
their students have focused on surviving the middle grades. Now it 
is time for all members of the middle school community— adminis- 
trators, teachers, and students-to focus on improving their per- 
formance to bring students to higher levels of achievement. 


PAGE 172 / Shooting for the Sun 

Watching for Mr. Hyde 

State policies regarding academic standards have both 
good elements and bad, especially for vulnerable students, 
who stand to benefit most from better schools but also 
bear much of the burden of current accountability policies. 
At a forum sponsored by the National Dropout Prevention 
Center Network in February 2000, Mizell argued that it is 
too early to judge the overall impact of states’ efforts. 

By now, nearly everyone has heard of “the standards move- 
ment.” I assume most of you are here because you are concerned 
about standards, how states and school systems are using them, 
and their effects on vulnerable students. I want to be clear from 
the outset that I believe standards can benefit the students all of 
us care about, those who have been written off too often by their 
schools as unmotivated, untalented, and even uneducable. Those 
benefits will be achieved, however, only if states and school 
systems use standards to improve the performance of teachers 
and principals, not just the performance of students. 

Let me explain. As a concept, standards are easy to understand. 
They are simply statements, usually broad statements, of what stu- 
dents should know and be able to do as a result of their schooling. 
Standards are attempts to describe both the knowledge students 
should acquire and how students should apply that knowledge. 

I hope we can agree that this development is long overdue. For 
many, many years, students and their families have been unclear 
about what students should be learning, particularly when stu- 
dents get beyond elementary school. If a parent enrolled their child 

Watching for Mr. Hyde / PAGE 173 

in the sixth grade and asked the principal, “What can I reasonably 
expect my child to know and be able to do by the time she com- 
pletes the eighth grade?” most school administrators could not 
answer that question. Even though 49 states have now developed 
academic standards and expect school systems and schools to use 
them, it would be interesting to know how many principals could 
answer that question even today. 

The purpose of content standards is to define and disseminate 
a common set of educational expectations for all students. This 
differs dramatically from past practice. For many years, it was indi- 
vidual teachers who determined what students should know and be 
able to do. Teachers used textbooks in ways that made them, de 
facto, the standards. Whatever the textbook included, or whatever 
portion of the textbook the teacher covered during a school year, 
represented what the teacher expected students to learn. 

The oldAyAtem wcla rigged againAt AtudentA 

The problem with this approach was not only that different teach- 
ers in different school systems used different textbooks of differ- 
ent quality, but also that the teachers covered different amounts of 
material in different degrees of depth. One social studies teacher 
might spend six weeks on the Civil War because he liked the Civil 
War, while another teacher might devote six weeks to George 
Washington and Thomas Jefferson because she thought they were 
important. In other words, there was no consensus about what it 
was important for students to know and be able to do. 

This continued even after school systems emphasized curricu- 
lum development and states disseminated curriculum frameworks. 
Compounding the problem was that, regardless of the subject 
content teachers taught, they used different criteria for assessing 
student performance. The letter or numerical grade they awarded 
was based on criteria known only to the teacher. One teacher of 
low-performing students might choose to give them satisfactory 

page 174 / Shooting for the Sun 

grades because they had tried hard or turned in their assignments 
on time, even if their work was otherwise unsatisfactory. Another 
teacher of the same students might choose to place greater empha- 
sis on the quality of the students’ work. As a result, the second 
teacher might give the students a lower grade than the first 
teacher. Alternately, the second teacher might use the students’ 
unsatisfactory work as the basis for reteaching the lesson on 
which the she based the assignment, then provide additional 
opportunities for the students to demonstrate what they had 

The variations in what teachers taught and the criteria they 
used to determine if students had learned it demonstrated to many 
students that the educational process was a rigged system. 
Students did not know what they were supposed to learn. They did 
not know whether what they were learning was comparable to what 
other students in other places were learning. They did not know 
what represented quality work. 

This was a system that did not provide clear academic goals, 
and in some students it produced enough frustration and anger to 
lead them to drop out of school. Quite literally, they could not 
figure out how schools worked, or why the educational process was 
so cloaked in mystery. The system also worked to the great disad- 
vantage of students whose families lacked the knowledge, power, 
confidence, or options to compensate for and overcome these 

Other families who were more advantaged worked to get their 
children into classrooms and schools with teachers who had high 
internal standards. These were teachers with high expectations for 
what students should learn, who challenged students to master dif- 
ficult content, and who demanded high levels of student perform- 
ance. The purpose of standards, therefore, should be to level the 
playing the field so that all students are participating in a fair and 
equitable educational process. 


Watching for Mr. Hyde / page 175 

This is why at the beginning of each school year, the Corpus 
Christi, Texas, school system publishes and sends to the families 
of every student a booklet setting forth the standards for the core 
subjects at every grade level. This is why the Corpus Christi school 
system is also using a standards-based report card that focuses 
teachers’ instruction on helping students perform at standard and 
helps families understand students’ progress toward meeting the 
standards. This is why more teachers are using rubrics that set 
forth specific criteria for assessing the quality of all students’ 
work, and why some teachers are also engaging students in 
developing the rubrics so they know and understand the grading 

There are two wayA of thinking about and uAing AtandardA 

My description of standards may surprise you. You may be wonder- 
ing why I have said nothing about standards as they are so often 
described by the news media, policymakers, and politicians. I have 
not done so, in part, because standards are about much more than 
scores on tests. I want you to understand that there are, in effect, 
two ways of thinking about and using standards. Think of them as 
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or to paraphrase the slogan from the 
Broadway show, “It’s a fine line between good policy and bad.” 
Standards as I have described them are like Dr. Jekyll-gentle, intel- 
lectual, and risk-taking. Standards as many people talk about them 
are like Mr. Hyde-menacing and dangerous. 

The latter incarnation can be seductive to policymakers, who 
begin with the assumption that it is necessary to tell educators 
what they should teach and what students should learn. To date, it 
appears that policymakers and politicians are more interested in 
using standards as a club for compliance than as a light toward 
better teaching and learning. It seems that toughness is the value 
they want to communicate, apparently assuming that it is possible 
to force educators and students into higher levels of performance. 


page 176 / Shooting for the Sun 

It would be a mistake to believe that these trends have come to an 
end, or will do so in the near future. 

One can find many things wrong with the standards move- 
ment. Each component has its Jekyll and Hyde features. Standards 
can provide useful direction for what all teachers should teach and 
all students should learn, but standards may be difficult for teach- 
ers to understand, or teachers may not know how to use them 
effectively, or the standards may not be sufficiently challenging. 
Tests should provide useful information about students’ progress 
toward performing at standard, but they may not be aligned to the 
standards or they may emphasize convenience of administration 
and scoring over assessment of students’ authentic performance. 
Accountability systems should cause educators and students to 
take the standards seriously, but they may impose such high 
stakes that they distort the educational process and cause educa- 
tors to focus more on preparing students for the test than on 
engaging them in deeper, more challenging learning experiences. 

Yes, it is true that many students and families have not taken 
education and tests as seriously as they should, and there is merit 
in accountability systems that focus students on taking greater 
advantage of educational opportunities. It is also true that in many 
school systems the accountability systems have had the effect of 
causing states and schools to pay much more attention to low-per- 
forming students. Twenty-nine states have intervention programs 
that target funds specifically to assist students who have difficulty 
making progress toward performing at standard. 

Almost entirely due to the standards and the accountability 
systems, many schools now provide additional time and support 
for struggling students. The modes for doing so include zero 
periods, after school programs, Saturday school, standards-based 
summer school, and tutoring. This is in sharp contrast to the 
recent past when schools did not hesitate to promote students to 


Watching for Mr. Hyde / page 177 

the next grade even though they were functioning at unacceptable 
levels of academic proficiency. 

However, as far as I know, no one is documenting whether the 
scope or intensity of these interventions is adequate to serve all 
the students who need them, or whether students who participate 
in the interventions subsequently go on to perform at standard, 
remain in school, and graduate. We also need to know much more 
about which interventions are most effective in addressing which 
needs of which students. 

School systems are not routinely collecting, analyzing and pub- 
lishing this information, and few newspapers are covering this 
dimension of the standards-testing-accountability story. In spite of 
the positive effects of the interventions, too many standards-based 
accountability systems place the burden to perform primarily on 
students, without comparable burdens falling on schools. If stu- 
dents do not perform satisfactorily on the state tests, the conse- 
quences are swift and powerful; the students may not move on to 
the next grade or graduate. 

For those schools where many students do not perform satis- 
factorily, there may be consequences, but they are likely to be more 
indirect. The school’s test scores or ranking on the state perform- 
ance index may be published in the newspaper, or the school may 
be placed on the state’s watch list, or it may be visited by a techni- 
cal assistance team from the state department of education, or 
perhaps the school system will remove the school’s principal. 
Rarely, however, does the school experience the same pressures as 
students to improve performance in the near term. Students who 
do not perform at standard are not promoted, but teachers who do 
not perform at the levels necessary to cause students to perform at 
standard continue to teach much as they have in the past, with the 
same results. 


page 178 / Shooting for the Sun 

EducatorA muAt be cla accountable cla AtudentA 

This is where the Dr. Jekyll of standards becomes the Mr. Hyde. 
Students who have difficulty performing at standard are not likely 
to do better unless their teachers become more knowledgeable 
about and comfortable with the content they teach, and much more 
skillful in engaging students in learning that content. Yet the rhet- 
oric and accountability measures that accompany standards 
emphasize that it is students who must reform their attitudes, 
behaviors, motivation, and use of time. Of course, it is easy to take 
this position because students have no voice and no power-and, in 
fact, many students should take their education more seriously. 

But educators need to reform their attitudes and behaviors as 
well. They need to take initiative to master the content they teach 
and learn and use more effective pedagogy. They need to take ini- 
tiative to structure their schools to develop closer and more sup- 
portive relationships with their students, to create more time for 
student learning in the core content subjects, and to collaborate 
with their colleagues in high quality staff development at the 
school site. They need to take initiative to identify, adapt, and 
apply the experiences of other schools that are succeeding in spite 
of demographic factors that usually correlate with low achieve- 
ment. Students are not the only ones who have to change. 

The fact that educators are so slow to reform their practice is 
not entirely their fault. Policymakers are quick to enact laws and 
regulations telling educators what to do, but they devote little 
attention and money to helping educators learn how to do it. 
Policymakers know they want a different result from the educa- 
tional process, and they are right to expect it, but they have not 
demonstrated much sensitivity to the changes educators must 
make to achieve that result. 

Implementing standards, for example, is not simply a matter of 
following new guidelines about what to teach, or posting standards 
on the classroom wall. Teachers have to understand the standards, 


Watching tor Mr. Hyde / PAGE 179 

truly understand them, and make them their own. Teachers have to 
believe, truly believe, that with their help nearly all their students 
can eventually meet the standards. They have to throw out old cur- 
ricula that are not standards-based and do not help students 
develop the knowledge and skills they need to perform at standard. 
Teachers then have to develop or select new curricula that help stu- 
dents achieve that goal. They have to learn how to develop lessons 
and assignments tightly linked to the standards, and how to 
develop and use rubrics to improve the quality of students’ work. 
Teachers have to become more skilled in assessing each student’s 
performance for the specific purpose of obtaining data that will 
inform both the teacher and the student about the student’s 
progress toward achieving the standards. 

None of this is easy; nor does it come naturally to educators. It 
requires time, support, and consistent effort. Yet policymakers do 
not explicitly expect educators to develop those skills, nor do they 
provide the resources and oversight to encourage them to do so. 
They leave it to educators to figure it out for themselves. 

The result is predictable: educators are resentful. They ignore 
standards and take their chances with the accountability system, 
placing most of the burden on students. They grow more discour- 
aged and resistant to change, even if they know change is neces- 
sary. Where does that leave us? It seems that standards are here to 
stay, as they should be. Thoughtfully conceived, conscientiously 
implemented, and carefully evaluated, they can benefit students 
and education. But those three modifiers— thoughtful, conscien- 
tious, careful— do not describe the policy or political environment 
in which most educators operate. What begins as Dr. lekyll often 
turns into Mr. Hyde. 

It’A time to put theAtandardA movement to the teAt 

We have yet to see whether the standards movement will help or 

page 180 / Shooting for the Sun 

or condemn it. What we need to do, it seems to me, is subject the 
standards movement to the ultimate assessment by seeking 
answers to these questions: 

• Are there growing numbers of schools and school systems 
where students move out of the bottom achievement quar- 
tile each year in ever-increasing proportions? 

• Is an increasing percentage of the eighth grade cohort 
remaining in school and completing twelfth grade? 

• Are eighth graders passing challenging, standards-based 
state tests and going on to enroll in stimulating high school 
courses that lead to post-secondary education? 

• Are more students at all grade levels passing standards- 
based assessments, and are fewer students retained in 
grade or participating in special intervention programs? 

• Are schools changing to challenge all students, even those 
scoring at the 80th percentile and above, to perform at 
higher levels? 

• Are communities and school systems holding principals 
and teachers accountable, as well as students, to learn more 
and apply what they learn more effectively? 

• Are policymakers at national, state, and local levels devot- 
ing more effort to increasing educators’ capacities to cause 
students to perform at standard? 

• Are schools becoming much more sophisticated in under- 
standing and increasing the authentic performance levels 
of their students, and much less terrified of the state test? 

• Are improvements in all these areas happening steadily, 
each and every year? 

When there is ample evidence to answer these questions in the 
affirmative, we will know that the standards movement is produc- 
ing results commensurate with its potential. In the meantime, 
remember that the voice of students is still missing at the tables 

Watching for Mr. Hyde / PAGE 181 

where policy is made. It is important to collect, analyze, and report 
quantitative, qualitative, and even anecdotal information about the 
effects of standards on all students, particularly those at the aca- 
demic and social margins of schools, and then bring that informa- 
tion to the attention of school board members and state legislators. 

We can be hopeful that the standards movement will benefit 
students, but we must watch for Mr. Hyde. 


PAGE 182 / Shooting for the Sun 

What If There Were No State Test? 

If the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) were 
to disappear tomorrow, what would happen to schools’ 
accountability for student achievement? Hayes Mizell 
suggests that if schools and school districts would 
embrace the elements of “self-accountability,” they could 
stop worrying about test scores and focus entirely on their 
own goals for student achievement. He presented these 
reflections in March 2000 to a group of central office staff, 
principals, teachers, and teacher union representatives 
from the Corpus Christi Independent School District. 

Several months ago, I was at a meeting where there was a lively 
dialogue between the superintendent of a small Texas school 
system and a nationally prominent education researcher. The 
researcher was critical of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills 
(TAAS) because in his view it is driving teachers to focus on rela- 
tively unchallenging knowledge and skill development. The super- 
intendent, on the other hand, was from a school system that had 
made remarkable progress in closing the gap between the TAAS 
scores of Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American students. 

The superintendent conceded that the influence of TAAS has 
not been entirely positive. But, he said, the test, in combination 
with the state’s accountability system, has caused school systems 
to become more concerned about improving the academic perform- 
ance of all students in all achievement quartiles. He argued that 
TAAS will be revised and become more challenging, and that it has 
already succeeded in shaking school systems out of their compla- 

What If There Were No State Test? / page 183 

cent acceptance of poor academic performance by students from 
low-income, Hispanic, and African-American families. 

This superintendent was being very honest. He could afford to 
be. The longitudinal TAAS data for his school system document 
that the achievement of students whose demographic characteris- 
tics usually correlate with poor academic performance is now com- 
parable with students who traditionally score at higher levels. To 
his credit, the superintendent was admitting that, before TAAS, his 
school system was not paying much attention to how well it edu- 
cated low-performing students. He was also saying that his school 
system has recognized the error of its ways, that it now expects the 
same high levels of performance from all students and is doing all 
it can to help every student meet those expectations. Its success in 
doing so is manifest in TAAS scores that show similar performance 
among all demographic groups. 

Of course, the superintendent’s admission also had a worri- 
some aspect. He implied that it is because of TAAS that schools in 
his community are doing what they should have been doing all 
along— taking whatever actions are necessary to improve signifi- 
cantly the academic performance of low-achieving students. 

SchoolA are accountable to whom ? 

The superintendent’s comments caused me to think, “What if there 
were no TAAS?” What if the influence and pressure of the Texas 
accountability and assessment system suddenly vanished? Would 
his school system, and others that have been prompted to devote 
more attention and effort to the education of low-performing stu- 
dents, simply revert to their former postures of benign neglect? If 
such backsliding is a real danger, what does it say about the pro- 
fessionalism of the school system’s administrators and teachers? 
To whom do these educators feel they are most accountable: the 
State of Texas, or themselves as professionals and the students 
they see every day? 

page 184 / Shooting for the Sun 

These are questions that all administrators and teachers who 
work in an environment of high-stakes testing should ponder. If we 
can agree that educating nearly all students to achieve at compara- 
ble, high levels is important, and if we can agree that not all school 
systems, schools, and educators are, in fact, taking whatever 
actions are necessary to achieve that result, then is it only external 
pressures that will cause them to do so? 

Obviously, many people believe this to be the case. Over time, 
state legislatures have created accountability and assessment 
systems because in their experience school systems have been too 
tolerant of low levels of performance among both educators and 
students. These policymakers have seen little evidence that school 
systems, schools, and educators are changing to achieve higher 
levels of performance by both adults and young people. These 
systems are only one source of the external pressure for accounta- 
bility that public schools are currently experiencing. As you know, 
one of the strong arguments for vouchers, charter schools, and 
private scholarship programs is that they will shake public school 
educators awake and cause them to make changes necessary to 
educate all students more effectively, but particularly those who 
have no other education options. 

Whether external state interventions will have their desired 
effect remains to be seen, but high-stakes testing and punitive 
state sanctions will never recede if, over time, they prove to be pow- 
erful forces for causing educators to raise levels of student per- 
formance. Schools will be free of these external pressures only 
when there is compelling evidence that the interventions are no 
longer necessary, or are ineffective, or are no longer politically 
viable. The state accountability system will become irrelevant only 
when school board members, administrators, and teachers 
measure their success not by being told by the state that their 
schools are “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable,” or “low-per- 

What If There Were No State Test? / PAGE 185 

forming,” but by holding themselves accountable for proving that 
their students consistently demonstrate high levels of proficiency. 

Will educators ever do the right thing for the right recuoru ? 

Whether this day will ever come is very much in doubt. We have 
reached a sad state of affairs when educators do the right thing not 
because they understand and act on what they know must be done, 
but because the state establishes and enforces thresholds of satis- 
factory performance. Curiously, nearly all of these educators are 
also parents. Few of them would say they are raising their own chil- 
dren to do the right thing only when they are being watched and 
judged by someone in authority. Most would say they want their 
children to develop internal standards of ethics and morality so 
will they do the right thing even if no adult is around. These educa- 
tors would say that they want their own children to do their best 
and rise to the challenges of life because they have high expecta- 
tions for themselves. 

Yet in their professional lives, many of these educators settle 
for less than second best. Most of them are good people. They work 
hard. They are honest and trustworthy. They get along with their 
colleagues. They try to do what their supervisors and colleagues 
expect of them. But they are not self-critical. They seldom recog- 
nize gaps in their knowledge or face up to deficiencies in their ped- 
agogy, both of which have a direct impact on the learning of their 
students. They too often wait for someone else to set the expecta- 
tions and standards. They resist judging their own performance by 
the performance of their students. 

These educators wait for their students and their school to be 
held accountable annually by the state, rather than holding them- 
selves accountable throughout the year. They work hard and hope 
for better results, but they shrink from the focus and discipline 
required to assess and strengthen the linkage between their prac- 
tice and how their students perform. 

PAGE 186 / Shooting for the Sun 



I know that the culture of external accountability and assess- 
ment, as well as local educators’ longstanding personal and profes- 
sional relationships, can make it very difficult to begin to shift the 
locus of accountability. But what if there were no TAAS? What 
levels of student and school performance would educators expect 
of themselves? How would they know-how would they really know, 
with greater certainty and depth of understanding than TAAS can 
determine-the authentic performance levels of their students and 
schools? How would they forcefully document and clearly commu- 
nicate to other audiences, including the state, what their students 
authentically know and can do? And how would they hold 
themselves and their schools accountable for making the profes- 
sional and institutional changes necessary to cause nearly all stu- 
dents, particularly those who are far behind, to perform at the 
mastery level? 

These are difficult questions, but if educators are serious 
about being professionals, if they want to take control of their own 
destiny and that of their schools, and if they see themselves not as 
victims but as potentially powerful agents for change, then these 
are the types of questions they will have to consider. 

Self-accountability la a proceAA 

No roadmap will help you begin the process of self-accountability. 
That is part of the challenge. There are, however, some essential 
elements for holding yourselves and your schools accountable. 

The first is acceptance of reAponAibility. If a school is going to 
hold itself more accountable for student performance, it has to 
accept responsibility for doing so. A school has to proclaim its role 
in the equation of factors that contribute to student achievement; 
it has to recognize that, although personal, home, and community 
factors affect student performance, it expects more of itself than it 
does of any other entity. Student performance is not an accident or 
aberration, it is a consequence of the school’s actions and teachers’ 

What If There Were No State Test? / page 187 



instruction. In the self-accountable school, administrators and 
teachers know this and embrace it; they do not make excuses. The 
school establishes high standards of performance for its adminis- 
trators and teachers, putting the academic needs of students above 
the personal convenience and prerogatives of the school’s adults, 
and it takes responsibility for school staff who do not meet the 
school’s performance standards. 

The second element is shared responsibility. Self-accountabil- 
ity is not something the principal can impose on a faculty. It is not 
something a faculty can achieve without the principal. There has to 
be consensus among a school’s administrators and teachers that 
they want to work together to demonstrate that they expect more 
of their students’ performance than does the state, that they know 
more about their students’ performance levels than does the state, 
and that they can more convincingly confirm what their students 
know and can do than can the state. There also has to be shared 
distribution of work and answering for results, or the lack of them. 

The third element is initiative and inquiry. There is no point in 
a school seeking to hold itself more accountable if it does not 
intend to be more aggressive about determining which of its opera- 
tions, structures, and practices must change. The school does not 
assume that it has nothing to learn. To the contrary, it assumes 
that someone, somewhere, is addressing the same problem or issue 
and doing it much more effectively. 

The fourth element is assessment. For schools to hold them- 
selves truly accountable they will have to use means other than the 
state test to assess whether students are progressing toward 
meeting the school’s own high standards. The goal is not to invent 
a new test; it is to understand more about students’ authentic per- 
formance than one can learn from the state test results. What do 
students really know, and what can they do? How well can they 
apply what they have learned to new and challenging problems, 
presented in different contexts? The most obvious means of assess- 


PAGE 188 / Shooting for the Sun 

ment is the collaboration among teachers to analyze student work 
frequently and systematically. 

The fifth component is full dlscloAure. To be more accountable, 
schools must be forthcoming and open about the performance of 
their students. Schools could have internet sites that clearly 
describe and interpret all their most recent student performance 
data. But in school systems where many families do not have com- 
puters or internet access, schools will have to develop other means 
to document and explain students’ authentic performance. Are 
schools prepared to cover their walls with student work clearly 
linked to standards and rubrics, and to update those displays 
throughout the school year? Will the posted student work show the 
evolution of student writing from one draft to the next, until the 
final draft represents high-quality performance? Are schools pre- 
pared to use their newsletters to share information, in ways that 
make sense to families, about students’ authentic performance? 

One purpose of standards is to take the mystery out of learn- 
ing. Another is accountability for making information about 
student performance transparent and pervasive throughout the 
school community. Few schools do this; indeed, most schools treat 
student performance data as if it were a ticking bomb, not a 
tool for understanding the learning needs of both students and 

The sixth element is profeAAional development. There is no 
question that it is scary for schools to hold themselves account- 
able. When they do so, they boldly claim responsibility for student 
performance and commit themselves to taking whatever steps are 
necessary to cause their students to perform at much higher levels. 
One such step is making sure that teachers are confident in their 
knowledge of the subjects they teach and have the skills to weave 
together curriculum and pedagogy so that students want to learn 
and can learn what they need to know to perform at the mastery 
level. Some teachers have the knowledge but not the instructional 


What If There Were No State Test? / PAGE 189 

skills. Others relate well to their students but have only a barely 
adequate grasp of their subjects. Still others strike out on both 

In any of these cases, it is difficult for teachers to step forward 
and admit that they need help. Most school cultures do not expect, 
encourage or support teachers to identify their learning needs, nor 
do they take the initiative to ensure that teachers participate in 
and benefit from appropriate staff development. There is no better 
investment a school or school system can make than to increase 
the capacity of its teachers to meet the instructional challenges 
they face each day. Yet in most schools, staff development is a 
sometime thing, often inappropriate to the specific learning needs 
of specific teachers and lacking the intensity and follow-up neces- 
sary to produce significant changes in student performance. 

Any school that wants to hold itself accountable for student 
performance has to spend time analyzing and understanding what 
its teachers and administrators need to learn in order to help their 
students learn. It has to provide the context and support that cause 
educators to develop, practice, refine, and apply the knowledge and 
skills they need to increase student performance. 

The seventh element of self-accountability is central office 
Aupport. It is doubtful that schools will take the risks necessary to 
hold themselves more accountable if the school board, the superin- 
tendent, and the central office send explicit and implicit signals 
that what matters most is performance on the state test. State 
accountability and assessment systems will not go away, and by 
now everyone is aware of their consequences. But is satisfactory 
student performance on the state test the purpose of public educa- 
tion in a community, or is it one indicator of the effectiveness of 
that education? 

School system leaders need to keep the state test in perspec- 
tive, but at the same time demand that schools take responsibility 
for presenting compelling evidence of what their students know 

page 190 / Shooting tor the Sun 

and can do, and for using that information to implement personal 
and institutional reforms that improve those results. It is essential 
for school system leaders to raise and defend the banner of higher 
levels of performance for all students and provide schools support 
that enables them to hold themselves accountable. First, however, 
those leaders have to be clear about the evidence of higher per- 
formance that really counts. 

The final component of self-accountability is take whatever 
actionA are necessary to improve Atudent performance. This may 
be the most difficult task for schools and school systems. You are 
familiar with the litany of excuses schools use to avoid taking 
actions they know are necessary to increase student achievement: 
“Mr. Jones is not a very good math teacher but he has been here a 
long time and, well, you know how it is.” “The teachers who need to 
participate in staff development will not volunteer for it.” “We have 
so much turnover in our faculty that there is no opportunity for us 
to develop a stable school culture.” “We just do not have time.” “We 
have a group of teachers that do not want to do anything new; they 
have seen so many initiatives come and go that they are completely 
cynical.” “If we try to do that we will get in trouble with the union.” 
And of course: “We are doing the best we can, but we have all these 
poor and minority and limited English proficient kids, and they 
always perform poorly on tests.” 

I take these excuses seriously. They are rooted in real experi- 
ences and real Concerns. They also portray the school as a static, 
adult-centered institution, powerless to take itself in hand and 
make changes necessary to increase the performance of all stu- 
dents. So long as these excuses prevail, so long as they are more 
powerful than principals’ and teachers’ acting on what they know 
is the right thing to do, reform can come only through the kinds of 
external pressure represented by the state test and by vouchers, 
charter schools, and private scholarship programs. 

What If There Were No State Test? / page 191 

There is no real hope for self-accountability unless principals 
and teachers are willing to take whatever actions are necessary to 
increase their students’ performance. This will mean inconven- 
ience. It may mean conflict. It will certainly mean entering a zone 
of new and perhaps uncomfortable experiences. It will also mean 
getting serious, truly serious, about the education and perform- 
ance of low-achieving students, not just hoping that implementing 
any good idea will improve results. 

Educators are facing a profeAAional choice 

By this time I have painted such a daunting picture of self-account- 
ability that you may be thinking to yourselves, “I’ve got enough 
problems. This is not for me.” Perhaps I am, as if often the case, too 
optimistic about what principals and teachers can do. But I believe 
educators are facing a choice. Teachers and administrators can 
either demonstrate that they can cause students to learn at such 
high levels that the state test is almost irrelevant, or they can con- 
tinue to define their roles, their students’ education, and their 
schools in terms of student performance on the state test. I 
suppose the latter is fine for educators who merely want a job and 
are content to more or less do what the job requires. But I cannot 
understand how educators who think of themselves as profession- 
als, as people with integrity, high standards of performance, imagi- 
nation, and a strong commitment to their students, can allow 
themselves, their students, and their schools to be defined by the 
state test. 

Until the teachers and administrators who think of themselves 
as professionals decide to set and bring to fruition an agenda of 
true high performance for their schools, and until the result is 
demonstrable deep learning and the compelling application of that 
learning, then educators’ protests about state accountability and 
assessment systems will have little credibility. 



PAGE 192 / Shooting for the Sun 

What if there were no state test? Would your schools breathe a 
sigh of relief, not because they would no longer have to put up with 
the logistics of the testing but because they would no longer be 
subject to pressures for their students to perform well on the test? 
Would there be any guiding star, any pressure for making changes 
necessary for nearly all students to perform at high levels? Would 
schools have any credible process for holding themselves account- 
able for high levels of student performance? 

Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions 
because state tests and accountability systems, or some versions of 
them, may always be with us. They probably will be, until schools 
hold themselves so accountable that nearly all students perform at 
high levels. 


Professional Development: The State It’s In / page 193 

Professional Development: The State It’s In 

Nearly every state has adopted academic standards, yet 
few have given real thought to the role staff development 
must play if students are to meet the new demands. 
Speaking at a meeting for administrators from approxi- 
mately 40 state education agencies, Hayes Mizell sug- 
gested five actions states can take to implement effective 
staff development to build the skills of teachers and 
principals. The meeting, sponsored by the National Staff 
Development Council, was held in Dallas in February 2001. 

What is a state to do? What is a state to do? 

In response to rising public concern about the academic per- 
formance of students attending schools financed by state and local 
taxes, policymakers have enacted a host of laws and regulations to 
improve public education. They have mandated standards with the 
intention that teachers will align their curricula and instruction 
with what the state believes students should know and be able to 
do. They have mandated frequent assessment of students to deter- 
mine whether students are, in fact, making satisfactory progress 
toward performing at levels the state considers proficient. 

State policymakers have gone even further, allocating millions 
of tax dollars to develop and score tests that give teeth to the 
assessment mandates. Believing that testing means very little in 
and of itself, states have used test results to hold school systems, 
schools, and students accountable. They have created and used a 
wide range of sanctions when school systems, schools, and stu- 
dents fall short of expectations. 

page 194 / Shooting for the Sun 

Of course, students— people who do not vote, or pay taxes, or 
belong to professional associations with lobbyists— have borne the 
brunt of demands for accountability. Students who fail to meet the 
states’ standards for academic performance are retained in grade, 
or required to attend summer school, or scheduled into classes that 
last twice as long as regular classes. 

This is not to say that teachers and administrators do not also 
experience the state’s pressure. Their students’ test results are pub- 
lished in local newspapers and posted on the internet. A persist- 
ently low-performing school may be the ambivalent recipient of 
technical assistance from a team of educators organized by the 
state education agency. If that school’s students continue to 
demonstrate unsatisfactory performance on the state test, its 
school system may reconstitute the school, providing it with a new 
principal and faculty, or close the school altogether. 

Some states even create escape hatches for students who 
attend a low-performing school only because they are unlucky 
enough to reside in its attendance area. In those situations, 
parents may choose to enroll their children in another school with 
a more satisfactory record of student performance. 

PolicymakerA have miAAed two-thirdA of the Atory 

A decade ago, it would have difficult to imagine this range of state 
actions. They emerged because policymakers became frustrated 
with the cycle of excuses and promises used by school systems to 
explain poor student performance, and by reforms that produced 
only marginally improved results. Unfortunately, the policymakers 
focused on only one-third of the phenomena responsible for 
schools’ mediocre, or worse, records. They understood that many 
teachers and administrators did not recognize the need to change 
their expectations, knowledge, skills, and behaviors to improve 
student performance, and that these educators demonstrated little 

Professional Development: The State It’s In / page 195 

interest in making the necessary changes in their professional 

What policymakers did not understand was that, at the same 
time, their states and the federal government were imposing a new 
expectation on educators and students, the expectation that all 
students-not just “some” or “many” or “most,” but all students- 
should perform at basic and then at increasingly higher levels. 

“All” means students who do not speak English when they come to 
school, or whose parents attained only a few years of formal educa- 
tion. “All” means students who come from low-income homes, or 
perhaps have no homes. “All” means students whom educators do 
not perceive to be motivated, gifted, or talented. “All” means stu- 
dents with extraordinary emotional and developmental needs. This 
emerging expectation, whether explicit or implicit, was a new and 
radical challenge for educators, but most policymakers did not rec- 
ognize it. They simply made laws and regulations assuming that 
the educators who would carry them out would do so with students 
who were little different from the policymakers’ classmates 
decades ago. 

The other phenomenon the policymakers did not understand, 
or at least seldom acknowledged, was that teachers and adminis- 
trators were woefully ill-prepared to meet the challenges of educat- 
ing all students to perform at basic and then at higher levels. The 
policymakers assumed that educators could understand and imple- 
ment new mandates, and change their practice accordingly, as fast 
as the policymakers could churn out the new directives. This was 
not and is not the case. Teachers and administrators had the expec- 
tations, knowledge, skills, and behaviors to perform at levels that 
had passed for satisfactory in years past. They did not, however, 
know what to do or how to do it to enable all students to perform at 
basic and higher levels. In other words, policymakers focused on 
educators’ reluctance to improve and created policies and allocated 
resources to force them to do so. But they did not appreciate the 


PAGE 196 / Shooting for the Sun 

classroom realities confronting the educators charged with 
meeting the policymakers’ expectations. 

They did not address the teachers’ and administrators’ lack of 
capacity to change in order to help all students perform at basic 
and higher levels. Even now, only a few states can point to notable 
success in significantly raising the performance levels not only of 
students, but of teachers and administrators as well. Only time will 
tell whether the combination of state-mandated assessments, 
accountability, and interventions will be powerful enough to 
increase significantly what students, teachers, and administrators 
know and can do. 

Can states make professional development more effective ? 

Today, we have a great opportunity and responsibility to make pro- 
fessional development as helpful and effective as it can be. 
Education policy tends to be more like hospitalization than like 
administering a vaccine. The role of staff development is not to 
treat the sick, but to prevent the illness of professional stagnation 
and crippling practice. Staff development can fulfill this role if 
states reflect on and learn from their own successes and failures 
in developing and implementing other policies to improve educa- 
tion. I would like to suggest five courses of action that states 
might take: 

• First, states should focus on the relationship between profes- 
sional development and student performance. Policymakers, 
school systems, and schools must understand that, to achieve 
specific results in student performance, educators must design 
and evaluate staff development for the purpose of achieving 
those results. The tighter the links between the content and 
process of staff development and the desired performance of 
students, the more likely it is that educators’ practice will 
produce results that benefit all students. This is common 
sense, but judging from the professional development that 

Professional Development: The State It’s In / page 197 

some states fund, it is a concept foreign to many school 
systems and schools. The only remedy is to educate superin- 
tendents, principals, and teachers that the state values and 
insists on staff development for the specific purpose of 
increasing student performance, and that this staff develop- 
ment will receive priority for state funding and approval of 
applications for federal funds. 

• Second, AtateA Ahould inAiAt that Achool AyAtemA and acHooIa 
document how Atate-funded profeAAional development haA or 
hoA not improved the day-to-day practice of teacherA and 
adminiAtratorA. Without such accountability, most educators 
will continue to regard staff development as an event rather 
than as a rippling sequence of activities and actions that cul- 
minate intentionally in demonstrably improved performance of 
teachers and administrators. Changing the existing mental 
model for staff development will be difficult, but one way to 

do so is to require district and school leaders responsible for 
professional development to describe its effects on educators’ 

• Third, AtateA Ahould eAtabliAh criteria for what conAtituteA 
effective, reAultA-baAed Ataff development that meritA Atate 
funding. The greatest obstacle states face in increasing the 
knowledge and skills of educators is that most local adminis- 
trators either do not know what high quality staff development 
is, or they do not apply what they know when they make 
decisions that shape professional development. It is unlikely 
that the quality of staff development will improve unless local 
educators learn how to distinguish potentially effective profes- 
sional development from that which is almost certainly misdi- 
rected and wasteful of state resources. The experience and 
research base to do so already exist. All that is necessary is for 


198 / Shooting for the Sun 

states to understand that staff development is at the center, 
not the periphery, of school reform and to act accordingly. 

Fourth, AtateA have to abandon policieA and practiceA that 
model or affirm ineffective Ataff development When a state 
abruptly calls a meeting of local educators for a one-day 
training session on some state or federal regulation, it commu- 
nicates that a similar approach is appropriate for local school 
systems. The unintended message is that what really counts is 
authority and chain of command, not respect for the time and 
priorities of the training participants, not what is learned, and 
not whether the training helps participants subsequently apply 
what they learn. And when states structure their professional 
development policies around course credits or hours of partici- 
pation, with little or no regard for what educators need to know 
and be able to do to increase student achievement, what does 
it say to local educators? It says that staff development is a 
hollow, mechanistic exercise that creates the illusion that 
professional growth is occurring, but with little expectation 
that either educators’ practice or students’ performance will 
improve as a result. If states are going to expect school 
systems and schools to take staff development seriously, states 
must lead the way by demonstrating what high-quality profes- 
sional development looks like and developing practical policies 
that emphasize results rather than process. 

Fifth, AtateA have to know whether the Ataff development they 
fund iA reducing gapA inAtudent achievement. Does profes- 
sional development increase the proportion of students who 
enter the middle grades with adequate computational and 
literacy skills? To what extent does staff development enable 
teachers at the middle level to address the learning deficits of 
students who come to them performing one, two, three, or more 
years below grade level? Is professional development really 

Professional Development: The State It’s In / page 199 

enabling more teachers to help more students perform at stan- 
dard? These are the kinds of questions states should be asking, 
and they should be funding researchers and evaluators to find 
the answers. 

These are just a few of the ways states can become more 
focused and aggressive in ensuring the integrity and effectiveness 
of staff development. Such steps are necessary because the quality 
of staff development is not inconsequential. It can be and should 
be a lifeline to educators who each day are facing great challenges 
in their classrooms and schools but do not know how to meet those 
challenges successfully. If states are not taking the initiative to 
ensure that staff development is an effective resource for teachers 
and administrators, states are part of the problem of unsatisfac- 
tory student performance, not part of the solution. 

Some people in this audience are thinking that they do not 
have the authority or power to make these kinds of changes in 
their states’ staff development. Maybe that is true. I do not know 
what power you have, but I do know that you are not without some 
authority and influence. The question is, what are you choosing to 
do with what you have? 





Where We Are Now 


Ten Years of Middle School Reform: 
A Few Lessons 

In these remarks to the annual conference of the National 
Staff Development Council in December 1999, Hayes 
Mizell reviewed the history of the Edna McConnell Clark 
Foundation’s Program for Student Achievement and listed 
some of the most important lessons from his ten years of 
experience as director of the program. A version of the talk 
was published in Education Week (August 5, 2000) under 
the title “Educators: Reform Thyselves.” 

In 1989, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation set out to 
encourage and assist a small number of urban school systems to 
make their middle schools more challenging and engaging. Our 
theory of action was simple, or perhaps in retrospect I should char- 
acterize it as “simplistic.” We sought to identify a few school 
systems where central office leaders wanted to work with two or 
three middle schools to shift from what we believed was a dispro- 
portionate emphasis on affective education to a greater focus on 
academics. It was our hope that the school systems would take 
what they learned from this experience and apply those lessons to 
all other middle schools in their respective school districts. 

In the beginning, we did not use either the words “reform” or 
“achievement.” Further, we were not attempting to propagate a spe- 
cific model for school improvement. We believed that ultimately 
school systems and schools had to chart their own course toward 
creating middle schools that would successfully engage all stu- 

page 204 / Shooting for the Sun 

dents in academic work. Within two years, however, we learned 
that our approach was too narrow and vague. We began to use the 
words “reform” and “achievement” more intentionally and more 
forcefully. We brought in a second tier of several school systems 
that from the beginning involved all middle schools, not just two or 
three, in a systemic approach to reform. This effort was somewhat 
more promising, and for several years we simultaneously funded 
the first group of school systems, those focused on two or three 
middle schools, and the second group, those seeking to reform all 
their middle schools. 

This continued until 1995 when the Foundation began a new 
initiative that we now describe as “systemic, standards-based 
reform of the middle grades.” We began with six school systems, 
two from the original 1989 group, two from the second group, and 
two that had no previous relationship with the Foundation. To be 
eligible for funding, each school system had to establish a quanti- 
tative student performance goal, delineating the percentage of stu- 
dents completing the eighth grade in 2001 who would perform at 
standard in math, science, language arts, and social studies. It has 
been our hope that, by establishing and publicly committing them- 
selves to their goals, the school systems would consider and take 
action to implement reforms that will cause significantly greater 
proportions middle school students to perform at standard by the 
end of the eighth grade. Although the Foundation did not prescribe 
what actions the school systems should take, they have chosen to 
use the majority of their grants for staff development. There is a 
high degree of accountability in this initiative, with each school 
system participating in external qualitative and quantitative 

Our experiences during the past decade have yielded a host of 
lessons. I will mention only a few of the most important ones here: 

First, many policymakers assume that teachers and adminis- 
trators have a much greater capacity to implement reforms than is 

A Few Lessons / PAGE 205 

actually the ccue. These policymakers, whether they be state legis- 
lators, state boards of education, or local school boards, are under 
the illusion that just because they enact a policy, law, or regulation, 
educators will implement it in the way that the policymakers imag- 
ined-I emphasize the word “imagine”-and the beneficial results 
the policymakers intended will follow. In nearly all cases, the poli- 
cymakers assume that educators have the necessary knowledge, 
skills, flexibility, will, and time to bring the policy successfully to 

The fact that we have much more policy than we have reform 
that improves student performance is testimony to the lack of 
capacity among front-line educators to implement reforms effec- 
tively. This reality demonstrates the need for policy that is less 
sweeping but more grounded in an understanding of how much 
change practitioners can learn and implement, at what pace, and 
what level of support they need to do so. But whether it is policy- 
makers, foundations, or superintendents prompting the reform, 
they need to understand that there can be no success without 
intensive, sustained, high-quality staff development. The capacity 
among teachers and administrators to cause all students to 
perform at significantly higher levels simply does not currently 
exist among most educators. This capacity will not exist unless 
states, school systems, and schools act intentionally to develop it. 

A second leAAon iA that context matterA: reform cannot occur in 
an environment that iA indifferent or hoAtile to it No matter how 
much money legislatures and school boards appropriate for 
reform, and no matter how forceful the mandates for it, reforms 
that increase student achievement will not occur, except in name 
only, where educators do not translate reform into new and more 
effective practice. Reform means difficult professional and 
perhaps personal change. For these reasons it is understandable 
that educators welcome reforms that require more of others than 
of themselves. Reductions in class size, more teachers, equitable 

page 206 / Shooting for the Sun 

school financing, full service schools, and new school buildings 
and safer schools are all essential, but they will not cause students 
to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to perform at stan- 
dard. That will occur only as a result of more effective leadership at 
the school and classroom levels, and better teaching. We have 
learned that when principals and teachers feel the pressure of con- 
sidered, coherent reform on the one hand, and the support of high 
quality staff development on the other, they are more likely to 
embrace change than to resist it in their practice. Indeed, they 
often become re-energized, believing anew in their ability to make 
a difference in the learning of their students. Quality staff develop- 
ment can help create the context necessary for productive reform 
to take root and grow. 

Unfortunately, staff development cannot do much about other 
contextual factors that jeopardize reform. Even in school systems 
and schools that are serious about making changes to increase 
student achievement, over and over again we have seen reform 
jeopardized by the coming and going of school board members, 
superintendents, principals, and teachers. It seems that just 
when a school system or school is beginning to develop some hope 
that teaching and learning can improve, there is a shuffling of 
key personnel. The real tragedy is that this is accepted in public 
education. The school board is always looking for a better superin- 
tendent, or at least one who is competent but not bold. The teach- 
ers union is perennially guarding the prerogatives of experienced 
teachers to transfer out of the most diverse and economically 
disadvantaged schools. The superintendent is always moving the 
productive principals too quickly and the ineffective principals too 
slowly. School reform cannot survive in this context, and even 
quality staff development cannot have as profound an effect as it 
would in a more stable environment. If this is just “how it is” in 
public schools, it is no wonder more parents are seeking educa- 
tional alternatives. 

A Few Lessons / page 207 

Third, Aite-bcued management doeA not guarantee that a 
hundred flowerA will bloom. Where there is a strong, entrepreneur- 
ial principal and a highly professional faculty, site-based manage- 
ment may provide the authority they need to implement significant 
reforms. However, such cases seem to be the exception rather than 
the rule. The norm is that where one finds effective teaching and 
higher student performance, it is almost impossible to distinguish 
the schools that are site-based from those that are not. I suppose 
one can argue that the reason for this is that in many cases site- 
based management exists in name only, but on the whole my 
impression is that schools do not make effective use of the author- 
ity and flexibility they currently have. Even though one of our 
nation’s major political parties repeats “returning decision making 
to local schools” many times a day as a mantra to invoke reform 
and improved learning, experience does not indicate that this is a 
promising strategy. 

This is not to argue that school systems should discourage 
site-based management, but rather that it is not as powerful a tool 
for reform as its proponents claim. In fact, in many school systems 
it means that neither schools nor the central office play a leader- 
ship role in developing and advancing reforms to increase student 
achievement. Instead, some school boards and superintendents 
seem to use site-based management as an excuse for why they 
cannot provide more forceful leadership reform. They say they 
cannot act because key decisions are reserved to the schools. 
Schools say they cannot act because, in fact, the central office exer- 
cises more authority than it claims. The result is a leadership stale- 
mate that stifles rather than stimulates reform. 

Fourth, many Achool AyAtemA and AchoolA have yielded their 
educational deAtinieA to their AtateA. As the public and state policy- 
makers have become increasingly frustrated by slow, incremental 
improvements in student performance, they have increased the 
grip of state assessment and accountability systems. They have 


2 01 

page 208 / Shooting for the Sun 

taken these actions because school systems and schools did not 
respond to previous cues from policymakers that there was 
growing public dissatisfaction with the quality of schools and the 
performance of students. Some states, such as Texas and North 
Carolina, have taken a serious, coherent, and sustained approach 
to assessment and accountability with apparent good results, 
though there is strong disagreement about the equity and effects 
of even these states’ approaches. Some school systems are now 
mimicking their states, developing their own local accountability 

The short-term effect seems to be that, as policymakers 
intended, assessment and accountability systems are driving deci- 
sions at the classroom level about what is taught, how it is taught, 
and how long it is taught. In education this dynamic is called 
“alignment,” but it can produce an unintended consequence that is 
not healthy for teaching and learning. Because powerful state 
assessments are now linked to fearsome accountability systems, 
most school systems and schools think of themselves as being 
accountable to the state for student performance. Educators expect 
to be held accountable by their states or school systems, rather 
than holding themselves accountable for students’ performance. 
They obsess over their students’ performance on the state test, 
rather than over what their students really know and can do, and 
credible, school-based evidence to support it. Increasingly, educa- 
tors equate student learning with student performance on the state 
test, rather than taking the initiative to develop, use, and make 
transparent more compelling evidence of what students actually 
know and can do. Perhaps it is unrealistic to think that public edu- 
cation can do better, but I worry that if educators are focused more 
on their accountability to the state or school district than on their 
accountability to their students, their internal professionalism 
will wither. 




A Few Lessons / page 209 

On a more immediate and practical level, the state tests and 
accountability systems are so powerful that they threaten to over- 
whelm all other reforms. Increasingly, reforms are judged by their 
potential to raise students’ scores on state tests, rather than 
whether they will set in motion a chain of professional behaviors 
that will result in more substantive student learning. However, 
until local educators take the collective initiative to hold them- 
selves accountable for causing students to meet and exceed aca- 
demic standards, and until they persuasively demonstrate, for all 
the world to see, what their students know and can do, we can 
expect education to be more about performance on state tests than 
about deeper student learning. 

A fifth lesson is that school reform has no place for ill-con- 
ceived, superficial, half-hearted, a dash-here-and-a-dollop-there 
staff development, descriptions that still apply to most of what 
passes for staff development in this nation. We now know that 
what improves classroom practice and school leadership is tai- 
lored, intensive, sustained staff development that includes follow- 
up support, practice, feedback, and evaluation. There simply is no 
excuse for taking the time of teachers and principals to participate 
in anything else. Even though more school systems and schools are 
becoming aware of the features of high-yield staff development, the 
old approaches prevail. This makes true reform more difficult and 
unlikely. It is why so much depends on forceful advocacy for high- 
quality staff development, and on a dramatic change in practice by 
people at the state, school system, and school levels who are 
responsible for staff development. 

There are more lessons I could share, but I will conclude with 
just one more. In every school system, there are some teachers who 
are deeply committed to their students’ learning and some princi- 
pals who want to lead, not just administer. There are not enough of 
them, hut they are the hope for school reform in this country. Time 
and again, they respond to opportunities to learn and strengthen 

page 210 / Shooting for the Sun 

their practice. They answer sensible calls for reform and give their 
best efforts to make it produce positive results for students. They 
are the teachers and principals who need not only the encourage- 
ment and support of central office administrators but greater 
efforts to swell their ranks. For that to happen, the tens of thou- 
sands of teachers and principals who are not yet at high levels of 
professionalism need to see that reform is workable and worthy of 
their labor. They need to see that their school systems and schools 
are slashing bureaucratic burdens that have little or nothing to do 
with increasing student learning. They need to experience school 
reform as thoughtful and efficient rather than as symbolic and 
chaotic. They need to know that they and their students are benefi- 
ciaries of the reform process, not just pawns of it. For this to occur, 
many more school boards, superintendents, and central office 
administrators will have to begin to act very differently. Unless 
they do, I fear that our greatest and most unfortunate lesson will 
be that the critics of public schools are right, that school systems 
cannot and will not reform themselves. 


M. Hayes Mizell 

Since 1987 , Hayes Mizell has been Director of the Edna McConnell Clark 
Foundation’s Program for Student Achievement. He is responsible for the 
Foundation’s initiative to support middle school reforms that will enable all 
students to meet high academic standards by the end of the eighth grade. The 
Foundation’s initiative supports standards-based reform in the Corpus Christi, 
Long Beach, and San Diego school systems. 

In 1966, Hayes Mizell began his career as an advocate for education reform by 
working to desegregate schools in South Carolina. He was subsequently involved 
in a wide variety of activities at local, state, and national levels to improve how 
public schools serve children from low-income families. He played key roles in 
building public and political support for the creation of South Carolina’s human 
rights agency, the enactment of state school finance reform legislation, and 
increasing citizens’ involvement in school governance. 

When he lived in Columbia, South Carolina voters twice elected Hayes Mizell 
to that school system’s Board of School Commissioners. He served as a school 
board member in the 29,000-student district (Columbia, SC and environs) during 
1971-74 and 1983-86. In the late 1980s he worked with Governor Richard Riley 
and others in developing recommendations that became the basis for South 
Carolina’s historic Education Improvement Act. In 1979 he was appointed by 
President Carter as Chairman of the National Advisory Council on the Education 
of Disadvantaged Children, and he served in that capacity until 1982. 

During his career he has provided leadership to creating such organizations 
as Grantmakers for Education, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades 
Reform, and the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. 

In 2000, Hayes Mizell became the first non-professional educator to receive 
the National Staff Development Council’s’ annual Contribution to Staff 
Development Award. 

In 1999 the National Association of Secondary School Principals presented 
him the NASSP Distinguished Service Award. 

Hayes Mizell’s most recent article, “How To Get There From Here,” appears in 
the National Staff Development Council’s Journal of Staff Development (Summer 
2001), pp. 18-20. 

For excerpts from Hayes Mizell’s speeches, go to: http://www.middleweb. 

FOUNDATION seeks to improve 
conditions for people who live in poor 
and disadvantaged communities. 

This book was designed by Chris Gorman 
Associates, New York, NY. 

The text is set in Eidetic Neo. 

The book was printed by Innovation Printing, 
Philadelphia, PA. 



Clark foundation 

250 Park Avenue 
New York, NY 10177-0026 
212/551-9100 tel 
212/986-4558 fax 

ISBN: 1-929633-00-9 


U.S. Department of Education 

Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) 
National Library of Education (NLE) 
Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) 


(Specific Document) 


Title ' Sho&Hncj : Th<L 

of H’cUJUl ScJnOo/ 

Author(s): A* l'to~yC£ Hi 

Corporate Source: 

Publication Date: 

M c Connj(JJ C/^sic. e-t~? 



In order to disseminate as widely as possible timely and significant materials of interest to the educational community, documents announced in the 
monthly abstract journal of the ERIC system, Resources in Education (RIE), are usually made available to users in microfiche, reproduced paper copy, 
and electronic media, and sold through the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). Credit is given to the source of each document, and, if 
reproduction release is granted, one of the following notices is affixed to the document. 






If permission is granted to reproduce and disseminate the identified document, please CHECK ONE of the following three options and sign at the bottom 
of the page. 

The sample sticker shown below will be 
affixed to all Level 1 documents 







The sample sticker shown below will be The sample sticker shown below will be 

affixed to all Level 2A documents affixed to all Level 2B documents 





A 0 






L&Vdi i 


Level 2A 


Level 2B 

Check here for Level 1 release, permitting 
reproduction and dissemination in microfiche or other 
ERIC archival media (e.g., electronic) and paper 

Check here for Level 2A release, permitting Check here for Level 2B release, permitting 

reproduction and dissemination in microfiche and in reproduction and dissemination in microfiche only 

electronic media for ERIC archival collection 
subscribers only 

Documents will be processed as indicated provided reproduction quality permits. 

If permission to reproduce is granted, but no box is checked, documents will be processed at Level 1 . 





1 hereby grant to the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) nonexclusive permission to reproduce and disseminate this document 
as indicated above. Reproduction from the ERIC microfiche or electronic media by persons other than ERIC employees and its system 
contractors requires permission from the copyright holder. Exception is made for non-profit reproduction by libraries and other service agencies 
to satisfy information needs of educators in response to discrete inquiries. 

Signora- ^ 

Printed Name/Positionffitle: 

.. At £0 3 cut* 

Organization/Address: M^Con^JLU 

o?S "o t <yOO 

. A->y /oi ? 7- ~o o 3.(0 


5 / jl - jtt / -«?//? 

E-Mail Address: a 

)TCi cur rv\(6f>C "iCr* 




If permission to reproduce is not granted to ERIC, or, if you wish ERIC to cite the availability of the document from another source, please 
provide the following information regarding the availability of the document. (ERIC will not announce a document unless it is publicly 
available, and a dependable source can be specified. Contributors should also be aware that ERIC selection criteria are significantly more 
stringent for documents that cannot be made available through EDRS.) 





If the right to grant this reproduction release is held by someone other than the addressee, please provide the appropriate name and 



ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education 


Box 40, Teachers College 
Columbia University 
525 West 120 th Street 

Send this form to the following ERIC Clearinghouse: 

New York, NY 10027 

T: 212-678-3433 / 800-601-4868 
F: 212-678-4012 

However, if solicited by the ERIC Facility, or if making an unsolicited contribution to ERIC, return this form (and the document being 
contributed) to: 

EFF-088 (Rev. 2/2000) 

ERIC Processing and Reference Facility 
4483-A Forbes Boulevard 
Lanham, Maryland 20706 

Toll Free: