• by Micaela Díaz-Sanchez and Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.  • IDRA Newsletter • March 2002 • Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

“When I started out as a high school English teacher in 1964 I was the ‘American flag’ teacher. In my classes, students’ papers were white, their ink was blue, and my red marks bled all over their papers. I was determined that no grammatical or spelling mistake would pass my desk unmarked. I put out the best and worst essays of the week on the bulletin board. I would shame them into learning. I had, I thought, rigorous high standards. It took me several years to realize that the many students that I flunked reflected more on my teaching rather than their intelligence,” Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed.

“When I was in high school, I never understood why so many students were having problems with passing the TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills]. But when students were having to take the test three and four times, it was obvious to me that the problem was not with the students alone. It seemed to me that there was lack of communication about what the students were supposed to learn and how they were being taught,” Micaela Díaz-Sánchez.

Standards identify what students are expected to know and be able to do. Standards can also support high expectations for all students. For many reasons there has been a strong push for having uniform high standards in education. The important question is, how do standards help or hinder our children in getting an excellent education.

The Need for Standards

Standards and assessment are essential to providing the accountability a decentralized system requires. They can guide schools away from worksheet activities and toward learning for understanding, reasoning, problem-solving and communicating. They can be useful tools for diminishing low expectations. High standards can unfreeze lock-step instruction and allow for a variety of tools for assessing student progress.

There are multiple forms of assessments that schools can use. The Center for Law and Education describes the following three categories (1999).

Performance assessments require students to show what they have learned. Performance assessments are often used along with other forms of testing.

Portfolios are collections of student work. Students and teachers select work that shows what they have learned over time. Portfolios are graded by teachers or others outside the school. Some states use portfolios to assess student progress in math and writing.

Scoring guides and rubrics describe what students must do on a lesson to reach the standard. Often, rubrics set three or four performance levels, from high (excellent) to low (needs improvement). Teachers use rubrics to assess student work. Scoring guides and rubrics can tell students and parents how far students must go to reach the standard.

Some Cautions

Some people speak about the current movement for high standards as seeking equity through excellence – that having lower standards is racist and classist. But, as Keenan and Wheelock state, the results of simply putting new standards in place and enforcing them universally without providing necessary resources leads to increased rates of retention, failure and dropouts among poor and minority students.

Keenan and Wheelock also state: “The standards movement further reneges on its promise when states translate standards into curriculum frameworks that reinforce the status quo, elevate certain knowledge to a level of official approval and render poor, African American and Latino students invisible in the curriculum. English language arts standards that call for more reading of better books create an aura of rigor, but if the frameworks fail to address the need for multicultural content, many students will remain on the periphery, perceiving school as another world, another culture” (1997).

Another concern about the standards movement is that when massive failure happens, too many people look for causes within the families, their culture, language, economic status, or limited formal education. A deficit view of children and families assumes that the lack of academic achievement by students is the fault of the family. Besides being inaccurate, this view increases the tension families feel over their children’s educational achievement.

In these cases, the institution wants to change the family and the children to adapt to its “higher” standards. The fact is, most families want their children to do well and to have a bright future connected to their educational attainment. Most families are supportive of activities that will contribute to student success.

Each person has a particular learning style. And this variety of learning styles among students reveals another concern. School curricula, textbooks, and some teachers’ approaches to teaching have a narrow focus on how children learn. Too often the assumption is that the home is English-speaking, middle-class, and college-educated.

As the bar is raised on standards, teachers may be tempted to increase the rate of teaching and the amount of content taught. This acceleration increases dependence on rote-learning and memorization of greater amounts of information. It reduces class discussion time, open-ended questions, creativity, one-on-one work, and alternative approaches to learning.

Wheelock states: “When schools assert that every student can learn, they take concrete steps to saturate school life with opportunities to access the extra help they need to succeed. The steps they take can vary from school to school, but effective approaches have several characteristics in common: They are offered early and often as a normal part of the school routine; and they are often multi-faceted, with supports for academic achievement made available in a variety of ways” (Wheelock, 2002).

Recommendations to Families

Parents must have the right questions and good, basic information in order to support children in high standards. Education should be at the service of its participants: families, children and community. Children, families, and communities should not be at the service of education. Parents and families need to know what is going on in the classroom: how teachers are being trained, how their children are being engaged, how their children are understanding, reasoning, problem-solving, and communicating.

Schools should support ongoing dialogue between parents and educators on standards and how children can be supported to learn. Forums that are bilingual and in lay-person’s terms should be held where family and community can learn about the specifics of standards, how they are measured, and how they are assessed.

Meetings held with parents, educators and administrators support peer exchange. At these meetings goals are set, people are empowered and student achievement remains central to the work.

IDRA’s model of parent involvement focuses on four major roles: parents as teachers, as resources to the school, as decision-makers, and as leaders and trainers of other parents. There are many things parents can do in these roles, such as the following.

Parents as teachers

  • Support children by creating space to learn at home.
  • Reduce television viewing and other distractions.
  • Ask children to share work and talk about school.
  • Encourage children to support each other in learning.
  • Create family peer groups and neighborhood support systems for children to extend their learning and experience individual and collective support for success in school.

Parents as resources to the school

  • At the elementary school level, parents are resources to the classroom teacher with oral language presentations, listener, coach and observer of children, etc.
  • Identify and support children in using neighborhood support systems, e.g., libraries, religious and community centers, after-school support systems, YMCA and YWCA, computer access, and field trips.

Parents as decision-makers

  • Participate on curriculum committees and advisory groups.
  • Review standards, tests and assessment procedures.
  • Convene parent and community groups to increase awareness, school support for student achievement, and even getting elected to parent organizations and school boards.
  • Create and support committees to increase financial support to schools, increase teaching staff and reduce class size.
  • Work with schools to identify the variety of ways in which students learn.
  • Find out about graduation rates and retention rates.

Parents as leaders and trainers of other parents

  • Create parent and family networks of mutual support for student achievement, training other parents to be advocates, resources and decision-makers, and surveying families and using data to create further organizations, support and leadership.
  • Poll and conduct focus groups of students, teachers and parents.
  • Map the assets of children and families (if standards show what students do not know, we need to find out what they do know).

The whole community wants and needs children to achieve. It is inherent in human nature to want to learn. The role and power of family in this movement for high achievement for all students must be immediately recognized. High standards for all children are good if the appropriate support and resources are given to schools, to children and to families. All children and families must be valued, none is expendable to standards or tests.


Center for Law and Education. Urgent Message for Parents (Washington, D.C.: Center for Law and Education, Community Action for Public Schools, 1999).

Keenan, J.W., and A. Wheelock. “The Standards Movement in Education: Will Poor and Minority Students Benefit?” Poverty and Race (May-June 1997).

Wheelock, A. “Everybody Has to Get It: Extra Help and Support to ‘Meet Standards’ and Prevent Grade Retention,” Internet article www.middleweb.com/whlckreten.html.

Micaela Díaz-Sanchez is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Aurelio M. Montemayor is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2002 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]