Building a School Culture of High Standards

By Ron Berger

As a 6th grade teacher, my concept of a culture of high standards includes high standards for kindness and cooperation as well as for academic work. Just as I emphasize that careful quality in work is more important than fast production, I pay careful attention to treating all students fairly and thoughtfully, rather than stressing efficiency and speed in school logistics. For example, “simple” classroom decisions, such as which students should make a presentation or attend a limited event, often take a long time because my students and I discuss such issues carefully, considering the feelings of all. In my class, we avoid events and honors that are exclusionary or individualistic, displays of the “best” work, or awards for the “best” students or athletes. Rather, we favor whole-class, whole-student pride. When visitors to my classroom are impressed with student work, it is often due not to specific outstanding examples but rather to the absence of careless work, the uniform commitment to quality. This is a testament to the degree of cultural pride and peer support in the classroom.

Much of what goes on in a traditional classroom, in terms of structure of work, assessment, and models of relationships, serves to undermine and negate such a supportive class culture. The model of classroom roles and assessment in my school, therefore, differs from traditional conceptions. Although the school itself is fairly typical — it’s a regular public elementary school in a rural New England town — its approach to learning is not. Student work is not centered on textbooks and worksheets, but rather on individual and group projects that are rich in skills and content. Students “publish” books, draft maps, and make blueprints. They prepare research papers, build scale models, manage long-term experiments, and share these projects through displays and presentations for the school and town. Every student, whether mainstream or marginal, is an equal member of each classroom’s “project work-shop.” All students are expected to do the highest quality work and are supported in their efforts. Students with learning or other disabilities remain in the classroom as part of the working team. Students are encouraged and taught to help each other as editors, critics, collaborators, and tutors.

Every final draft, project, or presentation emerging from a classroom workshop reflects on the whole class. Each, therefore, must show great care and effort and must be accurate, powerful, and elegant. Students as well as teachers enforce these standards. Like an athletic team, everyone’s performance affects the group; helping each other helps everyone.

The focus on team effort, on whole-class, whole-school commitment to quality, has profound effects on the success of individuals. Because of this, people in town who were initially suspicious and critical of the school’s untraditional approach have become strong school supporters. The excitement, accomplishments, and thoughtfulness of students have won over the hearts of a rural and fairly conservative town. There is a great deal of pride in the school.

I begin the year doing a lot of modeling. Many teachers say they model behavior for students, and many do. Quite often, however, teacher modeling is superficial. To really model, one must do the same things that students do, so that modeling is real and fair. In my classes, I try to actually work on those tasks that I require of students — project work, math problems, cleaning the sink, caring for classroom animals, giving and accepting criticism and support — in front of students. The most important thing I model for students is taking risks: taking the risk of sharing my real feelings with them, of trying things in front of them that I’m not good at, of admitting my mistakes and confusions, and of accepting and inviting constructive criticism from students. I share my worries and mistakes in directing the class and in planning lessons. I share the rough drafts of project work I’m pursuing along with them, criticize my own work, and invite suggestions and opinions. I don’t allow students to be rude or derisive to me — or to other students; but I try to welcome suggestions concerning how I could improve and grow. If I’m trying to build an environment of risk-taking and learning, I need to be the head risk taker and head learner.

De-emphasizing Grades

Assessment must be planned so that it does not suppress risk-taking and cooperation, or discourage learners who are struggling. For this reason, very little work in my classroom and school is given formal grades, and report cards are narrative. Letter grades are not used at all, percentages or points are used occasionally, but only in test situations. This policy creates a lot of work for teachers and frustrates some parents who yearn for the finality of grades. (Most parents, however, are pleased with the careful narrative reports and the parent conferences in which student projects and progress are shared and discussed.) This lack of constant grading creates a school in which there are no “C” or “D” students who have given up on caring and trying, there is no established hierarchy of “smart kids” and “dumb kids,” and students and teachers are concerned with the quality of work rather than letter grades. Student projects are never graded: the wonderful sense of shared group success and achievement would be deflated and soured by rewarding some students and discouraging others. This does not mean there is a lack of assessment of project work. Students receive copious feedback at all points during the creation of the project from teachers and from peers, and they are well aware of their project’s strengths and weaknesses. With nongraded assessment, however, even the least talented of students, having done a personally exemplary job, can feed pride in the whole-class presentation of successful work, rather than feel shame in receiving a poor grade.

Some critics of giving formal letter grades contend that although letter grades are motivating to “A”students, who get all the positive reinforcement, grades persuade “C” or “D” students that their ability is small and that it’s a waste of time to try too hard. I would go further: I think grades are destructive even for “A” students. In these students, an emphasis on letter grades encourages a narrow-minded pursuit of conservative and proven strategies to please.

Imagine if we, as adults, were given letter grades on all of the functions we undertake in our jobs. Think of how tense and defensive this would make us, and how quickly we would adjust our behavior to perform in constricted, uncreative patterns that would protect against bad grades. Finally, giving grades to the class, particularly on the “fair” system of a curve, gives an unequivocal message, and in my view an insane one, that the worse your classmates do, the better for you.

Practice Test Taking

So e a lot of tests. I do not. Except in math, they are a relatively minor part of a assessment for me. When students leave school, they are judged for the rest of their lives by the quality of work they produce and the quality of personal skills they possess, not by their ability to take tests. If I want students to put their full hearts into becoming better workers and more thoughtful people, then it is their work and effort that must be the basis of assessment.

I give tests occasionally, but with a different purpose: I think the skills of studying for tests and taking tests are essential skills for students to have if they hope to succeed in today’s schools. I present tests to students in exactly this way: test preparation and test taking are important skills, and we’ll all work together as a group to get better at them. I allow students to take the same test, or a clone, over and over again until they feel they have succeeded. I share every test-taking tip I know, and I encourage students to work together, tutor each other, and share strategies. We celebrate anyone’s growth on tests, as well as our collective growth as a class. Testing skills are not presented as equivalent to talent or personal worth, simply as another important skill.

In my classroom, most assessment takes the form of conferences and critique — either formal or, almost unconsciously, informal — throughout the day. Assessment is most often a process of shepherding growth rather than deriving a final grade or level. It is the transition from formal critique to ongoing informal critique that signifies to me the real adoption of the culture of high standards.

Formal Critique

Initially, I present and model how to critique in whole-class sessions. Some of my students and I all bring early drafts of work and share them with the group for appraisal. The people sharing their work begin by explaining what they are trying to achieve with the piece, and students offer opinions of what in the piece seems to be succeeding in this intent, and what may be detracting. This structure means that the comments are not in the form of “it’s good” (understood as “you’re good”), or “it’s bad (you’re bad),” but rather, “it’s working for what you want in these ways, but not in these ways.”

A goal is to involve students in a method of critique that is precise and constructive, unlike the all-too-common type of classroom critique that is limited to variations of “I like your story; it’s good.” Recently, I learned about a useful metaphor for describing critique to students: it is like surgery — opening up a piece, taking it apart, to discover what is working and what is not. The surgical tools we have are words; the more deep and precise our vocabulary in the field, the more precise we can be at seeing and understanding the piece we are analyzing. If our vocabulary is limited to “good” and “bad,” our surgical kit has only one tool; it’s like trying to do surgery with a cleaver — you can’t see or separate much of anything. If a critique of a student’s story entails talk of dialogue, setting, scene description, plot tension, foreshadowing, irony, character development, symbolism, metaphor, humor, and other components of fiction, there is a possibility that the workings of this story can be revealed, understood, and improved. Critique of a science experiment is severely limited if students can’t speak in terms of hypothesis, methods, control, variables, data observation, validity of results, and significance of results. These are more than words, they are concepts; they are lenses that allow us to see the work.

The vocabulary that forms the basis of critique sessions is basically the working vocabulary of practitioners in that field. For this reason, I like to have “experts,” professionals or craftspeople in a field, visit the class and teach us this vocabulary. In some fields I may have a good grasp of much of the vocabulary; in others I am as ignorant as the students. Either way, expert visitors allow students and teacher to learn together. For example, during an interdisciplinary study of architecture in 1991, my class hosted five architects at various times. The architects gave presentations and critiqued student work. Without the concepts and technical language we learned from these practitioners, we never could have viewed and critiqued our own design efforts capably. We had similar experiences with other visitors: a landform geologist, an Egyptologist, a graphic artist, a children’s book author, and a university women’s soccer team. To highlight one example, when students began to model the language of the soccer players and the strategies they defined, both the style of play in student games and the level of postgame analysis changed dramatically. Students now had precise terms to describe particular passes, defenses, shots, and movements; and they revelled in this new vocabulary on the field, shouting directions and ideas while playing, even seeing options that before wouldn’t have occurred to them.

Just as important as formal critique sessions are spontaneous ones. Quite often, the class just jumps into an analysis of something and ignores other work for a moment. It may be an informal critique of the cover of a book we’ve just gotten, a school assembly we just attended, a political event, a television show, or a recess soccer game. At first, some students view this as a “trick” that succeeds in distracting me, as teacher, from “real work.” They soon come to see that I am not distracted at all: that I value this critique as real work and am often pleased to take a short break to attend to it — and in fact, I often initiate it.

Because students see that I’m serious about critique, they take it seriously. Perhaps serious is not the best description; these sessions are fun and animated, but they are as much a part of the classroom as “real work.”

Encouraging Student Appraisals

The most important assessment of all takes place on a smaller and even more informal level. When educators talk of assessment, they generally think in terms of documented assessment systems. A completely different level of assessment takes place in the individual student, who is constantly assessing her own work, deciding what is right and wrong, what fits and what does not, what is a “good enough” job. This self-appraisal is the ultimate locus of all standards.

Just beyond this level is the assessment of peers. Recently some schools have begun to use formal modes of peer assessment, either in peer conferences or group critiques; but most peer assessment is not a formal process. It takes place on a deeper level, one that isn’t usually articulated.

Students look around them as they work; they watch the quality of what their friends turn in, what others can “get away with” for standards, what is displayed, and what is praised or valued in the peer group. In this way they determine what is appropriate and acceptable behavior and work. Quite often students in traditional classrooms consciously lower their standards to blend in more comfortably with peer notions of proper behavior or attitude for a boy or girl their age.

Infusing these two informal levels of assessment — self-appraisal and peer appraisal — with a commitment to high standards is the ultimate goal of all the larger, formal structures in the class.

When high standards reach into those levels, then I know the culture has taken hold. As the year goes on, there is less and less need for planned, formal critique because students practice ongoing assessment throughout the day. Students work on projects at tables or desks; they constantly seek help, advice, and criticism from each other — and they are not shy about giving it. A student walking by a table where a peer is working on a project will often stop to analyze the piece, ask questions about choices made, compliment strengths, and give opinions and advice concerning what he feels is “working” in the piece.

Student analysis of personal or peer work can get quite technical and obsessive; I welcome this. Outside of school, students often engage in long-term interests that they pursue passionately: collecting baseball cards; practicing video games; arranging doll houses; building models; and structuring fantasy play with dolls, action figures, or other toys. These are often ongoing projects that are obsessive and technical in detail and care. It is this type of intensity that I try to harness and draw into the classroom through project work. The excitement and precision students bring to building and critiquing projects is almost identical to what they put into making miniature doll house furniture at home, or arranging their baseball cards in sets of notebooks and making elaborate inventory and price lists. The intensity and focus of peer discussion and appraisal of work in the classroom is what fuels the quality of this work and what defines the culture of standards. In this environment, students often turn to each other, rather than the teacher, for feedback, assistance, and suggestions; the explicit locus of assessment and approval shifts away from the teacher and toward peers.

Developing Portfolios

Students in my classroom keep four different portfolios of their work: a reading portfolio, a writing portfolio, a technical design portfolio, and a large portfolio for artwork and large project work. If teachers, parents, visitors, peers, or students themselves need to view or appraise their work, they have a wealth of rough draft and final draft material to draw upon.

These days I carry around a portfolio of student projects: science projects, mathematics projects, student literature, videotapes of plays, and many projects that cross disciplines and can’t be easily placed in any one. When I start to feel that my descriptions of this approach to learning are mostly hot air, a hype, another new gimmick in the age-old and rarely improved business of teaching, I have something real and tangible to renew my faith, to share with others. These projects and the accomplishments they represent for students are evidence for me that many aspects of the “good old days” can be substantially improved upon.

Student work in my classroom is like nothing I did when I was a child in public school. Even in high school, I was rarely allowed the opportunity to design and direct an important long-range project. Almost nothing I created during 13 years of schooling was an artifact that I treasured, that I kept and admired over the years. In contrast, the work I carry around today is on loan from students. Many students were unwilling to part with their projects, even for a year, so I could use them in workshops; those who agreed were sometimes nervous about it. Two students have contacted me this year to confirm that their projects were still all right, and one asked to borrow his back for a presentation in his science class. As a child, I was a student whom teachers would have categorized as highly motivated and perfectionist, yet little I created had lasting value for me. Few school experiences had the emotional involvement that projects, performances, presentations, and trips do for my students today. And I was an example of classroom success, a model student, while Jimmy P. and the rest of the back row had been given up as lost causes since 2nd grade.

My teachers in elementary school often instructed us to “try to do your best.” This isn’t a bad motto; I’d use it with my class today, and most schools would embrace it without a thought. There’s a big step, though, between teachers saying this to students, and students actually doing it. Not too many schools seriously look at what aspects of their structure and culture support and compel students to do their best, to act their best, and what aspects undermine this spirit. Rather than simply search for individual teachers or principals who they hope can demand high standards, I feel that school communities should discover how they can create a spirit of high standards, a school culture of high standards.

The above is reprinted from Expanding Student Assessment, edited by Vito Perrone. Alexandria, VA: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.