Standing before 1,000 Orange County educators Friday, well-known author Cynthia Barnes talked about dirty clothes.
She lamented that for 26 years she had been trying to teach her husband how to do the laundry. At first he just dumped everything in the washing machine, she said. But with patience and persistence, she has brought him up to her standards: Detergent, fabric softener and bleach play roles as the laundry makes its way from washer to dryer to laundry basket, folded and stacked in neat piles.
Her audience, prepared to hear experts discuss strategies for implementing standards and raising test scores, laughed with Barnes and got the point:
If new education standards are to work, they must be made clear to parents, teachers and students--and everybody has to agree on both the procedures and the definition of success.
Bracing for new state standards by which they and their students will be judged, teachers and administrators from across the county gathered to learn how to do the same job they have been doing--but to get different results.
Sponsored by the Orange County Department of Education, school districts and the Arizona-based National School Conference Institute, Friday's conference at the Irvine Hyatt kicked off a yearlong campaign to help teachers and administrators meet the new state-imposed measures of success.
That Orange County educators feel somewhat beleaguered was obvious. Many said they were afraid to discuss state standards openly. Any criticism could be construed as resisting change, which in a climate of raging reform is politically unwise, they said.
Some ideas presented to the group were provocative, even controversial.
Douglas Reeves, president of the Center for Performance Assessment in Denver, the author of books and articles on standards and assessments, drove home the point that children at all income levels can be high achievers.
He also said that students should have several chances to raise grades by proving they can master a task.
If a student scores poorly on a writing assignment but then corrects the errors in the paper, the grade should be raised accordingly, he said. Such reinforcement is necessary to link actual achievement with scores.
"I get eaten alive for this because people ask, 'Is it fair if a student gets it right the first time and another student gets it right on the second try?' " Reeves said. "But where in the state standards does it say a student must be able to do history quickly? Or algebra fast?"
He also recommended that school districts assign the most highly credentialed and experienced teachers to low-performing students.
"These are the teachers that are off teaching seminars in 'Beowulf' with kids who are already high-performing," he said. "Really, they need to be in the classrooms with the kids who need them the most."
Still, many educators at the conference said the day's sessions reaffirmed much of what they knew: Poverty alone is not to blame when students fail. If learning content is emphasized, high test scores will follow.
"We feel validated by what we've heard today--especially about writing," said Janet Steger, a district administrator in Fullerton. "We feel like we're going in the right direction."