High Standards: A Culture of Educational Quality

A small rural Massachusetts school has a different definition of accountability — one based on producing good learners, not high test scores.

October 1, 2000

A student analyzes samples of well water.

Credit: Shutesbury Elementary students

In a climate of increasing pressure for accountability, with growing emphasis on high-stakes tests for measuring success, some schools stand out for presenting a different image of high standards, one that does not rely on mandated test scores.

One of these places, worthy of attention for how long, consistently, and effectively it has developed its own culture of quality without bending to the whims of educational fashion, is a small public school in rural Massachusetts called Shutesbury Elementary School. And Ron Berger, who has been teaching there for more than twenty years, is one of the school's most outspoken advocates, rallying for its innovative approaches and against the standardization of a state-mandated curriculum and testing regimen.

Berger can readily provide convincing evidence that his students are accomplished learners, able to think, talk, read, and write in just the sorts of ways we would hope for successful elementary school students. But if you press for information about how well his students rank on standardized-test measures, you might catch a glint of frustration crossing his otherwise patient and polite demeanor. The fact is that his students score just fine: On average, Shutesbury students are well above national norms and ahead of grade level.

But Berger's passion is for the quality of work that his fifth- and sixth-grade students accomplish, rather than for their test scores. With the support of his teaching, the school community, their peers, and a culture that insists on high standards, all his students -- whether they score well on standardized tests or not -- are able to produce work that is thoroughly persuasive, cogent, and beautiful.

Diagram of an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, drawn by Leiland, Noah, and Jeremiah.

Credit: Shutesbury Elementary students

Teaching and Learning at Shutesbury

Shutesbury Elementary School is a "regular public school," as Berger puts it, with an atypical way of approaching curriculum, which is entirely handcrafted. "We don't use any textbooks. We haven't for twenty-five years. We don't use worksheets. We don't use premade things. It's like the difference between fast food and home-cooked meals. We really like to build everything, although we certainly derive from all kinds of good programs and texts."

All classes at Shutesbury, from prekindergarten through sixth grade, engage in project-based work. Students take on long-range tasks that involve creative student input, and in which smaller daily work leads to larger culminating products or presentations.

As Berger explains, the time given for project work means students go into more depth and are able to produce work of high quality and personal value. Students create multiple drafts and go through repeated critiques of their unfinished work by teachers, peers, and themselves. Shutesbury teachers and their students are able to set rigorous standards for their work and ensure that the standards are met.

Each year, Berger chooses one or two themes that frame his class studies over several months or the whole year, then carries out several projects under each theme. For example, in 1998-99, from September through January, his combination fifth- and sixth-grade class teamed up with a combination third- and fourth-grade class from another school to study water. In one of their projects, they investigated the health of local surface water -- ponds and streams -- spending about a month collecting data and another month analyzing and writing up their findings.

Students learned about the chemistry of water, how to carry out experiments to test water, and how to analyze and report their findings, all the time using computer skills for handling the data. They worked with a scientist from the local municipal water district to learn some of the techniques and chemistry they needed, and they went out on field trips to collect data.

In another project, students from the two classes studied the drinking water from local community well. The classes collaborated with a professor and students from nearby Hampshire College, where they also gained access to an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), which allowed them to test for inorganic elements such as lead, copper, and sodium in the water. They learned about water chemistry and scientific techniques and used programs such as Microsoft Excel to organize and analyze their data, and the project culminated with a report presented to town boards and citizens.

Other projects Berger's class participated in that year included reading books with water themes, such as Huckleberry Finn. They also studied Greek mythology and read "The Odyssey." In fact, they read it once all the way through and reread part of it in seven translations, comparing the various versions. Students wrote essays and completed a final project in which they created their own representation of the story.

One student, for example, created a scale model of Odysseus's ship, and another wrote a modern version about an American businessman trying to return to his wife after a business trip and getting hung up for years due to canceled and redirected flights all over the world. In studying the water theme, Ron's students also did watercolor paintings and other artwork, wrote water-related novels, and conducted lab investigations of concepts such as membrane permeability, floatation, and density.

A student titrates a water sample in order to test its components.

Credit: Shutesbury Elementary students

Evidence of Quality

The evidence for Berger that his students learn a great deal from projects such as the ones they did on water comes from many sources, including the quality, accuracy, and craftsmanship of the work they produce; the enthusiasm and passion for learning that students display, often working long hours after school and late at night; and the overwhelming interest in their findings on the part of adults, ranging from parents to community officials to scientists and educators from outside their town.

Students continually submit their work to critique and present their projects to panels. They use different criteria for evaluating each project, and often the students develop or refine rubrics to judge their work. For the water novels, for example, students came up with many of the criteria, including that each story must be at least twenty pages long, must be "school appropriate" (not offensive to young children), must have correct spelling and grammar, and must be laminated and bound with an artistic cover.

For the well study, evaluation essentially came from outside the school. Because students were creating a scientific report, Berger pointed out that "the standards came from real-life science." Scientists from a nearby university told them when their work was accurate and effective, and when it wasn't.

By contrast, the evidence of success does not come from the kinds of measures the state typically insists schools use. Shutesbury expects that every student will contribute to high-quality projects. Expectations for what they will produce are the same for every student, even the children designated as special education students -- about a third of Berger's class during the water study -- who may need more support to reach the school's standards.

These students, Berger argues, would never do the kind of high-quality work they accomplish in his class if the school focused too much on their ranking or stigmatized them with low grades from the time they were just starting. In his experience, such ranking tends to demoralize the weaker-testing students, while causing the stronger test takers to become complacent, to assume they do not have to work hard to learn.

Berger's approach, by contrast, is to insist that all his students create high-quality work and to focus on that work rather than on test scores and ranking. Though some educators are tempted to brag about their high-scoring students, Berger would prefer to crow about what his lowest-scoring students can accomplish.

To make the point another way, Berger suggests imagining that you sit next to another guest at a wedding reception, someone you have known for a while. If the other guest were to ask, "How are your kids?" it would sound ridiculous to respond by assigning each of your children a numerical score, then ranking them from best to worst.

Instead, you would talk in detail about a wide range of factors -- their health, their emotional well-being, how they are getting along with friends, the sports activities they are involved in, what they are reading (or not reading), interests in the arts, and so on. A single score just wouldn't do the trick. In fact, any single score would be misleading, diminishing the complexity of your children's lives down to one dimension.

The same reasoning applies to the workplace. No single test is adequate for evaluating the contributions of coworkers who bring a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and interests to their jobs. "In the real world, people are judged by their work and the kind of person they are, rather than how they score on a test," Berger points out.

So, instead of obsessing about standardized-test results, he argues, "we should be obsessing about making kids passionate about their learning, making them passionate about the quality of their work, making them craftspeople who want to create beautiful things, accurate things, important things, who want to do real research that matters."

A Shutesbury student collects a sample to test the water quality in a local stream.

Credit: Shutesbury Elementary students

A Culture That Supports Good Practices

Where does the kind of teaching and learning of Berger's class come from? He points first to his colleagues at Shutesbury: "I learn more from my coworkers than from anyone anywhere." Although his colleagues are skilled educators, Berger's statements are not intended to hold them up as superhuman. Rather, the staff at Shutesbury could best be described as a group of normal people working in a culture that both supports and demands high quality.

Shutesbury, a preK-6 school, has about 240 students (enrollment was only 70 when Berger started in 1977); graduates attend a regional middle school in another town. It is the only school in town, in its own one-school district. The district is rural, with a mixture of working-class and middle-class families, most of whom are white. (The minority population is about 5 percent.) The school has given no grades for decades. Project-based learning is the norm for all classes, so by the time Berger gets his fifth and sixth graders, they have experienced a consistent approach for years. There is a relatively cohesive culture, with abundant teacher involvement in decisions and a lot of common planning time for the staff to work together.

A number of factors contribute to the culture of quality at the school, including the fact that it is a small community, teachers participate in picking new staff members (including the principal), the superintendent encourages teachers and principals to make important decisions and supports project-based learning, and it has a structure that favors a great deal of collegiality. "We work together all the time," Berger explains. "We meet endlessly, thinking about curriculum, structures, discipline, and management."

Every Wednesday, students attend for only half the day so the faculty can meet for the remainder of that day every week. Also, the schedules for special instructional blocks (such as music and gym) are arranged to coincide so that grade-level teacher teams can meet while their students are in these other classes.

For Berger, the opportunity to work with his colleagues on curriculum is part of what sustains him as a professional. "Building the curriculum itself is always professional development," he says. "Since you're always building your own curriculum, it's exciting and you stay fresh. It's hard work, but I've been teaching twenty-five years, and I'm not burnt out, probably because I get so passionate about learning new stuff to build curriculum that's exciting for students."

Berger notes, however, that another reason he and his colleagues have time for planning is that the teachers are committed to putting in extra hours. "There's the reality that in a school like this, I go up there Sunday, and everyone's there working," he says. "Part of it is, if you choose this kind of teaching, you just have to put in a lot of time. It takes a lot longer to work together and build your own curriculum."

But the rewards are evident, he adds. "I'm lucky," Berger says. "I'm in this great school where everyone's inventing curriculum and working together and planning and trying ideas with each other, and so I'm always learning, and that's why I'm still there after all these years." Contemplating what it would be like to have even more time in his schedule for planning and preparing, Berger wrote, in "A Culture of Quality," that "sometimes I dream about what kind of teacher I could be."

Connecting to Larger Communities

Although the culture of Shutesbury is the primary force shaping the quality of his professional life, Berger, like most experienced teachers, has forged numerous connections beyond the community—and these alliances help shape his teaching and have allowed him to give back to the profession. He has worked with Harvard Project Zero, the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching, Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, the Coalition of Essential Schools, the Autodesk Foundation, and others.

The first Saturday of most months during the school year, he drives across the state to Cambridge, where he joins a group called ROUNDS, in which teachers look together at their students' work and discuss professional issues. "It is so inspiring to be with teachers who think so deeply about student work," he explains.

The monthly ROUNDS gathering, hosted by Steve Seidel and others at Harvard Project Zero since 1996, grow from three premises stated on Project Zero's Web site: "That careful study of the things students make in schools (essays, art work, science experiments, etc.) is a critical and endlessly rewarding source of information about learning and teaching; that professionals need opportunities to share their insights and expertise; [and] that reflective dialogue requires some supports and structures."

Based in part on the model of medical grand rounds, the gatherings take place from October to May and consist of three-hour morning meetings in which participating teachers take turns each month presenting projects they have done with students. Teacher sshare some students' work, leading to discussions about project-based learning and then a closely facilitated process of looking at the student work as a group.

"I just learn so much from being there," says Berger. "We look at student work with a depth that I never have the time to do otherwise. I always come back inspired and understanding a lot more."

Partly through his connections with Project Zero researchers, Berger was selected in 1999 to be one of twenty Carnegie Scholars, a group of K-12 teachers and teacher educators who are documenting their own work and sharing their knowledge with a broad audience. The scholars are part of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Among the goals of the program are bringing to teaching the attention and respect commonly attributed to other forms of scholarly work and promoting changes in the culture of teaching as a profession. As a Carnegie Scholar, Berger meets with the other members of the program, participates in a two-week summer residency, and is writing about his ideas and approach to high standards.

One of the national networks Berger works with, called Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound, allows him to work in depth with a wide variety of teachers on project-based learning. The organization supports schools across the country in developing experiential programs for students. Expeditionary Learning schools have students working on research projects often designed to serve the community. Students work collaboratively, do original research, solve problems, and learn to present their work.

"I do these things for Expeditionary Learning called Summits, which are an immersion into a theme for a week, so the teachers go through exactly what students go through," Berger says. Architecture is one theme Berger has taught in his own class; he used to colead several Summits in Manhattan with an architect and teachers from around the country.

"We get them doing just the things my students do," he says. "They draw buildings. They design buildings. They design homes. They learn draftsmanship. They think about the social issues of architecture, history of architecture. And they sweat and they stay up all night, and they bond. And we feel like a real team, and we laugh a lot together, and we try to model the sense of community and teamwork I have in my classroom, except with twenty-five teachers.

"I think those are the best professional-development things I'm ever involved in, because they're a really emotionally intense week," Berger adds. "You can say to teachers, 'Oh, you should use these techniques,' but you can't just go back and use them if you've never been in the middle of it."

The opportunities to lead these Summits is a learning experience for Berger as well. "Working for Expeditionary Learning is great because it puts me in all different kinds of settings," he says. "I'm in this little rural all-white school, and working with Expeditionary Learning, I end up working in New York City, in Dubuque, Iowa, and in Atlanta, and all these settings with entirely nonwhite populations, with high school kids, with teachers of high school kids, with every kind of setting that brings to light how transferable all the things I believe are. Are they going to work with an alternative school for black teenagers in Harlem? Are they going to work for Middle American kids in Dubuque? It is a great opportunity to meet people who are doing exciting stuff in very different contexts."

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