‘Adequate’ Isn’t Good Enough: The NETP Roadmap to Higher Expectations

By Tina Rooks

Imagine the impact on consumer sales if “adequate” replaced words like “ultimate,” “good,” or “best” in the taglines of top selling brands. Now consider the widely publicized expectation of our public education system that all schools must attain “adequate yearly progress.” By definition, adequate is average or acceptable. Certainly neither is the most aspiring adjective.

Successful Fortune 500 companies do not include “acceptable” in their mission statements. Coaches do not encourage a team to be “average” before the big game. Instead, to promote a message of quality that is not conveyed with the lackluster “adequate,” they use phrases such as “exceed expectations” and “set the bar high.”

When did adequate become good enough for our educational system? What impact is this mindset having? And most importantly, how do we break free from this low expectation?

Adequate became good enough with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that mandates yearly growth models. A byproduct of NCLB, “adequate yearly progress” resulted in a K-12 system focused on high stakes tests with average expectations. Schools across the country scramble to attain the label “meeting adequate yearly progress,” which offers bragging rights and newspaper headlines to those that make the cut. This arbitrary designation of meritocracy ignores testing inconsistency, teaching to the test, questionable test validity, cheating scandals, and students who are performing adequately but may be not be learning.

What is the impact of this low expectation on our educational system? There is a direct correlation between the implementation of NCLB and the international ranking (on both the TIMMSS and PIRLS) of U.S. education. As countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Finland climb in reading, math, and science achievement, the U.S. continues to drop in rank. Results from these annual assessments reveal a disturbing trend. American students scored in the middle of nearly 30 countries in the 4th grade, in the bottom third in 8th, and almost dead last in the 12th.

What can we learn by studying the competition? Could it be that other countries that have leaped over the US are expecting superior performance? For example, Finland placed first in science by a significant 5% margin, second in language, and second in math. This has been accomplished within a very similar school calendar as the U.S. and at a cost of nearly $1500 less per pupil. Significantly, Finland clearly defines its expectation of quality by selecting teachers from the top 10-15% of college graduates with 4-6 years of graduate school.

In the U.S., the recent National Educational Technology Plan (NETP 2010; Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education, 5 March 2010) provides a specific roadmap for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering” (v) to raise expectations from “adequate” to “exceedingly proficient.” It urges the US education system at all levels to:

  • Be clear about the outcomes we seek.
  • Collaborate to redesign structures and processes for effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility.
  • Continually monitor and measure our performance.
  • Hold ourselves accountable for progress and results every step of the way.

At first glance, these may appear to be simply lofty goals rather than a practical and effective blueprint for change. However, the NETP provides specific examples, methods and resources that offer educators guidelines to begin disrupting the current model for education and positively affecting student learning.

The NETP is grounded in the belief that technology can both inspire disruption and facilitate methods proven to be effective. The keys to successful transformation are technologies that:

  • aid in measuring student learning outcomes
  • enable subsequent use of this data to transform education with laser precision
  • can be leveraged for research
  • personalize the learning environment
  • function systemically

Transformation is possible, and high expectations that yield sustainable results need to replace our current model of adequacy. The future of our educational system depends on the highest – not simply adequate – standards to provide the “best a student can get!”

7 Responses

  1. “…Finland clearly defines its expectation of quality by selecting teachers from the top 10-15% of college graduates with 4-6 years of graduate school.”

    How can the U.S. emulate this action? We don’t select our teachers; they apply, and we attempt to choose the best from among the applicants.

    How many applicants here are in the top 10-15% of college graduates? If you’re one of those, then what are the chances that you’ll take a very low-paying job with little respect in your community?

    California teachers have a starting salary of $35,760. That’s roughly what a couple receives from Social Security after retirement if both worked all of their lives. Engineers with bachelor’s degrees, by comparison, have salaries whose range begins at around $56,000.

    If we’re to change our education system, we must improve recruiting by offering higher starting salaries. But, that’s politically incorrect because it necessarily requires higher taxes.

    • Ironically I have been digging in to current research on bonus and merit pay. There is a substantial amount of research that suggests that bonus plans and merit pay simply does not have their desired effect and often are de-motivational. However, promotional systems do appear to influence intellectual employees with a fair and transparent path to a promotion. This has inspired me to ask this community for a viewpoint surrounding a new promotional model outside of number of years and level of educational attainment.

      Our current model for promotions actually drives educators to leave the classroom. Quite frankly we all know if the highest paid educational positions are in administration. How could we build a teacher level promotional system to encourage and reward our educators? How can we encourage our rising talent beyond having them continue their own education and wait for 20 years to pass before they can reach a satisfactory salary?

      So here are my “what ifs” …
      What if we had 4-5 educational pay classes – novice, highly skilled, senior and expert?
      What if each level had very prescriptive but diverse criteria matrix for evaluation?
      What if an expert level educator could make as much as a superintendent?

      I would love to hear some thoughts on this topic.

  2. Thanks for this post, Tina. Lately there has been a lot of conversation on various internet sites about assessment–quantitative assessments and how we measure student (and teacher) success. How can we (the U.S.) be any more than adequate in education when we teach to the test–or at least to 70% of the test so that students pass. Students ask, what do I need to get to pass? Teachers say, 70%. They should really just tell the truth and say, you only need to be mediocre to pass.
    Wow, really? Yes, really!

    We have to think more creatively about assessments, and therefore about teaching. How can we assess, or maybe evaluate is a better word, the progress of students in terms of the real world and what students will do with the knowledge that are getting? We need a different set of benchmarks.

    I agree that “Technology can both inspire disruption and facilitate methods proven to be effective.” But, I think we will run into trouble if we try to “transform education with laser precision.” Who defines the preciseness and will it be in terms of numbers–again?

  3. Tina, I agree with Jan… Thanks for this post. I also agree that we need to think more creatively about assessments and about evaluation of student learning. How do we affordably test mental models in students without just inferring they exist from correct answers on a test question? As world knowledge grows exponentially, it seems the expected mental models in students would covary proportionally.

    The laser precision of testing for specific models is no longer practical either, as too many valid permutations already exist. In Tina’s examples, a students ability to clear the bar may not be as important as where they themselves set it. Failed expectations are never as bad as not having any to begin with. Do they believe they are the best they can be? Do they believe that better is possible? If no to the first and yes to the second, then I am willing to bet they will find a way to learn how to be better. There are no easy answers, but I am glad to see others are thinking about the possibility of new benchmarks and beyond traditional assessments. WZ

    • “Failed expectations are never as bad as not having any to begin with.” Someone should emblazon this sentence on the front of every classroom. Right on!

    • WZ
      I am glad you brought up the issue of student involvement in the educational process. Typically, the educators define the “rigor and relevance” of content and assess students to determine if these goals are met. A process grounded in what “we” do to “them”. Unfortunately, in our age of information, what may have been rigorous 25 years ago might only require a simple Google search to accomplish. As for relevance, that might be the faster moving target and one I would argue that our educational system is performing poorly. Our students can help shed some light on relevance in an age where they are the native speakers of technology. I am not an advocate of throwing the baby out with the bath water and I do believe there are core educational standards that should be maintained and cannot be student defined; however, I also believe that these standards should be a ‘living document” with flexibility based on an evolving world with evolving student needs.


  4. Tina,

    Thanks for bringing in this important topic.

    Jan’s comment about how this type of “assessment” promotes mediocrity and your comment about adequecy are right on target. Because standardized tests tend to fragment knowledge, students do not really have a chance learn anything with any depth.

    My undergrads are just starting a short field experience in “poorly-performing” schools and they are already asking questions about NCLB. One 6th grade social studies teacher told my student that the elementary school is so focused on teaching reading and math that the students are coming to her with little content knowledge. This tells me that there is no integration of knowledge or skills in this drive to reach mediocrity and adequacy so that students are being short-changed. Technology certainly has an important role to play, but so often, rather than being integrated into the curriculum, it is used to maintain the status quo rather than disrupting and faciltiting as you suggest.

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