Teachers have been the focus of school reform for years now, with evaluation systems (linked to student test scores) being front and center of policymakers’ efforts to improve schools. Had those policymakers asked, most teachers would have told them what they really need to succeed in the classroom. Here’s a look at the subject by Andy Porter, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who now directs the Center on Standards, Assessment, Instruction and Learning at the Penn Graduate School of Education.

By Andy Porter

With the Obama Administration’s recent call to limit the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests, there’s been a lot of talk about assessments in the national media. And that chatter is likely to intensify with the release of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress results — the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” — this week.

While testing is an important topic, narrowly focusing on assessments diverts our attention from the challenges at the heart of education reform: How to close the achievement gap between students from low-income and minority households and their more privileged, mostly white, counterparts. And how to move the needle on student achievement so that American children of all backgrounds and income levels are on par with students in China, France and pretty much everywhere else in the developed world. We will not make these sorts of gains by relying on testing as an education reform strategy. Instead, teachers need to be fully supported in implementing the rigorous content that college- and career-readiness standards demand.

As director of The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning (C-SAIL), I lead a team of researchers studying the full breadth of college- and career-readiness standards adopted by states across the nation. C-SAIL launched this July with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, and our research is just now underway. But the education research field has already generated a large body of evidence on past reform efforts. And one thing we know is that in the 30-year history of standards-based reform, policymakers have lobbed one new set of standards after another through classroom doors without also providing teachers in those classrooms with sufficient tools and guidance to help students develop the skills called for by the standards.

Without valid, practical and real-time support, how are teachers supposed to improve their instruction? We need to give them specific examples, materials and lesson plans that are clearly aligned with the standards. And we must follow up that support with timely feedback that focuses on concrete aspects of their instruction while also facilitating the alignment of that instruction to the standards.

Another important factor — and one that C-SAIL takes very seriously in its research — is that teachers teach differently to different students. English language learners and students with disabilities are growing populations of students in our schools, and they require different instructional approaches. Instructional guidance, support and feedback for teachers need to account for this fact.

Some states are moving in the right direction, but they aren’t going far enough. For example, New York has uploaded a huge bank of curricular materials and instructional guidance that is aligned with the state’s college- and career-readiness standards. But without real-time feedback on their use of these materials, how will teachers know if they are implementing them properly?

The kind of feedback provided by test scores, while important on a number of levels, does little to improve instruction. And as we have seen, leaning too heavily on test scores as a reform mechanism can lead to any number of unintended consequences, including teaching to the test and cheating.

Policymakers at the federal, state and local levels can talk about — and tweak — testing policy all they want. But until we provide teachers with meaningful instructional support that aligns with the challenging new standards states have adopted, students will not develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to thrive.