ERIC Identifier: ED389816
Publication Date: 1995-12-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Opportunity To Learn Standards: Their Impact on Urban Students.
ERIC/CUE Digest Number 110.
Common sense dictates that in order for students to achieve they must have
appropriate opportunities to learn. The concept of "opportunity to learn" (OTL)
strategies was first introduced several decades ago and was defined by a narrow
set of instructional components. Since then, educators and policy makers have
incorporated many additional criteria into the OTL concept, some specifically to
ensure an equal education for disadvantaged and minority students.
Despite recent attention to OTL strategies, most schools do not view them as
either standards to be met or as indicators of educational quality. In fact, a
survey of school districts revealed that most do not collect data related to
OTL, and some are not even aware of the concept (Stevens & Grymes, 1993).
ORIGINS OF OTL
as a Measurement Tool
The original purpose of OTL measures, when introduced by the International
Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), was simply to
describe aspects of the education process. To determine whether cross-national
differences in students' mathematics achievement were caused by differences in
students' learning experiences rather than in their ability to master the
subject, IEA developed measures for quantifying the instruction that students
had received in a subject prior to testing (McDonnell, 1995).
Since that time, as the positive impact of well-designed OTL strategies on
student achievement became clearer, they have been used to indicate overall
educational quality, and, more specifically, the availability and use of
education resources. Further, comparing the wide OTL differences among schools
in the U.S. and resulting differences in student achievement can demonstrate
educational inequity (Guiton & Oakes, 1995). Thus, the Hawkins-Stafford
Education Amendments of 1988 mandated the development of OTL indicators to
measure the effectiveness of Federally-funded educational programs. The
resulting report by the Special Study Panel on Education Indicators (SSPEI,
1991) included a range of measurable indicators that covered both classroom
experience and the overall school environment.
as a Set of Standards
Many education policy makers believe that setting OTL standards will help
schools, particularly those in poor urban areas, appreciate their essentiality
to the educational infrastructure and make developing them a priority.
Therefore, drafters of the voluntary education standards included "school
delivery" standards in their reports. In particular, the National Council on
Education Standards and Testing (NCEST, 1992), commissioned by Congress to
determine the feasibility of national standards and assessments, asserted that
OTL standards are necessary to help close the achievement gap between advantaged
and disadvantaged students. The following year, the Clinton Administration's
Goals 2000: Educate America Act also called for the establishment of OTL
The willingness of policy makers to commit to OTL standards varies widely.
Some believe that the school infrastructure should not be subject to Federal
recommendations; a few even question whether it should be subject to state or
local government policy. Also, some officials question the extent and effect of
educational disadvantage experienced by urban and minority students (Elmore
& Fuhrman, 1995).
OTL supporters, conversely, consider the establishment of standards to
"represent a social contract between schools and the larger community"
(McDonnell, 1995, p. 312), and some argue that students should not be held to
any performance standards at all unless their schools meet stringent OTL
standards. A group in favor of OTL strategies but opposed to legislating
standards points out that the best way for states to enhance OTL is to give
local agencies the resources and freedom to reform schools overall (Elmore &
There are several practical impediments to instituting standards. The largest
is their likely cost. Another is the threat of possible lawsuits arising from
the position that a school has violated the OTL standards mandate.
OTL standards remain in the draft stage at the Federal level, and would be
voluntary even if promulgated. Some states, however, such as New Jersey and
Texas, have already legislated standards, though usually mandating nothing more
specific than an "efficient" education. Lawsuits dealing with equitable
distribution of education resources are wending their way through state courts,
and may ultimately result in the refinement of the states' ambiguous language
about student educational rights (O'Day & Smith, 1993). In addition, OTL
standards may be instituted as the result of lawsuits dealing with school
finance, student assessment, or unequal opportunity (McDonnell, 1995).
Evaluating a school's OTL can provide information about whether the school
has adequate resources, is deploying them effectively, and is providing equal
educational access (Darling-Hammond, 1994). Comparing OTL evaluations across
schools can help parents decide where to educate their children. OTL evaluation
can also put data on student achievement into context, making it more comparable
across student ethnicity and sex, as well as schools and school districts.
THE NATURE OF OTL STRATEGIES
Current general school reform
programs use OTL strategies, since most strive to align all components of a
student's educational experience in a way that maximizes learning (O'Day & Smith, 1993). In addition, new cognitive science research providing insights on
how students learn, and research suggesting the impact of race, discrimination,
and segregation on learning, indicate ways to teach students with different
learning styles and various ethnicities most effectively (Baratz-Snowden, 1993).
However, many schools either do not consciously relate OTL strategies to student
achievement or reject them as luxuries they cannot afford. Some strategies,
however, can be implemented fairly easily.
All students should have access to high level courses that will allow them to
meet performance and content standards and provide them with good career
opportunities (Oakes, 1989; Smith & Day, 1993).
meet the content standards for the subject,
be logically integrated with other coursework,
reflect the challenges of real life problems,
present material in a context relevant to students, and
be as free as possible from hidden bias (NCEST, 1992; SSPEI, 1991;
Teachers should spend adequate time covering the content in class.
Students should have time to learn content on their own.
Schools should emphasize more important curricula by assigning more class time
Schools should provide students with time to do general academic work on the
campus (Oakes, 1989).
Pre- and in-service teacher training should:
lead to mastery of course content and techniques to teach it meaningfully, with
particular attention to the material in the content standards, and
include strategies for reaching diverse student populations and students with
different learning styles (SSPEI, 1991; NCEST, 1992).
Schools should have enough physical space to accommodate all their students
Schools should have an adequate number of teachers and classrooms to ensure
optimum class size.
Students should have access to textbooks and educational facilities.
Teachers should have the materials, time, private space, and support staff they
need for lesson preparation and professional development.
Schools should establish curricular priorities, ensure appropriate teacher
assignments, and provide students with needed supports (Oakes, 1989; SSPEI,
The school building should be clean, safe from hazards, and in good repair.
The school culture should foster learning and demonstrate concern for students'
Schools should promote respect for diversity and protect student populations
Staff and students should be expected to behave respectfully toward each other,
and feel protected from potential violence (SSPEI, 1991).
Schools and communities must take a comprehensive approach to student health
and social service needs.
Strategies should include immunization; physical and mental health care
services; protection from unsafe and violent environments; and substance abuse,
sex, and pregnancy counseling.
Schools or communities should ensure that teachers, counselors, social
workers, and other professionals work together to best meet students' needs and
to deliver comprehensive services (Jackson, 1993; Berry, 1993).
Whether or not educational standards are
instituted, the debate can serve to increase public awareness of the
relationship between opportunity to learn strategies and achievement. If schools
are encouraged to focus on their ability to promote learning, student
performance will improve even in the absence of national or state standards.
Baratz-Snowden, J. C. (1993, Summer). "Opportunity to learn: Implications for professional development." Journal of
Negro Education, 62 (3), 311-324. (EJ 473 820)
Berry, G. L. (1993, Summer). "Psychological services providers, the
opportunity to learn and inner-city students: Beyond mere curricular reform."
Journal of Negro Education, 62 (3), 355-363. (EJ 473 823)
Darling-Hammond, L. (1994, August). "National standards and assessments: Will
they improve education.?" American Journal of Education, 102 (4), 478-510. (EJ
Elmore, R. F., & Fuhrman, S. H. (1995, Spring). "Opportunity-to-learn
standards and the state role in education." Teachers College Record, 96 (3),
Guiton, G., & Oakes, J. (1995, Fall). "Opportunity to learn and
conceptions of educational equality." Educational Evaluation and Policy
Analysis, 17 (3), 323-336.
Jackson, S. F. (1993, Summer). "Opportunity to learn: The health connection."
Journal of Negro Education, 62 (3), 377-393. (EJ 473 825)
McDonnell, L. M. (1995, Fall). "Opportunity to learn as a research concept
and policy instrument." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 17 (3),
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Education, the National Education Goals Panel, and the American people.
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Oakes, J. (1989, Summer). "What educational indicators? The case for
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O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (1993). Systemic reform and educational
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U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (ED 334
Stevens, F. I., & Grymes, J. (1993). Opportunity to learn: Issues of
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