Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Standards: Understanding the Appeal


Despite everything I have written about the intrinsic weaknesses of big state or national standards, I understand the appeal of standards. I really do.

Imagine this:

A country in which all students are well educated. High quality curricula, outlined in rigorous standards, taught by smart, thoughtful expert teachers using differentiated instructional techniques that address multiple modalities, learning styles and intelligences. Students easily surpassing the low bar of standardized tests and building a lifelong love of learning. Even students who move or are in the lowest SES communities are well educated because standards ensure that all schools are appropriately ambitious for their students and focused on the core content that really matters.
What’s not to like?

Well, that’s the vision. And the vision is the appeal. I get it. What’s not to like?

Now, imagine this:

You own a home appliance store, and you’ve got this friend who makes lousy chocolate chip cookies. You and your friend share a vision of him/her taking flour, butter, brown sugar, white sugar, baking soda, salt, vanilla, eggs and chocolate chips, combining them and pulling fresh hot and yummy smelling cookies out of the oven. But some of the butter is rancid. Some of the flour is moldy. The brown sugar is dehydrated and hard as a rock. There’s no baking soda, just baking powder. There’s no table salt, just kosher salt — which neither of you understand. The vanilla and eggs are fine, but there’s not enough chocolate chips. S/he has an oven, but it’s a little old. You, however, own a home appliance store. So, you give him/her a brand new fancy Viking oven.
The problems with our educational system do not stem from a lack of standards or a lack of rigor in our standards any more than your friend’s cookie problem stems from a bad oven. The fact that the great vision includes standards (or an oven) does not mean that a better oven/set of standards will cover for the other problems we actually face. Every state has standards already. Even if they are insufficient — and I have no doubt that many are — they do not comprise even one of the top ten problems facing our educational system.

Moreover, no one has actually explained how new or more rigorous standards actually improve education. I’ve given six reasons why I don’t think that they really can. I’m looking for a “theory of action,” an explanation of the process and mechanism by which this proposed solution actually leads to the desired result.

I have absolutely no doubt that education in our schools happens in the interactions between children and educators, children and each other, children and themselves, and children and the materials, activities and environments that educators set up. If someone can explain to me how new standards will impact those interactions, in spite of all the obstacles I have previously laid out, I might get on board with a serious push for new standards.

Until then, however, I will continue to think efforts to improve, and strengthen standards a big waste of time, money and attention that would be better spent on other purposes. Diane Ravitch just said of another reform, “It may be a distraction from the serious issues that confront our students and our schools.” That is precisely my concern here.

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