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Standards: Why Does Anyone Bother?

For the last two weeks, I’ve been raising objections to the idea that new standards — particularly new national standards — are worth the attention they get. It is ridiculous to think that they can be a meaningful lever of broad educational improvement. In fact, I do not think that they can have any significant impact at all.

Why Does Anyone Bother?

Hamlet spoke of customs “More honor’d in the breach than the observance.” I would not go quite that far when speaking of standards in education, but that is primarily because standards are in large part based on what is already actually done. To the extent that they are descriptive, standards are honored. But to the extent that they are prescriptive, they are rather impotent.

So, why all this attention to standards? Why is anyone bothering, and why does anyone pay attention?

President Kennedy said of the Apollo program,

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

I wish that we could say the same of our high publicity efforts in education, that we do them not because they are easy. But I know that it is not true. Politicians and public leaders want to do something, and probably want to be seen as doing something, so they do what they can, even if what they can do is worthless. Putting together a group to revise standards, or toughen them up, is not that hard. Even getting fifty governors and chief state school officers to agree to adopt/adopt voluntary national standards before they are published is not very hard. It is certainly easier than actually improving educational practices in thousands of schools and millions of classrooms.

Abraham Maslow observed that if all you have is a hammer, than every problem looks like a nail. I suppose that to people at the top who know that their time is limited, top down solutions that can be rolled out quickly look like a good idea. That has got to be part of it — though the problem is bigger than that, as it is not just people at the top (e.g. governors) who believe that these kinds of efforts matter. Yet it is really hard to believe that anyone who has invested serious time in thinking about children or how their schooling actually works could think that new national standards are going to make a difference.

About our First Person series:

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