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Standards: Demystifying, Debunking and Discrediting

We are decades into the Education Standards Movement. Standards have been all the rage for quite some time, and they are getting all kinds of attention today. Right now, there is all kinds of work on national standards going on.

But I say, “Feh!” Standards do not matter — particularly national standards — even if we dearly want them to.

What Are Standards, Anyway?

Standards prescribe and specify what should be done in school. In that, they are similar to curricula and lesson plans. In fact, the line between standards and curricula can be hard to distinguish — as can the line between curricula and lesson plans. As a rule, however, standards are the least specific of the three, and focus on what should be taught, rather than how it should be taught.

So, standards documents describe the goals of a course or a subject. They are the bar or the target, depending on your preferred metaphor. They declare what should be taught, what students should learn and/or what they should be able to do by their course’s end.

When I was teaching in New York not that long ago, each of the English teachers in my school was required to have a poster of the ELA standards up in their classrooms. The contents were probably just a couple of pages long, and they specified what students should learn in their high school English classes.

The widely publicized Common Core draft ELA standards, released last month, can be found in a 47 page document, of which six pages comprise the standards and the rest are explanations and examples to help the reader make sense of them.

Who Creates Standards

Anyone may write standards, and can try to publicize them and get others to pay attention. Rarely, however, will such efforts be successful. Standards simply cannot have more power and authority than the organization that publishes them. NCTM (the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has been publishing standards for decades, and their expertise and credibility have given them a lot of weight.

However, the most important standards have been created by the states. In our system, the federal government has no constitutional role in education, in theory leaving the entire enterprise to the states. In the last fifty years, though the federal role has grown, standards have still remained the province of the states. In 1994, President Clinton tried to foster the creation of voluntary national standards, but was politically unable to do so — due to the efforts of Lynne Cheney and others. This time around, the Council of Chief State School Officers is leading the effort, along with Achieve — a creation of the National Governors Association. Thus, this time we have a national effort that is not tied to the federal government in Washington, DC.

Of course, it is not as though President Clinton, Governor Schwarzenegger or any of the State Superintendents write standards themselves. Rather, they are supporting the creation of standards by teams and committees of experts. These can include text book writers and publishers, teachers, researchers, professors of education, experts in the appropriate content areas and various others. Real people, with real expertise, real agendas — for better and for worse — and real histories.

Six Problems

Over the next week, I will explain the major problems I see with standards efforts, particularly high profile national standards.

Come back through the week and share what you think of each reason. In the meanwhile, do you think that there’s a strong case to be made for strong state or national standards?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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