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Standards and a Peculiarly 'American' Problem

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Dear Diane,

“Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican who represents western Michigan's culturally cohesive Dutch Calvinist communities, opposed NCLB from the start because he thought it would 'tear apart the bond between the schools and the local communities'… He thinks accountability belongs at the local level," notes conservative writer George Will in The Washington Post's Dec 9th issue. Peter and George and I agree.

That’s the first part of my answer to your query, Diane. I am not in favor of arriving at a single definition of being well-educated. And while we could agree on some minimal competencies, that’s hardly what we want to set forth as “standards”—which I view as an aspirational noun, our flag of high hopes.

Anther way to think about it is noted in an amazing little piece in Educational Horizons (Fall 2007) by Fritz Mosher, Susan Fuhrman and David Cohen. They suggest that we have an inadequate conception of the goal of education which results in a discussion of outcomes that “takes place in an empirical vacuum.” Amen.

But equally surprising is a second argument—which is at the core of your letter: your confidence that we could arrive at a consensus! It is so instantly clear to me that it would be either divisive or silly for us to try! As the Northwest Lab once noted, it would take another eight years simply to cover what’s in most state curriculum guides—or what we now call standards. Could we narrow them down? Sure. It could be based on what I see as the critical turning points in history, for example; the books that I see as having that right combination of appeal and importance; to what I see as what’s at the heart and soul of science (the experimental mindset?); and the mathematical competency that can’t be done on a computer and which every citizen must wrestle with. In short, my standard is indeed related to my aspirations for citizenry—what I wish everyone knew before I got up on the speaker’s rostrum to make my argument in favor of x or y or z. But I know it’s absurd! Because people whose expertise and honesty I very much admire disagree with me! Like you. Or George Will.

But even then I’d have to take into account a third dilemma: the political biases of the citizens who send their kids to my school or classroom, not to mention their particular situation, local circumstances, recent history. In a democracy I am, within some bounds, accountable to my community, even if simply in order to be effective with their kids. It’s not enough to have "the law" on my side, I need the actual kids on my side, too.

And then, fourth…I’d have to keep an eye on what is likely to appear on some test for college admissions, SATs or the like, and squeeze that in.

Not to mention, fifth, realizing that each individual student is, hopefully, going to learn more in the 60 years after s/he gets his/her high school diploma than the 12 years before that. My most important contribution requires keeping my eye on that long future stretch of time and how and what my classroom or school did to ignite interest, passion, curiosity, along with a conviction that it’s all important and worthwhile. And do-able.

So even if we could arrive at a consensus, which might be possible if you didn’t let folks like me in the room while you decide, the rest are problematic. This is, to some degree a peculiarly “American” problem—our “melting pot” or “quilt” dilemma. But it’s also related to our size and sense of who “we” are. But finally it’s because we have a far more layperson conception of education—and a healthy distrust (in my opinion) for all elites. There is no American Academy that can pass final judgment on what all kids should speak like. Even prestigious scholars disagree. Even if one side “wins” the political battle for preeminence for a time, the other side doesn’t just give up, but fights on, upsetting the apple cart for the next generation.

At best maybe what we need, in Gerald Graff’s words in a book called "Clueless in Academe," is to view academics as a place to debate, show off, try out, both old and new ideas, over and over, making them in the process “ours”. Ideas come in the form of projects, art works, architectural wonders, inventions, information, as well as a new take on an old subject. It’s the “having of wonderful ideas” that all children have a right to, ideas powerful enough to shape their own futures. It’s not something to be put off until graduate school—it starts at birth, and good schools keep it going day in and day out thereafter.

Deb

P.S. For more on this, see my short chapter in Profession 2007, the Modern Language Association’s annual journal of opinion. (Subscription or fee required.)

21 Comments

I enjoyed the essay in Educational Horizons quite a bit as much of it relates to work I am doing. However, I do not think that the major thrust of the paper supports your position very well (apart from the out of context "empirical vacuum" quote).

The authors are certainly correct that most state definitions of "proficiency" lack hard evidence to link them to "substantial prospects of success when applying a skill, whether in further study, employment, citizenship, or parenthood." But there is almost universal agreement that most of the state standards suffer from being set too low! If there is a literature out there that I have missed from business groups complaining about the problems that they face relative to the glut of overqualified candidates, please direct me to it!

Instead, what we have are reports of businesses which struggle to find applicants who can construct coherent sentences and paragraphs, solve basic problems, use and interpret data, etc.

I like the authors goal for a proposed proficiency standard well enough to repeat it.

"Proficiency also implies a level of competence that would provide substantial prospects of success when applying a skill, whether in further study, employment, citizenship, or parenthood."

The problem arises when these differing definitions of proficiency conflict. Mississippi tells parents that 88% of their fourth grade students are proficient readers, but businesses in some manufacturing fields eliminate 70% of applicants with a simple reading and math test. Which of these groups do you think should alter their definition of proficiency?

The essay you cite seems to me to be a plea for better research (basic and applied) to 1) better understand how proficiency should be measured; 2) better understand the role of "teaching" in student learning; 3) conduct these studies in real-school settings to improve their generalizability, and finally; 4) improve the "strategic" vision of education research to work on "big problems" and search for "big effects" (such as the understanding that "phonemic awareness" is a key ability that kids must attain on their way to learning to read.)

It seems to me that very few of these things are going to happen entirely at the local level. And even if they did, it is hard to imagine that such robust research as these author envision would not be broadly applicable to other localities.

I acknowledge that your reticence with regard to national standards and national testing still represent the conventional wisdom (with a capital C and a capital W!) But I see this changing (slowly) in some people on both the political right and left. Five years ago I thought that we would never see truly national standards in this country, even in the "easy" things like math and science. They may still never come to pass--but I begin to find myself hopeful that they just might!

I do not think that national standards and tests would be a panacea. We would still have 100 other education problems to work on in this country. But in the words of the essay you directed us to, I think that proficiency standards do represent a "big problem" that, if remedied, could result in a "big effect."


Ivan Illich talks about looking "to common sense in the midst of development euphoria." But the national standards and testing people seem incapable of thinking small, no matter what the costs, financial and social, of their easily-measurable, big-effect strategies.

Good piece, but no need to go gaga over George Will's expertise or honesty.

Deborah Meier and George Will on the same policy page? That borders on the bizarre. Another John Dewey Professor and the President of Teachers College attempting to define our multi-pronged and "...inadequate conception of the goal of education." I would prefer to sit on a committee of contemporaries and hammer out a consensus for something as important as the goal of education (or national standards) than listen to some ivory tower 'expert.’ That in-you-face incongruity helps explain the long-running rift between researchers and educators.

Paul - then let's start. Why wait? Find those that you can get along with and start hammering out some standards. Like the Open Source and Creative Commons movement, it can be done even if it is a slow process.

BTW, I would start with either math or science. Both are pretty established. I would also consider 3 or 4 current state standards that are rigorous and use them as a starting point. Oh, and there is a need for a copyright attorney. When you go against the textbook industry, well...

One value in being caught in an ice storm is the reminder of modesty and the limits of humans. The disadvantage is being deprived of the education blogs.

To me, the key issue is the eight additional years that would be required to cover all standards. And how long will it take after another decade of the explosion of knowledge?

Atul Gwande (sp) great New Yorker piece addressed that issue indirectly when explaining why a modest approach like requiring checklist was more effective in saving lives than billions of dollars of high tech.

The medical reformers recognized about 36,000 different permutations on trauma injuries they treat. wouldn't the treatment of pychological, emotional, mental injuries create as many variations. Do educators have to address any fewer possibilities? A comprehensive checklist of Standards and teaching methods would be equally impossible.

A California study of professional development, which I'll check when the ice thaws, said that the big gains in improving high poverty student performance came from addressing the big, simple, obvious issues - like teaching note-taking.

Everyone should read the New Yorker article but I'd stress the modesty of the checklist approach. Firstly, it was not mandated but it began with data to persuade practitioners. Then it empowered nurses and addressed a collaborative, repectful culture. Hospital administrators would listen to doctors concerns and address problems in capacity - as simple as providing the proper soap. And they didn't just dump more paperwork because doctors hade the assistance of nurses. They improved intensive care by adding an intensive, whatever that is. In the same practical spirit, if schools have been identified as "drop out factories" why not hire drop out counselors? Save the theory about the standards we'd like if we had an additional eight years of school for another time.

Since I'm limited to a libraries 1 hour on the computer, I want to jump to the NYT Magazine's explanation of how maids lowered their fat and blood pressure. Maids were polled and they characterized themselves as inactive. One half were given scientific information on the physical activity they were doing. Just giving them facts and nothing else resulted in major gains.

So, why don't we concentrate on better teaching/conversation of everyone of the Standards we should be aspiring to?

By the way, I've been looking forward to this blog for a week and I find a respectful conversation. i get on my other favorites and find more horserace argument of LDH vs. TFA vs. whatever. I'd like to hear about LDH and Obama's, and Hillary's take on the challenging concepts on New Yorker and NYT.

John

One value in being caught in an ice storm is the reminder of modesty and the limits of humans. The disadvantage is being deprived of the education blogs.

To me, the key issue is the eight additional years that would be required to cover all standards. And how long will it take after another decade of the explosion of knowledge?

Atul Gwande (sp) great New Yorker piece addressed that issue indirectly when explaining why a modest approach like requiring checklist was more effective in saving lives than billions of dollars of high tech.

The medical reformers recognized about 36,000 different permutations on trauma injuries they treat. wouldn't the treatment of pychological, emotional, mental injuries create as many variations. Do educators have to address any fewer possibilities? A comprehensive checklist of Standards and teaching methods would be equally impossible.

A California study of professional development, which I'll check when the ice thaws, said that the big gains in improving high poverty student performance came from addressing the big, simple, obvious issues - like teaching note-taking.

Everyone should read the New Yorker article but I'd stress the modesty of the checklist approach. Firstly, it was not mandated but it began with data to persuade practitioners. Then it empowered nurses and addressed a collaborative, repectful culture. Hospital administrators would listen to doctors concerns and address problems in capacity - as simple as providing the proper soap. And they didn't just dump more paperwork because doctors hade the assistance of nurses. They improved intensive care by adding an intensive, whatever that is. In the same practical spirit, if schools have been identified as "drop out factories" why not hire drop out counselors? Save the theory about the standards we'd like if we had an additional eight years of school for another time.

Since I'm limited to a libraries 1 hour on the computer, I want to jump to the NYT Magazine's explanation of how maids lowered their fat and blood pressure. Maids were polled and they characterized themselves as inactive. One half were given scientific information on the physical activity they were doing. Just giving them facts and nothing else resulted in major gains.

So, why don't we concentrate on better teaching/conversation of everyone of the Standards we should be aspiring to?

By the way, I've been looking forward to this blog for a week and I find a respectful conversation. i get on my other favorites and find more horserace argument of LDH vs. TFA vs. whatever. I'd like to hear about LDH and Obama's, and Hillary's take on the challenging concepts on New Yorker and NYT.

John

"So, why don't we concentrate on better teaching/conversation of everyone of the Standards we should be aspiring to?"

I'm not sure I get what you said here. Are you suggesting we should have conversations about top tier standards, not baseline standards (minimum)?

Hmm, I would prefer to start developing baseline standards then to move on to top tier standards.

I would also suggest starting at K or Pre-K and carefully fleshing out the standards so that topics, are properly tracked and sequenced and build in a logical and progressive order (ie math skills).

HELP HELP! I'm gathering data on the reliability and validity of IQ tests of 4-5 year olds-- since NYC is planning to testing them all next fall. IQ is where the standardized testing idea started a century plus ago. Headstart still used them in 1967--and I was required to teach to them! More on this in 2008.

But "standards" and standardized tests do not have to mean the same thing. It’s just likely to. There are nations with “standards” that score high on internationally sampled tests whose kids rarely if ever take such tests. But we’re the USA. We use far far more standardized tests than any nation on earth!

So, question one. Are we talking about setting a national norm in order to get schools to do right? Or just to provide information? If the latter—why not sample the way the international studies do?

Question two. How shall we know whether something has been learned (understood) —and has stuck long enough to influence future student or employer behavior (competence)?? Ask a multiple choice question? Design an experiment? Drive the car?

Question three: Coverage. Take any textbook that you like and look at what it covers. Are proponents of a national curriculum assuming their consensus would cover more, less or the same? Who decides how much is enough? Is more better? What’s the evidence for any of the claims?

Gov't Bureaucrat: I took the Fuhrman et al article you quote to be questioning what we mean in real-life by being competent, proficient. Maybe I misread? Actually I know very few employers who complain about an employees lack of knowledge about an important scientific concept or fact, advanced math, advanced literature or history dates--outside the academy itself. There are some things employers find "missing"--but it's not in what I would call the broad domain of the "liberal arts."

Back to the grind, to relearn more about IQ tests. I was once an expert--but in 30 years I too have forgotten some of the knowledge I once had at my fingertips. They're back "in"?

And thanks, John.

Deborah,

How horrible that NYC is planning on IQ tests for kindergarteners. When will the school department realize that their job is to educate children not evaluate them.

As for IQ references try: Truscott et al., 1994
They measured the reliablity on the WISC-R for 3-6 year olds to be about 0.7

http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=3908025

Erin Johnson

Dickey47,

I mean conversation, scholarly exchange, classroom instruction, in other words, shared learning. Given the explosion of knowledge, mandates ought to be off the table, unless we want to refight things every few years as knowledge increases geometrically. (perhaps the whole point of this accountability movement, at least for the remaining true believers, is to fight people and prove we're as tough as Republicans.

If you really believe in Standards, then you should believe in debate/discussion/dialague. Battle idea with idea and the best ideas emerge. Isn't that an essence of Standards?

The electricity just came on!!!! Be prepared for environmental metaphors.

John

Dickie47-

"I would also consider 3 or 4 current state standards that are rigorous and use them as a starting point." As a Massachusetts public school teacher I believe we have had the best set of standards in the country. I would not be at all opposed to using our state standards and tweaking them a bit. We could also investigate two or three other reliable state standards for corroboration. Massachusetts standards are rigorous, comprehensive, and challenging. They also match up quite well with what the folks from NAEP have developed. Not too sure we'll need that copyright attorney this week. We first need fifty states to agree on what they'd like for minimum competencies in four major disciplines. It seems monumental but this CAN (AND SHOULD) BE DONE. Wouldn't it be something if kids from Mississippi and Alabama had access to the same curricula as kids from Massachusetts? To cover more or less than a textbook? Here's another example as to why teachers CANNOT teach one lesson to the whole class. Some kids will already know these standards before the course begins, some will pick them up immediately, some will require additional teaching/methods, and some will 'get it' only after numerous/varied exposures. Some, god forbid, might not understand them after much effort. They might not yet be ready for them. That's okay because as most teachers realize, kids learn at different rates.

And then, fourth…I’d have to keep an eye on what is likely to appear on some test for college admissions, SATs or the like, and squeeze that in.

The SAT's play an interesting role here... In a way they are de facto national standards for the college bound. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not -- but in any case the feed back they provide on how students are doing is a bit late in the game to be useful to educators.

But I'm not sure why the SAT as high-stakes gate keepers to higher education are less controversial than some national standards of what students should be learning along the way. Maybe because they aren't an actual government mandate?

Paul - I have heard great things about MASS - but are their standards copyrighted? If so, that could be a problem.

I've also heard great things about CA - their math and they are developing a copyleft history book.

I'm in Oregon - don't bother looking at ours. It's pretty mushy.

Dickey 47, kid, you're getting ahead of yourself a bit, aren't you? Yes, we live in a litigious society and I'm sure our standards have some degree of protection but I'm also convinced we'd be more than willing to share them with anyone. Oh, and by the way, they're not perfect either. They're very good, but they too need periodic tweaking. I believe the key to our success was the support we received from the state law makers and the business community. In house, what made a world of difference year after year was the itemized analysis we received as teachers (from the state) telling us what we covered competently and where we could have done better.

Some people will insist this is 'teaching to the test.' But Dickey, I put a different spin on it. I will insist teachers have ALWAYS “taught to the test.” If a teacher spent two weeks covering the American Revolution do you think they gave a test on dividing fractions at the end of that unit? Of course they didn’t. They gave a test on what they covered for the two weeks; the important aspects of the American Revolution. Education reform, state standards, and NCLB simply put all teachers and consequently all students on the same lessons and eventually the same tests.

Yes, teachers are now teaching to the tests (standards), or at least they should be. This means that FINALLY there is a common, agreed upon body of knowledge for all students. By the way, in most states this now common curriculum was developed by educators with an opportunity for the public to offer input. The previous pell-mell approach to public education in this country, which dominated our public schools for a century and a half, is now a thing of the past. Thank goodness! Children statewide now have equal access to the same rich body of knowledge we want for our own children, at least in the states that have developed their standards honestly.


Paul Hoss: Suppose you're a kid, or a teacher, with a different set of ideas about what's most important about the American revolution? Shouldn't you be teaching in ways that open up that possibility? I remember being shocked by the "correct" answer on an old MCAS test re the aftermath of WWI--in which the correct answer to the question re the impact of the Versaille Treaty was--Hitler and Fascism! At leaswt you'll agree that's controversial.

But, while you and Diane agree in part, I'm intrigued by your fundamental disagreement on the role of tests. That's what makes me nervous about her proposal; for too many people tests are seen as a means to either sort or reform, not an indicator--which helps us improve out teacherly practice. The nice thing about teacher or department-designed tests is we can go right back in and re-think it with our students, including trying to make sense of their wrong answers.

Rachel--read next week's column. But the answer is yes! I'm not an SAT fan--it's essetially an attempt to create a college-going IQ test and very destructive for that reason. BUT--it's not imposed by legislative fiat--as yet.

Deb

Deb,

Teacher or department designed tests have their place in schools, just as state/NCLB tests do. If you recall, one of the primary reasons for third-party, impartial, state/NCLB tests were education reform(s) were looking for a truly objective, quantifiable, and unbiased assessment of how students were actually performing/learning. Social promotions and 'feel-good' grades had gotten out of hand (especially with kids NCLB was designed to address), not to mention grossly unreliable. How many times has METCO (Massachusetts inner-city kids farmed out to the suburban schools) sent kids to the suburbs with glowing grades and report cards only to discover these kids were actually grade levels behind their suburban peers? I'll be the first to admit, over the course of a school year a teacher can get close to their students, help them in every way possible, root for them to do well because they're likeable and they're trying. When it comes time to give that youngster a grade however, the teacher can sometimes have the tendency to artificially inflate the grade because, again, the kid appears to be putting in an honest effort and they're rooting for the kid to do well. This is all natural, it’s human nature. That teacher, although they're simply trying to help, is doing the student no favor by inflating their grade; hence the need for third-party, impartial assessments such as an SAT or a state NCLB test.

For John Thompson--I also enjoyed the checklist article. I believe I have encountered the concept before with regard to medical care. I believe it goes something like rather than assuming that patient care can be perfected (delivered with no mistakes), rather assume that there will be mistakes and build in a checks and balances system.

But what I wanted to respond to is your suggestion of the addition of a "drop-out counselor," to assist in the "drop-out factories." I think the biggest problem is that this is typical of the non-systemic response to many problems in the schools. First identify the problem as resident not in the system of education, but in the individual students themselves. Then bring in a "fixer." In a typical school system--or especially a drop-out factory--a drop-out counselor will quickly become overwhelmed in trying to "fix" students who are the natural outcome of a dysfunctional system (one that does not respond to the needs of its students).

Unless that drop-out counselor is empowered to work at reforming the system itself (looking at early intervention in learning difficulties, calling a halt to "push-out" strategies where they exist, reforming the school climate to one that accepts and welcomes the actual students and families as they present), s/he will become yet another disconnected and futile element of non-improvement.

Deb:
Q1: I would imagine that the standards would be for creating tests that would help students, parents, teachers, and school officials compare students. It would have NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

Q2: This is not a norm type test - testing whether a skill or concept has been learned over time. The Direct Instruction people have wonderful literature on this. Basically a skill is learned to mastery (over time) by (a) teaching to accuracy (b) teaching to fluency - ie 40 math facts in 1 minute (c) the skill is generalized - the student can now use multiplication math facts in multiplying 2 one hundred digit numbers. These skills need to be "touched" upon over time to ensure it has stayed (again, see the DI people)

Q3: I think we should design the standards AND the textbook/curriculum at the same time. Make it "open source" so that states can mold it to their liking. It would cover a basic amount of stuff and others can add to it. Who decides? Uh smart people like you. If you take too long to do it, then dumb people like me will run with it.

Paul - I am already running with it. As I quit my job in 3 weeks I will be dedicating time to designing this stuff because no one else is doing it without copyright strings attached. We don't want the textbook industry coming after us do we?

GET OUT OF THE BOX BEFORE IT IMPLODES!


With proper funding and a sufficient task force, rigorous, realistic, and sequential Standards could be developed in less than a year.


This is not a job for professors, pudits and philosophers. The task can be easily completed by real educators. The only obstacle is funding. Real educators are working for living.


If Standards are sequential in nature, there is no issue of mutiple tiers.


If students were allowed to progress at their own pace through the Standards of each discipline (independent of so-called "grade level"), each would be able to discover and develop their true potential.


With all we know about about how humans develop and learn, doesn't it seem absurd that we place our 5 - 17 year olds in courses of instruction based on their date of birth? i.e., "You're 8 years old, you should be able to (insert competency)! And if you can't... you're a failure!"


For many of our nation's children, dropping out is the only sane response.

"If students were allowed to progress at their own pace through the Standards of each discipline (independent of so-called "grade level"), each would be able to discover and develop their true potential."

Educate For A Change, this is really quite profound. Whenever I've attempted to raise the possibility of kids progressing at their own pace it was like I was speaking a foreign language. Either they didn't understand what I was talking about or they didn't want to acknowledge it was possible.

It's more work for the teacher (me) but it's what SHOULD be done for each student.

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