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How 'High Standards' Are Like '7-Minute Abs'

Last week, my friend and colleague Nat Malkus penned a smart piece over at U.S. News pointing out that, compared to other nations, Americans seem to have an exaggerated sense of our skills and knowledge. In discussing possible remedies, he touched on the role of higher academic standards. Like Nat, I'll avoid wading into the whole Common Core imbroglio. I will just say, though, that I've never really been able to get on board the high standards train. It's not that I'm opposed to "high standards." It's more that the whole exercise often winds up stifling any serious discussion about what students need to know or why they need to know it. 

Let me try to put it another way. My take should be pretty intuitive for anyone who recalls the "7-Minute Abs" routine from the 1990s Ben Stiller-Cameron Diaz movie There's Something About Mary. In an iconic scene, Ben Stiller's Ted is driving down to Florida to find Cameron Diaz's Mary. Along the way, Ted stops and picks up a crazed hitchhiker who's lugging a duffel bag. At some point, while they're tooling along, the hitchhiker looks over at Ted: 

Hitchhiker: You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs? 
Ted: Yeah, sure, 8-Minute Abs. The exercise video. 
Hitchhiker: Yeah, this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7 Minute Abs . . . Think about it. You walk into a video store, you see 8-Minute Abs sitting there, there's 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you going to pick, man? 
Ted: I'd go for the 7. 
Hitchhiker: Bingo, man, bingo. 7-Minute Abs. And we guarantee just as good a workout as the 8-minute folk. 
Ted: You guarantee it? How do you do that? 
Hitchhiker: If you're not happy with the first 7 minutes, we're going to send you the extra minute free.   
Ted: That's good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you're in trouble, huh? 
Hitchhiker: No! No, no, not 6! That's crazy! Nobody's coming up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? 

I can't begin to count the number of times I've been told that our standards have been "too low" and that the proposed standards are better, higher, and more rigorous. Yet every time I hear all this, I think of the crazy guy pushing his 7-minute abs. After all, when I voice concerns that this or that "high" standard is unhelpfully ambitious or otherwise out-of-whack, the advocates shake their heads and just insist, "Our new standards are so much better than those old ones" (sounding a bit like Donald Trump, come to think of it).

Sometimes I ask, "Okay, but why aren't we shooting higher still? How come we're not requiring that kids master calculus by the end of fifth grade? How come we're not asking students to be able to deconstruct Proust by the end of eighth?" The response is always, "Be serious." They'll tell me that expecting that kindergarteners be able to count to 10 or 20 wasn't rigorous enough but expecting them to count to 100 is (as per the Common Core). When I ask why they shouldn't be able to count to 500 instead, the same champions of high standards look at me and sputter, "Six-minute abs? That's crazy!" In other words, 7-minute abs are brilliant—but 6-minute abs is nuts.

Crafting standards is a matter of judgment, not one of scientific precision. Case in point: even the champions of "high standards" don't actually want the "highest" standards. What they want are the standards they're currently promoting, which they think are . . .  just right. These advocates tend to be staggeringly confident in their judgment on all this, even the ones who have never taught, designed or studied curricula or standards.

For what it's worth, I think that it's tough to objectively compare the "rigor" of various standards or to know when a standard is impractical rather than demanding. I'm okay with advocates who believe that a certain set of standards gets it just right. I just wish they were a little less insistent that everyone else agree with them. 

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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