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Is it Time to Rethink Standards?

Note: This week, Joshua Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International and veteran superintendent, will be guest-blogging. See his earlier posts here and here.

When I was a new teacher in the mid-1990s, I hated the idea that people far removed from my school could determine the academic standards against which my students were to be assessed. While the New York Regents Exams didn't seem so bad, it bothered me to think that some bureaucrat in a suit somewhere, who was probably afraid to come to Fort Green, Brooklyn, would be so arrogant as to determine what my kids should know and be able to do. Not only that, but at my school we had great instructional leadership: we were organized into Professional Learning Communities; we regularly discussed what and how to teach; and we were expected and encouraged to be leaders—we didn't need anybody to come up with standards for us.

It wasn't until I left the bubble I was in and went to graduate school, a few years before No Child Left Behind was enacted, that I began to understand the reason for standards documents that describe what students should know and be able to do. And it wasn't until I became a central office accountability leader that I fully grasped just how much was riding on the debate about new state and national standards.

Today, having spent most of my professional career in the age of standards-based reform, I would say that the standards movement has been a mixed bag. It has given rise to some powerful practices in schools and districts, leading to improved outcomes for children. And it has served an important moral purpose by revealing how little has been expected of some children, and by inspiring new efforts to ensure that all students have meaningful opportunities to learn. But it has also led to a narrowing of the curriculum, an over-reliance on standardized test scores, and the embrace of policies that run counter to what we know about effective schooling.

For its part, the American public seems to feel lukewarm about standards, too. According to findings from the 2016 PDK poll, parents, especially, have mixed and somewhat inconsistent views. For instance, among those who think that new standards have had a significant impact on their kids' education, 45% say that they have changed things for the better, while 51% say they have made things worse. But then again, 40% of parents say that their children are learning more as a result of new standards, while only 27% say that learning has declined. And, while nearly half (47%) of parents say that new standards have made school more academically challenging for their kids, 31% say that standards haven't made a difference, and 21% think that school has become less challenging.

It's always hard to know what to make of such inconsistent findings, but they leave me wondering whether there might be something fundamentally flawed about the way in which we've been thinking about standards all these years. If so many of us are still so uncertain and ambivalent about them, then maybe we've been digging in the wrong place. It's clear that at the local level, people have real differences of opinion about what matters most in K-12 education. Shouldn't they have at least some opportunity to debate those goals and shape their own standards?

Consider another finding from this year's poll: Americans are deeply divided over the purpose of K-12 education. According to 46% of respondents, the main goal of school is to prepare students academically, but roughly a quarter of respondents say that the primary purpose should be to prepare young people for citizenship and/or work. To my mind, this begs the question of the role that local communities should have in the process by which standards are set.

To be sure, states and districts must hold schools accountable for both the opportunities they provide and the outcomes they get, but why should they insist on a one-sized-fits-all approach to standards-setting? Is that really what people want, and is it defensible, given the fact that education is a local enterprise, funded mostly by local taxes?

Even more important, I'm left with a troubling question about the ethical implications of the prevailing approach to standards-setting: By shutting local communities out of the discussion of educational purposes, doesn't the process, in effect, reinforce an underlying assumption of white supremacy?

Yes, I know how loaded that term is, and I don't use it lightly. My point here isn't to suggest that the people who write standards documents explicitly contend that white people are better than others. But I do think it's urgent for educators to ask how the standards-setting process has been shaped by the institutional racism that pervades all parts of public life, including our departments of education and school districts.

It's hard to object to seemingly neutral descriptors of what children should know and be able to do in math, language arts, and other subject areas. And it's hard to disagree with the idea that all children, no matter their backgrounds, should have opportunities to achieve those standards. But at the same time, it's also hard to deny that the constant attention to standards and accountability over the last two decades has pushed other topics out of the spotlight—especially discussions about what else, besides getting into top colleges, parents may want for their kids.

Perhaps it's time to reframe our conversations about standards to give local communities more power to determine what it means for their children to be well prepared for life after high school. Not that such conversations would be easy, however. For example, I've talked to folks in rural areas who aren't interested in sending their children to college since they might leave the farm, which would compromise the family's future. And I understand their desire to define educational goals that have more to do with agricultural skills, hard work, and responsibility than with AP calculus and Chaucer. But then again, how might their wishes reinforce the "soft bigotry of low expectations," whereby some children are steered toward academic achievement and others are not? Tough questions indeed.

Here is where it's useful, I think, to distinguish between the pursuit of equity and the pursuit of social justice in K-12 education. As I see it, an equitable approach would be to ensure that all students have the supports and opportunities they need to achieve the standards set by the state. And given that so many of our schools do not currently provide all students, particularly students of color, with such supports and opportunities, the pursuit of equity remains absolutely critical.

By contrast, a social justice approach would examine the reasons why such systemic inequities exist in the first place. Why were standardized tests originally developed? (For a great book on this topic, read Todd Rose's The End of Average.) Who has had access to the mechanisms of wealth creation? How have some people been denied pathways to the American dream of education, independence and wealth that have been more readily available to white people? And when it comes to standards, who has been involved in creating them? When states set a single, fixed set of academic standards for all children to achieve, what are the effects on local students and communities?

I can't help but think that if K-12 educational standards continue to be defined by the very same actors working within the very same institutions that have served for so long to rank and sort our children—putting white kids first and black and brown kids after—the effect will be to reinforce, once again, the sense of white supremacy that pervades our schools and our society writ large.

Yes, every child must have access to an education that enables them to achieve high academic standards that will prepare them for college and careers. But unless we rethink the ways in which we define those standards, and unless we empower local communities to adapt those standards to their own purposes, then why would we expect our schools to get different results?

—Joshua Starr

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