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National Standards a Wild Goose Chase

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National Standards have emerged as the latest and greatest educational reform, and last week 46 states agreed to participate in an effort to create them. There are some good reasons for national standards. They might allow teachers to collaborate on common curriculum and assessments, and share effective instructional strategies for reaching students. But I do not think good reasons are why this has become so popular.


I think that national standards are a wild goose chase of the sort policymakers love to lead. I think it has become popular for three big reasons. First, it allows us to defer judgment of the strategies central to NCLB. Both Democrats and Republicans signed on to Bush’s major domestic policy initiative in 2001 because it allowed everyone to pretend they were doing something about the achievement gap. Politicians do not have to pass the tests they demand students pass, and they are not judged by how well they have taught students to pass the tests. They did not even need to provide the funding promised when NCLB was originally passed. But they can claim they took “tough” action. Eight years after NCLB began, objective measures like the National Assessment of Educational Progress have revealed stagnation in growth of student achievement, and no significant closing of the achievement gap. So we should be pausing to examine the fundamental strategy embedded in NCLB – standardized tests as the linchpin of reform. But it is easier to fixate on what has emerged as the biggest excuse for this failure – the lack of national standards. If only we had the same yardstick to compare one state to another, the argument goes, that would allow this system of standardization to take full effect.

Secondly, it gives politicians a new project to promote to demonstrate they are still serious about fixing the educational system. We can have commissions and hearings and proclamations about competitiveness -- very exciting! Third, it allows the testing and publishing industries a chance to make literally billions of dollars of profit from revamping the curriculum and tests from coast to coast.

Let’s take a look at the primary argument advanced by those favoring national standards. These standards are supposed to fix the problem posed by the unfairness created by the fact that some states set “easy” standards, and thus ace their NCLB challenge, while others, like California, have much “tougher” standards. But if this was the problem, then shouldn’t we see the tough standards approach working within California, -- an educational system of thousands of schools and millions of students -- where we have had highly prescriptive state-wide standards and tests aligned to them for more than a decade?

I have taught in California for 23 years, and while I see our schools becoming more adept at preparing students for these tests, I do not see the deeper learning and equitable outcomes I would associate with real progress. I see students dropping out, and teachers leaving the profession in droves. Meanwhile, the Governor is preparing to make huge budget cuts to the already cash-starved schools. But while the schools whither from lack of funding, and many of the students in urban districts like mine are taught by revolving streams of poorly trained interns, the Governor can continue to proclaim that we have “world-class educational standards” and we are “holding schools accountable.”

What really matters for our students? First of all, they are affected by underlying economic conditions. They need three square meals a day, decent health care, and safe neighborhoods. In their schools, they need teachers who can earn enough to stay in the profession, so they become experts. They need teachers who have time in their day to plan and collaborate together, to develop themselves as professionals. We all need opportunities for parents and teachers and students to come together to create nurturing communities centered on learning. That learning should be tied as closely as possible to the aspirations of those students, their parents and the communities in which they live. National standards will have very little effect on these things, and in some ways could even work against them.

And what about a democratic process? We are apparently about to be handed a set of standards that will dictate what is taught in millions of classrooms across this nation. How will these have been arrived at? Who, besides the Gates Foundation millionaire’s club, and the standardized test companies and the publishing companies will have been engaged in this profoundly civic process?

I would dearly love to be proved wrong in these rather cynical thoughts. I would be thrilled if teachers, parents and students across the country were actually invited to become engaged in the deep questions surrounding what, as a nation, we agree all students should learn, and how that learning could be measured in ways that move us away from the standardized tests decried by candidate Obama a year ago on the campaign trail. But somehow I do not think that is likely to be the process. Rather, I see this as an exercise in distraction, a wild goose chase on a national scale.

What do you think? Will national standards fix what is wrong with NCLB? Are there other good reasons to support them?

Photo credit: Dustin DeKoekkoek, Creative Commons


Great analysis, Anthony. My response got so long, I blogged it. You always give us good thought food. Haven't the science teachers put forward national standards for their content area like the NCTM (math) and NCTE (English) teachers did back in the late 80s? What's your opinion of them? I have not heard mention of any of those during this current standards frenzy.

You are correct that there were National Science Education Standards published back in 1996. They are available online here: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4962&page=1

They actually are pretty good. They emphasize active inquiry. The introduction states: "The Standards call for more than "science as process," in which students learn such skills as observing, inferring, and experimenting. Inquiry is central to science learning. When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills."

But they are not designed to be used as the basis for standardized tests. And since the primary goal of the current effort seems to be to align tests across the nation, I doubt whether the constructivist spirit of the NSES would survive.

I agree with your premise that the National Standards movement is a wild goose chase. Although there may be benefits to greater alignment of curriculum, I fear the push of standardized curriculum and testing nationwide will only further remove rank and file teachers from the process. It is typical that the larger any government initiative is the more inefficient and ineffective it becomes. As far as politicians are concerned it is easy to be in favor of reform (who isn't?), but will the reform lead to positive or negative change? I'm afraid it will be a waste of time and money that could be spent focused bolstering what we know works.

National standards seem to be good commons sense to me (though given the history of education policymaking, I agree that it's natural to be skeptical). It's something many educators have been demanding for years.

Quite to the contrary of the point that this gives textbook publishers a new way to make money, I think that this could make the way clear for open-licensed textbooks. Without so many different sets of state standards and assessments to address, open-licensed textbooks could make a meaningful entrance in this market, potentially saving taxpayers billions. More importantly, open-licensed curriculum resources can be customized for learner needs, making differentiation more feasible.

That is an optimistic counterpoint, and it would be nice to think that with national standards we would get a more diverse set of tools to work with different types of learners. But in California, the state must approve the curriculum schools can choose to purchase, and historically it is only large publishers that have the resources to produce texts that meet their criteria. Perhaps that could change under a new system -- that would certainly be welcome. But I really wonder about your second point, that diverse learners might be better served. The primary motive for national standards is to allow for common measurements of students across the country The whole premise is that all students should know and be able to do the same things at every grade level, whether they are in Ketchikan or Kalamazoo. This seems likely to produce more standardization of curriculum, not more diversity.

Not to mention that basic child psychology tells us that all children to do NOT develop at the same rate or in the same order! So, how can teaching them all the same material at the same age be the right thing for them?

I agree that the national standard hunt is just another red herring. Yes, I said "another", just like NCLB and others before it.

The problem is we're working with an outdated one-size-fits all school model. It was designed when the average American completed 8th grade and then entered the workforce. Only students heading for college continued through high school.

Now, we're trying to take what was originally meant to be a college prep school and turn it into basic education for everyone. No wonder it doesn't work.

And that's before you even look at districts, like mine, that seem to think EVERY student should be preparing for college. Again, college is designed for a specific type of student with specific learning styles. Not all students have the abilities to attend college, not all students need to go to college, not all students WANT to go to college. Yet, we're essentially forcing all students to prepare for college, will they, nil they!

I say it's time to completely overhaul the system! Go to a dual, or tri track system that allows students to get a good basic education while at the same time adequately preparing them for their post secondary lives, whatever they may be.

Okay, I see a lot of concern for standardization. With or without National Standards there is already enough standardization. Let's face it, our nations schools are not competitive with each other with the 50 sets of states standards, so how can we truly be competitive globally.

Let's not forget the benefits of national standards to students who relocate often, there is consistency. If something is not working, you always try to improve it. Reform or not, we have to take action as a nation of people who want our students to succeed.

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