The current push for national standards has teachers pulled in different directions. Standards can be useful tools for classroom teachers. We appreciate having a clear set of expectations for our students, and it helps us to work with colleagues when we are all aligned towards the same goals.
But eight years of No Child Left Behind has left many of us deeply wary of the intrusion of reform schemes into our classrooms. And the promise of national standards is usually linked to a case for national standardized tests that will allow all our classrooms to be compared by the same tests.
In the letters that I have been collecting to submit to President Obama and Secretary Duncan, (now downloadable here) the most often expressed and deeply held belief is that we are overemphasizing the importance of test scores, and this is having a terrible effect on our students. But we do not seem to have consensus as a profession about the role of national standards, so I would like to offer my own concerns, and invite some more dialogue.
First of all, here in California, many of our standards have been "raised" so that students in the third grade are supposed to learn about the Periodic Table of Elements, and math content has been pushed downwards so that younger students are expected to learn more. I fear that national standards will spread this trend across the country, because the National Governors' Association has promised the new standards will be at least as "rigorous" as current state standards.
Second, the committee that wrote the draft standards had no classroom teachers, and was dominated by people who work for the big test publishers. The current working groups include some teachers, but I remain concerned about how well teachers are represented in this process. (See a blog entry I posted on this subject back in July of this year.)
Third: The emphasis seems to be to prepare students for college entrance exams. Only a third of our students graduate from college, so why should we build a system that assumes its only purpose is college preparation?
Fourth: The real purpose of national standards is to provide the basis for national standardized tests. National standards seem likely to intensify all the pressure we currently face to prepare students to take tests by allowing every student in the nation to be compared on the same test.
Fifth: We have heard rhetoric about national competitiveness for decades. In 1983 we were warned by the "Nation At Risk" report that our country was going to be overtaken by foreign competitors such as the Japanese. Then we had two decades of economic growth in the US, while the Japanese economy went completely stagnant. As Yong Zhao has pointed out, the strength of our economy and our culture is our creativity and diversity. Trying to make everyone meet the same standard is a dead end culturally and economically. (note: an excellent new interview with Yong Zhao on this subject in PDK can be downloaded here for free.)
What do you think? Will national standards help us teach better? Or will they make the tests even more pervasive in our schools?
Update: In addition to posting an interesting comment below, Marsha Ratzel has posted a blog entry at her Reflections of a Techie blog, responding to this issue.