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In Defense of (Some) Standards

Standards. Not a word that engenders much enthusiasm from hardworking K-12 practitioners—and a concept that hangs like a murky cloud over most classrooms in America. Standards are a daily part of teaching now, from guessing which ones will appear on the high-stakes tests next month, to the dutiful listing of Standards to Be Taught Today on whiteboards, lest the principal drop by.

The general public tends to confuse Standards I (a conceptual outline of essential content to be covered) with Standards II (what students must know and do at a particular age or grade, sometimes attached to negative consequences). When people say "high standards," they're referring to the latter.

A fact that Common Core's early advocates were careful to stress: Standards are not curriculum. (They're what we build the measuring sticks on—the same sticks in Casper, Wyo., and the Bronx.) In the first definition, however, standards and curriculum should be woven together, of a piece. In the second, the leveled comparisons—school to school, teacher to teacher, state to state—are what matter most.

The only standards I used daily as a practitioner were linked to that first definition: Broad outlines of the range of the discipline (in my case, music). Skills, technical and cultural knowledge, performance aspects—and Big Ideas about music in the world. The National Standards for Music Education, produced in 1994 when folks weren't thinking about standardized assessment for music, were a useful tool for me to build better lessons and widen the scope of what I was trying to teach.

I had been a teacher for 20 years when I first read the 1994 standards. Absorbing them and experimenting with adding new, standards-based lessons into daily practice completely changed the learning goals I set for my students. In fact, they transformed my perspective on the role of a middle school music teacher. I was reminded of this while watching this oldie-but-goodie video, shared on a Band Directors Facebook page this week.

In it, author and music education thought leader Bennett Reimer discusses the impact of the 1994 standards on changing practice in music classrooms. There were nine standards, and most music teachers thoroughly covered only the first two—myself included. When reading them, I was faced with the realization that large segments of important content were missing in my classroom, including things that music teachers often say they do, but seldom accomplish: nurturing student creativity and aesthetic expression, for example.

The 1994 standards (which were always voluntary, and never tied to standardized tests) were replaced in 2014 with the NafME standards. I haven't used the new standards—I was out of the classroom by 2014—but they're very differently organized, and the commentary from teachers who have used them reveals a great deal of anxiety and skepticism. The standards seem to have morphed from guidelines for crafting useful curriculum to benchmarks of teacher and student accomplishment. Each standard comes with a detailed assessment plan.

Because of "accountability," I suppose. That—and the compulsion to sweeping change, a phenomenon well-known to teachers as The Pendulum. That Pendulum has always been a factor in curriculum, instruction and assessment—but lately, there have been negative consequences for veteran teachers who have built workable instructional habits with tools that are no longer "cutting edge."

The funny thing is this: while Reformsters and policy-makers and researchers write and rewrite standards, benchmarks and assessments (or change the names of state standards to avoid the taint of "Common Core"), teachers go on teaching, standards or no standards.

Nobody ever suggests that we take a break from bad-standards teaching or no-standards teaching. If showing up at school every day and developing lessons to teach the children in our care something they will need down the road is the heart of education, then teachers have been doing it, non-stop, since before Horace Mann.

Standards I—the sequencing and organizing of disciplinary content and principles—are not the enemy. It's turning them into rigid, leveled markers of success or failure, tied to assessments, data analysis and even punishment that has (here it comes) politicized the ancient profession of teaching.

Standards will only be productive if the teachers using them have some control over how to do so.

I credit the (old, no longer used) 1994 National Music Standards with pushing me out of a competitive, "build the world's greatest band" mode into becoming a genuine music educator. They made me start thinking about what kids were taking away from my classes that could be used to build richer and more interesting lives. They gently guided me into a more well-rounded teaching practice.

What tools helped you become a better teacher?

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