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Why State Standards Trouble Me


Dear Diane,

It's hard to resist making one more stab at it—but there's something beyond logic that pulls us apart on this one! Do send me the California standards you refer to so I can see what you mean by "consensus". Of who? What "compromises" were made along the way? Were they worth it?

And: Are the California standards without "stakes"—just a source of voluntary information—for faculty, students, school boards and the public? But I fear that our correspondent Paul Hoss—who favors such national standards is more realistic in how he sees them being used—as high-stakes tests. His support for them is, in fact, built on such an idea.

A reader asks whether I'd feel differently if it wasn't the State that was setting the standards. Yes, I would. I am very concerned at the impact that a single SAT score has on young people's futures and have joined FairTest (the nation's sole counterweight to the massive testing industry's sales job) in their campaign against its misuse. But Rachel is right. The fact that it's a private choice makes it more palatable to me. Ditto with the math community's publishing their "consensual" viewpoint on what constitutes a good math education and doing their best to promulgate that view—short of mandating it. Although I equally treasure the minority viewpoint—the hold-outs. Over time they often turn out to be ahead of the curve. Ditto for history, science, et al. The Getty Institute at one point had an enormous—and I think harmful—impact on art education through its influence on setting standards for K-12 art. But it was "an influence". It stopped being helpful when it became California's officially sanctioned K-12 art's curriculum.

I also realize that like Richard Rothstein (see Rothstein's American Prospect article, Dec. 17, 2007 ) I see the assumptions that the feds are less biased than locals is happenstance. For example, it was the federal court that turned down voluntary local efforts to end segregation this last year, even as it was the same court that mandated integration a half-century ago.

To change the subject—sort of. It occurs to me that between the ages of 5-18 we are all expected to try to be equally good at "learning" everything we are obliged to study. That means in fact, that we are required in reality to spend more time at the things we are not "naturally" interested in or talented at than those things we take to like a duck to water. An odd way to prepare for a life in which I hope we mostly do the opposite! That's assuming schools (or families) have provided the time for youngsters to develop the passions and interests that make them truly "special" to the world, and which make life itself wonderful to live.

One concern I have about all attempts to assume there ought to be the one-best curriculum or course-of-study is that it squashes, rather than expands, our zest for what strikes our fancy. I know, Diane, that this sounds flaky, but the more I watch young people the more strongly I feel about it. What they need, above all, is exposure to adults who are living their lives with intellectual passion, playfulness. Who are always chasing a new idea or a new way to think about an old idea. And by "ideas" I include far more than what we neatly divide up into academic disciplines.

The old NAEP—with its information-gathering core—doesn't kill that. It may even offer another source for teacherly curiosity: "I wonder how my students would answer that?" "Hmm, if I'd worded it differently…." But it is clearly a hard battle to keep such "standards" from turning into efforts to decide what everyone "ought to" think (know?), and then into tools for "making them" do so.

This week's Sunday New York Times Magazine piece on medical diagnosis, ends with a quote I think is relevant, but I'm not sure exactly how. "Doctors," says author Lisa Sanders, too often "look to the medical literature rather than looking at the patient for their answers." Sanders concludes by quoting Sir William Osler, "a 19th century doctor considered by many the father of modern American medicine" (as follows): 'We miss more by not seeing than by not knowing.'"

Have a wonderful holiday season, Diane (and readers).


P.S. Diane and I are saving for 2008 some amazing stuff about NYC's two newest passions—grading all its schools A-F and giving all 4- and 5-year-olds an IQ test! Both, naturally, in the "name" of equity. My New Year's wish is for both to disappear but…I fear it will take more than New Year's wishes.



Let me qualify my desire for national standards as they relate to high-stakes tests. I do not believe standardized tests should determine retentions. On the contrary, as I've pointed out to you before - all kids learn at different rates. That's a given to anyone who has spent any time in a classroom. That's also fine. I have no problem with this reality and further, I based 34 years of teaching on this philosophy.

I taught a "traditional" classroom for one year where whole group instruction dominated my approach. At the end of that year I came to the conclusion that not only was whole group instruction wrong for the students in the room, but that it was as an egregious affront to what schools should be doing for kids as anything teachers could practice.

I've also pointed out my support for national standards stems from the issue of equity. I believe all kids should have equal access to a high-quality, common body of information that representatives from fifty state DOEs could develop. As a brief aside to the equity issue, national standards could also go a long way in preventing academic redundancies. Remember my example to you about every elementary teacher, regardless of grade, spending every November working with their class on the first Thanksgiving?

I do believe, however, that before we award a youngster a high school diploma it's not too much to ask for them to demonstrate a minimum (ninth grade?) level of competency in mathematics and English/language arts.

My desire for national standards rests on the hope that all youngsters will be able to reach some degree of minimum academic competency before exiting high school. Beyond this I would hope that students will, in fact, be able to use these standards as jumping off points of reference for topics many kids might never be exposed. If presented in an appealing manner teachers will hopefully be able to romance their students into wanting to learn more on a myriad of topics while in school and for the rest of their lives. These standards should never be used to "...squash…our zest for what strikes our fancy."

Best for 2008 to you and Diane.

I don't know if your Christmas break is good for my brain or not. Every time I read the latest post on Standards, I switch positions. I took ten years of Al Shanker's columns to get me to support national standards. Every time I read Deborah's comments I switch to opposition. Then Diane always gets me back to supporting them somewhat, although I don't think they are worth the effort. I think Deb's arguments are more profound. But then again, we ought to be able to organize a consensus around Diane's position.

But the next debate will be fun too.

"What they need, above all, is exposure to adults who are living their lives with intellectual passion, playfulness. Who are always chasing a new idea or a new way to think about an old idea."

The thing with school reform is this: failing schools looking to improve are always implementing new curricula, textbook series, and methodologies. From the standpoint of the classroom teacher, the first time utilizing new materials is always rocky. However, there is a certain amount of pressure to get it right. The classroom teacher hones, and hones, and hones, and BAM! All of the sudden, that curriculum is out the window, and—given that the school is still failing, given that there needs to be a constant appearance of working towards improvement—the administrators mandate another one. After all, the easiest way to maintain the appearance of working towards improvement is to acknowledge that present methods aren't successful, and to spend a little money on a new fancy program, leaving it to the teachers to implement it.

How can they be expected to demonstrate that they live their lives with intellectual passion and playfulness? America's teachers are suffering a slow death at the hands of these programs.... programs.... programs...

As everyone knows, teacher retention is a problem. Most teachers I know who have switched professions cite burn-out as their primary complaint. They can't just TEACH--i.e. showing students how to live their lives with intellectual passion and playfulness--because they're too busy jumping through the hoops set up by do-gooders who want to help kids but don't work with them on a daily basis. Implementing different standards isn't the answer--it shouldn't even be the question. Standards serve the important purpose of guiding teachers in their lesson planning and helping to ensure that there isn't an egregious amount of overlap from year to year. That's it. Teachers are already using standards. Leave the standards alone. Let the teachers TEACH.

I guess my point is this: the school reform debate needn't be about standards. Let's have it be about teachers. Let's have it be about schools of education. 18-year-olds with teacherly ambitions enter Ed schools with the intellectual foundation provided by American high schools--cursory knowledge of history, literature, mathematics, science, etc. For most students, this foundation allows a student to decide what discipline he/she wants to pursue in greater depth and detail. Say a certain student chooses a liberal arts major. She is required by a college to take elective courses in other disciplines in order that she becomes the broad-minded, multi-talented learner who knows how to continue learning after the completion of her formal education. The majority of education students, however, are immediately immersed in (1) a perfunctory survey of pedagogical methods (how to appreciate John Dewey's radical project divorced from its context in the history of Western philosophy?!) and (2) classroom practices (treated as a trade--like the culinary arts or auto mechanics). How to inspire a generation of future citizens to live their life with intellectual passion when you yourself have been deprived of the detailed exploration of whatever interests you (whether that's courses covering medieval literature, astronomy, the jazz age, or themes of death and re-birth in German fairy tales)?

I'm not saying that remarkable teachers able to inspire and stimulate their students don't exist. They do. Most teachers, I believe, are teachers because they are passionate about kids and learning. However, let's promote a system which allows teachers to increase their potential as learners before they are made teachers, and a system which allows these teachers the freedom to create unique classrooms where students ask more questions than they answer.

Yes to one and all, and a happy new year. I've often thought the word "burn out" another example of an interesting word whose origins are suggestive of the problem itself. It's a phrase intended to describe that happens to an appliance not human beings. If teachers feel "burnt out" maybe it's because they are being treated like appliances. Which is quite different than being exhausted and even frustrated--which is often the lot of anyone doing a tough and interesting job.


"It occurs to me that between the ages of 5-18 we are all expected to try to be equally good at "learning" everything we are obliged to study. That means in fact, that we are required in reality to spend more time at the things we are not "naturally" interested in or talented at than those things we take to like a duck to water. An odd way to prepare for a life in which I hope we mostly do the opposite!"

I have a minor disability that meant I did not properly pronounce many speech sounds as a child. I did not take like a duck to water to speaking. A pre-school teacher picked up on this and sent me to speech therapy. With much patience and hardwork on the part of the therapist and my parents, I learnt to speak clearly. This skill has allowed me to talk with many people who themslves have problems understanding English. I spent far more time practicing talking than I did learning to read, which was something I took to like a duck to water. I do not regret that my parents insisted on it.

My mother had a deep disinterest in maths at school and failed the subject. Then, years later, she set up a business with a friend and discovered she needed to improve her maths ability to manage the business's finances.

It is often a wise idea to spend time improving in things that we are not naturally "talented" in, because we will likely use this skill in the future in doing things that we are interested, or talented in. Furthermore, tax collectors and financial planners will quite probably take advantage of you if you avoid dealing with money just because you are not naturally interested in or talented at it.

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