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Standards are Within Our Reach


Dear Debbie,

I don't agree with your judgment—and the judgment of some (but not all) of our readers—about whether it is feasible to craft useful standards. It is difficult, but not impossible. I'll explain why I think this is so.

First, I served on a committee charged with developing history standards for the state of California in the mid-1980s. The committee included historians; knowledgeable teachers and administrators from elementary schools, junior high schools, and high schools; geographers; child-development specialists; and people from various disciplinary organizations. We wrangled, we discussed, we debated. We talked about concepts and details. We parsed every word of every draft. Eventually we ended up with excellent standards for teaching history (including geography, economics, civics, and government) from kindergarden to twelfth grade. The standards were reviewed by over 1,000 teachers, and improved as a result. There were public hearings. Eventually the standards were endorsed by the state Board of Education in 1988. Since then, they have been updated in light of changing events (e.g., the collapse of the Soviet Union), and they have been re-endorsed by the state Board of Education. I believe they have helped to strengthen and enrich history education across the state, expanding world history from one required year to three required years and adding age-appropriate study of history in the elementary grades, among other things. I consider it a minor miracle that those standards are still in use, 20 years later, when California has thrown out and revised its standards in every other subject.

Second, to those who say that consensus is impossible, I would point to the brilliant and still unappreciated work of the College Board from 1901 to the 1940s. For nearly half a century, the College Board examinations in many subjects were written and graded by teachers and professors in collaboration. Each year, groups of teachers and professors met to agree on the standards and to write a syllabus. Each year, many thousands of students "sat" for the examinations, and these examinations were graded by teachers and professors. Working together, and working for a non-governmental private organization, these scholars established high standards for the nation that have never again been equaled. If you are wondering why this wonderful arrangement has disappeared, the answer is that the College Board decided to scrap the system and replace it with the "scientific" multiple-choice tests that were the wonder of the psychometric world. So fast, so easy, so effortless, so easy to grade by machine instead of fallible human judgment! (I wrote about this turn of events in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education called "The Fall of the Standard-Bearers." I judged it a mini-tragedy that this wonderful system based on the hard work and judgment of practitioners was replaced by the content-free, curriculum-free SAT.

Third, to those who say that issues like evolution make it impossible to have meaningful standards, I say "Nonsense!" Political scientists have long known that the smaller the political unit, the more likely it is to produce and reproduce local biases. This is why the federal government—not localities or states—was responsible for establishing and enforcing standards for civil rights laws, because it was the political agency most removed from local prejudices. In my seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board, I never heard anyone speak a word on behalf of creationism. Yet we know that creationism is alive and well on local school boards and state school boards. The very nature of the federal government guarantees that deliberations about national standards would be open, transparent, subject to verification by scientific authority, and unlikely to cave in to political pressures from small intense organizations.

It continues to amaze me that so many people, including you, think that national standards are an impossibility or are dangerous when so many other nations have managed to develop them. As I have written on more than one occasion, I would not want "stakes" attached to them by Congress or the federal government. I think that the federal government's role is to set standards and to produce good information. It should be left to state and local school boards to decide how to act on that information.



In the case of science, the NAGB history may be comforting in terms of the scale of decision-making. But that's less evident in your story of what happened in California, where the state level had a better outcome than what happened at the national level.

In the case of science, the NAGB history may be comforting in terms of the scale of decision-making. But that's less evident in your story of what happened in California, where the state level had a better outcome than what happened at the national level.

That doesn't mean that there can't be curriculum guidelines that make sense, but I don't think a federalized process inherently protects its credibility.

Do you have any response to the comment I left here:

I'll try to resummarize:

To what extent does Deborah agree with modern day progressive proponents and notions (like Alfie Kohn, videogames in education, etc.) and you with conservative/traditional notions (E.D. Hirsch, core curriculum, teaching the bible in schools).

And the other question was about national standards vs. local control, to requote:

I don't understand the transition to your final points:

"I still think we would be better off with national standards and national tests,"

but you also say:

"The federal government should not be in the business of telling schools HOW [my emphasis] to teach or how to organize themselves"

"Decisions about how to help schools should belong to states and localities....who know the schools best."

Wouldn't it make sense to include more of the HOW in addition to the WHAT in national standards? Because wasn't that Dewey's problem? People weren't following the HOW close enough. Second, are local school boards really more qualified at making decisions about schooling? Third, by national standards & tests, do you mean for example the national standards for math and science, or do you mean like the E.D. Hirsch cultural literacy standards and tests? See more on that below.

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Let's have national standards where there is national consensus (and I suspect there's more consensus in more areas than we think), and leave room for states to add locally important topics or approaches as they see fit--in areas where there is no consensus but also in areas where local history, geography, etc., are important.

Obviously, things like evolution will be tricky, because states would not be allowed to remove federal standards and replace them. But if some state can actually, by majority vote, decide to ADD creationism to the teaching of evolution, and that's what they want to send their children out into the world with, then all right.

But to dismiss outright the idea that we can reach ANY kind of consensus on what to teach our children is chilling. Education is not just the drilling of skills; it's also the transmission of culture and history from one generation to the next. To refuse to do the hard work of reaching consensus on what defines "us" and what we want to pass to our children is to say that you do not have any culture or definition or worldview to pass on. If diversity of opinion is part of our treasured worldview, teach THAT. But to say "we can't decide" is to say we treasure nothing.


Two points, one having to do with the "impossibility" of reaching concensus on national standards, and the other on the "desirability" of doing so.

First, a lot depends on what is meant by "consensus," doesn't it? If you mean consensus by a select group of people from various constituencies, but not representative of anyone but themselves, nor responsive to any group of people, yes, of course you could reach a concensus. The larger the government (i.e., from city, to state, to federal) the less these "representatives" are going to represent or be responsive to anyone. But more pointedly, your comment about no one speaking on behalf of creationism on the National Assessment Governing Board makes me wonder what other controversies were left out of that body, or the California board you sat on. In the California case, what did you do about the deep critiques of "official history" being about white rich men? Was labor history included or ignored? Did "actors" in your history standards reflect the population as a whole? Did the "theme" of the history standards tell the "grand narrative" of how the U.S. came from humble beginnings to become the "greatest country on Earth?" In my experience, the way each of these questions, among others, is answered divides large groups of people to such a degree that "consensus" is not even within viewing distance (and if simple majority rules, the "official history" will be the "grand narrative" about the greatness of rich white men who founded and led this country, with token exceptions).

Second, on the desirability of national standards. Okay, so a select group of people created a document, the history standards for the state of California. Now, nearly 20 years hence, what is the evidence that California schools and students are the better for it? I have read the California drop out rate keeps climbing, the achievement gap keeps growing, what can you point to?

My guess is that evidence will not be in your favor. A set of state or national standards does nothing to make subject matter come to life for students. Was Jaime Escalante (depicted in the film "Stand and Deliver") successful at teaching math to poor Mexican-American students in L.A. because he taught the "standards" particularly well? No, he taught calculus to students almost nobody thought could learn it, and likely transformed their lives because of it.

We must get back to the question of what learning is about, and what it looks like when students, particularly those without strong support from home, get turned onto learning, and what policies can be implimented to support that work. My guess is that it will be what is relevant to students--including local knowledge, as well as the particular passions and knowledge of the teachers with whom they work.

-Matthew Knoester

P.S. Several people on this blog have pointed to the "failure" of local school boards. I don't disagree with that--can anyone name their local schoolboard members, for example? They don't seem to represent anyone, and have almost no means to communicate with their "constituents." Aside from fixing that broken system, perhaps we should be looking at more school-based decision making models. Or, perhaps New England "town hall" meetings, and other forms of more face-to-face democratic processes.

This is the first time I've had any hope about national standards. I have serious concerns about what those would look like, but your writing here has helped me see the positives. Now, my biggest concern lies in your first paragraph: "It is difficult, but not impossible." I'm afraid we'll take easy ways out rather than face the challenges necessary to do it well. But, it's heartening to think it is possible.

I would hope teaching the bible (under traditional) would stay out of the schools.

Federal lawmakers will first have to decide that creating national standards would be desirable. I believe strongly that they would be. Creating national standards and coming to consensus on them would be a very important next step in the process. These are the preliminaries.

Take existing standards from NAEP/NAGB along with standards from some of the more successful states such as Massachusetts. Examine standards from other sources, if desired. Study them. Use them as a guide. Develop the new standards. Tweak them, if necessary. Come to the all important consensus.

For me, as I've stated numerous times in this blog, the crucial outcome of national standards for our public schools would be one of EQUITY. Kids from Alaska to Florida, and Maine to Hawaii would have equal access to a common body of knowledge. From national standards no group should have an advantage and none should be at a disadvantage because of the actions of state officials. With this ‘education’ they should be sufficiently equipped to become successful and contributing members of American society.

In the end these standards should afford kids from all over the country, of any religion, rich or poor, black or white, equal access to the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children.

Several people on this blog have pointed to the "failure" of local school boards. I don't disagree with that--can anyone name their local schoolboard members, for example? They don't seem to represent anyone, and have almost no means to communicate with their "constituents." Aside from fixing that broken system, perhaps we should be looking at more school-based decision making models. Or, perhaps New England "town hall" meetings, and other forms of more face-to-face democratic processes.

I can name all seven of our district's board members, but I suppose that doesn't tell you much, since I'm one of them...

Local boards certainly aren't perfect, but I can't see many of the alternatives as preferable.

School-level decision making is wonderful when it works well. It was one of the original driving ideas of the charter school movement, but charters seem to be moving in the direction of "chains" (KIPP, Green Dot, etc) which don't seem all that different in scale than most school districts. You certainly need some level of school-level decision making, but if that's all you have, I think you often get more isolation than works well in education.

On the other hand, I really wouldn't want the only public accountability for schools to be at the state or federal level, or even at the mayoral level in large cities.

So I think there's a sweet spot (or sweet-ish spot) at a level where districts are small enough that people see themselves as a community, but large enough to have a certain amount of diversity. Probably in our district most parents couldn't name the school board members -- but I'm not sure they'd do a lot better with the city council. However, just as people know that if they want something in city services to change, they go to the city council, they know that if they want something in the local schools to change, they go to the school board.

Certainly there are difficulties -- but school boards are one of the few entities left where a low-budget, grass-roots political campaign can actually have an impact, and I don't think that a bad thing for democracy.


How can standards lead to equity if we don't know they lead to quality education?

A few thoughts on recent comments.

Why is it chilling, Andrew, to think we can’t reach consensus? I’ve been living all my life nonconsensually. I’ve taught families and kids who were fundamentalist Christians and who told me, sadly, that I would alas go to hell; and Seventh Day Adventists; and Orthodox Jews; and atheists, and so on. I promised them I would not “transmit” my culture and history to their kids, although we’d discuss it along with a lot of other stuff; that I would be respectful of their views, as long as their kids were allowed to live in school by the five habits of mind—and where they couldn’t—we’d talk about it!.

Democracy’s only chance lies with the very idea that we can live with our differences in ways that give us sufficient escapes when decisions are made that cannot tolerate—thus even the conscientious objector status in wartime. I want to make that as easy, not as hard, as possible—especially when ideas “only” are at stake. I want to challenge, but not confront.

If we can’t “trust” those closest to the child—their own families, their neighbors and community—to make wrestle with these trade-offs, how in the world can we trust those further removed? And why?

I trust, and I’m skeptical. Both at once. There’s a tension between these two stances that I have to live by. I like Margaret Spelling’s (Bush’s woman in D.C.) recent remarks re college education’. “Let me repeat: no one-size-fits-all measures. No standardized tests. All I ask is that institutions be more clear about the benefits they offer to students.”

And I say that for K-12, this is even more critical. We need to be public and clear—school by school?-- what it is we want to transmit to the next generation and how we go about judging whether we’re succeeding.

Local school Boards are a symptom of a failure of our democracy. When democracy is running low—as it is these days-- do we give up on it or try to make more viable? I have a few ideas on that score.

Re the query from Douglas--re Kohn and Hirsch—I’ve lost the previous reference. I love to argue with Alfie and I also think he’s usually right. Re Hirsch—better some core than none—but I don’t need his once-over-lightly lists, and think they do not an educated-person make.


A Scientific Prediction From Genesis

Besides myself, all others that try to tell us what Genesis says do not understand the text, and are speaking from ignorance. I’m sorry to have to take this position, but there are too many false teachers and unqualified people talking about “creation\evolution debates” (when no such contest exists), and proclaiming false doctrines about Genesis, such as Creation Science, theistic evolution, progressive creation, and “gap” theories. There is even the fad of “Intelligent Design”, which is a big waste of time, and has almost nothing of value to offer.

There are no “creation accounts” in Genesis. The opposing view of evolution is what I call “the Observations of Moses”, which were visions of six days from the past, given to Moses by God, on Mt. Sinai in 1598 BC. Each day was taken from a different day of the week, each week being the first week from a different geologic age of mankind.

Having said that, I am now making this declaration, so that mankind may know that the words and events written in Genesis are true, and the humanist theories of our origins are false. I predict that secular science shall soon find, if they have not already, solid evidence of prehistoric mankind, which is earlier than 30 million years in age. The book “Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!”, states from Genesis that mankind has been in his present likeness for over 60 million years. Moses wrote about extinction and restoration.

Herman Cummings
PO Box 1745
Fortson GA, 31808
[email protected]


Guess I got ahead of myself a bit. However, I'd have to believe if representatives from fifty state DOEs got together to develop national standards, the majority of the people in the room would argue for those standards to be on the rigorous side. Remember my plea for standards that would afford all students, "...equal access to the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children." Would you develop standards for your child that were anything less?


What I want for my own children is a high quality education, but I don't think that is ensured or even more likely with state or federal standards. I think it comes from a school and set of teachers with a mission--which may or may not be the same as that of your child's school. The best teaching, I think, happens when teachers are knowledgeable and passionate about their subject, and can be public about what they're doing (not "behind closed doors"), and they have a plan for their particular students, based on a powerful theory of learning and assessment (which, again, may be different from your theory of learning), and enjoys support (critical, skeptical support, perhaps) from the school and community (which is involved in the process).

Is that likely to happen with more standards and standardization? I don't think so. We tend to see standards as part of the efficient governance of schools that somehow leads to more efficient learning for students. Why is that? Is it because that's how it is done in some businesses, such as how GM pumps out a huge number of cars per day on an assembly line?

Teaching and learning is a lot more complex than building cars and we completely misunderstand the learning process if this is the model we depend on. The standardization approach also undermines community participation in the governance process.

We need to build up from what we know about powerful teaching and learning. Good models can coexist--looking different from each other, even in the same district. The hard work of equity is about equitably supporting the learning process, not forcing everyone to do what you think is best with standards and standardized tests. But it is by supporting (financially, politically) high quality teaching, professional development, smaller schools, local decision-making processes that lead to more community involvement, multiple forms of assessment, you know, the HARD STUFF that takes time and effort, not over-night "solutions" (that actually make things worse).


My thoughts here are simply one person's opinion, which I believe I am allowed to express on a public blog. After 34 years as a Massachusetts public school teacher I believe I have something to add to this discussion. I have no more say as to whether this country adopts national standards than you do, but I am (as are you) entitled to my opinion.

In addition, I am not attempting to FORCE anyone to do what I think is best but I AM trying to CONVINCE readers of “Bridging Difference” that national standards are worth further examination. After all, here in the good old US of A, hasn’t the free exchange of ideas has always been important to the perpetuation of our democracy?


True enough! And you clearly do read other people's entries carefully, which shows a lot of respect as well.

Cheers and happy holidays!


Dianne Ravitch cites her experience in California as an example of how it is possible to reach consensus in setting standards for an entire state. She tells us that “we” --the State appointed committee she served on-- wrangled, discussed, debated and eventually formulated kindergarten through 12th grade standards for teaching history, geography, economics, civics, and government. The standards she notes were reviewed by over 1000 teachers, and public hearings were held. A mark of their success, she tells us is that 20 years later those standards are still accepted and in use.

There are aspects of this story that she surely knows about that do not fit this glowing account. What followed in the wake of this effort to standardize the social studies and history curriculum by the then recently elected Superintendent of Instruction, Bill Honig, was a rancorous racially charged culture war within several districts across the State. Most notably was the 1991 grassroots rebellion in the Oakland School District. It was, arguably, the most intense, prolonged, and divisive.

On the surface the controversy was over whether the District should adopt the newly written Houghton-Mifflin K-8 social studies textbook series authored by Gary Nash professor of History at UCLA and co-director of The National Center for History in the Schools, who with Dianne Ravitch had played a leading role in drafting the standards on which the series was based This series was and remains the only one approved by the State as aligned to the curriculum framework or ‘standards’. After nine months of acrimonious debates, open meetings, intense organizing efforts, telephone trees, picketing and public demonstrations, the School Board rejected the Houghton-Mifflin books overriding the recommendations of the Superintendent, curriculum coordinator, and a district-wide committee of teachers. In the final vote, all four African American school board members were opposed while the votes of the remaining three members (two Asian-Americans and one white) representing the more affluent areas of the city were divided. Honig dismissed the opposition as leftists who rejected democratic principles. However, the opposition clearly was not as Honig charged a group of “separatists, tribalists and disgruntled leftists” (his words) but a temporarily assembled but nevertheless politically and intellectually sophisticated, well organized, racially mixed, multicultural coalition composed of mostly mainstream educational, business and religious leaders, parents, and teachers.

Clearly the consensus reached by the appointed committee Ravitch served on did not and does not reflect the views of very large numbers of people across the State. Ravitch’s proud claim that the standards remain in place after twenty years must also be taken with a grain of salt. One of the main reasons the content outlines (she calls standards) haven’t changed is that that social studies is mostly ignored K-8 because the emphasis is on jacking up scores on standardized tests that are based primarily on reading, language, and math.

I'm a little late jumping into this conversation hope y'all don't mind.

I was a military brat, and every school I attended (nine, we moved a lot) from grade 1-12 was different, some were behind and I was bored, some were ahead slightly and I struggled to catch up. And worst of all was when I got a school that wasn't even on track, I had been taught things in other schools that weren't even being taught at that grade level.

That is the real result of a lack of national standards. And in this increasing mobile society where people are relocating more and more, we need those standards.

But I think we are confusing standards with teaching in our discussions. Standards should be a statement of what needs to be learned at a given grade level in a given subject. The prerequisites for the next grade in other words. How to teach to those standards should be a teacher determination.

If we test the standard, we can see if the teacher is getting things done or not, and if not then that teacher needs to be made to consider changing the method they teach with. But all too often the school boards, or the District or the state sends down mandates from on high telling teachers you will follow this system no deviations. I doubt that any of us does anything in life the exact same way, so why should teachers be expected to conform to a cookie cutter style too.

For years I was taught history, on this date that happened, on that date something else happened. Then one year I had a teacher who taught it as a whole, the whys and the long term effects of what happened on that date - all of a sudden it made sense. Teaching technique made the difference, not the standard.

And before someone jumps in to say well the dates would have been what was tested so you would have met the standard, no I wouldn't have. Because of that first teaching technique I didn't learn anything useful, I couldn't retain it.

The concept that if a standard is 20 years old it is no longer valid or should be taken with a grain of salt is ludicrous. 2+2 still equals 4, that is a standard. When the Magna Carta was signed and what it did for civilization has not changed. The symbol H2O still means two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen.

More and more professions have standards, it is no longer mainly the purview of the blue collar world where you have apprentices, journeymen and masters. Why is it that we get so gun shy about a national standard, shouldn't one country have one standard?

But a standard needs to be just that, a prerequisite for progress, not the way to get to the standard.

Jim E. -- Two words.... Right On!

It's amazing how clear the issues are to real teachers, and how complex they become when addressed by philosphers, politicians, pundits, and professors. Those who make their living off the disfunctional public education system are not the ones to look to for answers.

When a real teacher is standing in front of real students, the hogwash is irrelevant.

It's time to Educate For A Change. That means establishing world-class, rigorous, realistic, and sequential Standards as pathways for each discipline, and then allowing each individual the DIGNITY of progressing along those pathways at their own pace.

Standards are not descriptors of what constitutes an educated person, but they do describe the requisite knowledge, skills, and understandings (competencies) in the several disciplines upon which individuals can build productive lives.

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