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The Conversation About Standards We Should Be Having

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I may have mentioned before at some point that my wife is an ESL/ESOL/ELL teacher (choose the acronym most relevant in the place where you live). Just now, as we were sitting on the couch doing what we almost always do on Sunday this time of year—preparing for the week by planning, grading, reading, and thinking—she announced that she had a question. About standards.

I don't remember how she worded it exactly, but the gist was this: Why are so many people confused about the difference between curriculum and standards? She started by listing the standards she's expected to teach to, the WIDA English Language Development Standards. There are five of them, and only five: students are expected to become proficient in the use and understanding of social and instructional language, and the language of the four major academic content areas—language arts, math, science, and social studies. 

I said I liked them: the standards were succinct and clear and established a baseline for curriculum developers (whom I would hope would generally be teachers, but in this world we live in are usually state- or district-level bureaucrats and/or private publishers eager to plan teachers' work right down to every minute of every class meeting of every day) to begin creating everyday learning activities to ensure that students mastered them. These standards, to me, were pretty good because they couldn't be confused with curriculum. I had a lot of problems with No Child Left Behind; one of them was not the much-derided 100% proficiency goals the law established in reading and math. You can set a goal to raise everyone's sights, to give them something to strive toward, and, at the same time, realize that it may not be met by everyone. It's not as crazy as it sounds.

But, boy, does thinking like that sound crazy to a lot of people today. What's the point of having standards, they say, without some way to hold people accountable for meeting them? Why bother setting a standard that you know some people won't meet? My answer is simple: because setting the standard provides a common goal for everyone to reach toward. The proficiency goals set by NCLB weren't the problem; the punishments administered to schools that didn't meet them were. Take away the punishment, they say, and the standards have no "teeth." But standards aren't supposed to have "teeth." They only need teeth if we want them to bite somebody.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, hear me out. It makes perfect sense to me to set the most ambitious goals for my students I think they're capable of reaching, not the least ambitious ones. Every spring I teach a new crop of students eager to learn how to be effective social studies teachers. What sense would it make for me to set a goal to only have, say, 60% of them actually become effective teachers, or to have all them only be 60% effective? It only makes sense to me that my goal would be for every single one of them to get there. Needless to say, that doesn't mean they all do. But that doesn't change the standard I set for myself and for them, and I do everything I can to help them reach that goal. I expect them to do everything they can to reach it too.

What makes this a rational position, though, is what I do to try to get them there: I build an elaborate framework to ensure that they understand the nature of social studies as a school subject, help them understand that knowing something and knowing how to teach it are not always the same thing, and assist them in developing the confidence they need to stand in front of a class of adolescents and convince them that the study of social life actually matters. In other words, I plan a course. I make a curriculum.

The standard I set is, in many ways, inseparable from the curriculum I plan—but that doesn't mean they're the same thing. The standard establishes a point of comparison for me as I talk to other teacher educators and read the research they publish; it helps me decide if I'm accomplishing what amounts to a shared goal as well as they are (I assume that all teacher educators actuallly want to make effective teachers). I know that in my teaching context—a small liberal arts college where no one else teaches social studies teacher education courses but me—the resources I have to meet the standard and the expectations I have for doing it well are not the same as they would be in a department situated in a large college of education. 

And that's the key point here: this is about comparison, not about competition. It's useful to me to compare the performance of my students to others who were educated in different ways by different people in different places. It's not useful to try to compete with teacher educators in other places who have advantages (and disadvantages) that I don't have where I teach. But competitive thinking is totally reinforced when people insist on ranking teacher education programs, no matter what criteria they use. I mean, really. And the same is true in K-12 schools, where teachers deserve the same freedom I have to teach in ways that suit them and their students while also working toward common goals. It's those common goals that make equity possible, but it's their flexibility that also fosters, rewards, and encourages creativity.

Which brings me back to my wife's question: Why are so many people confused about the difference between curriculum and standards? Because accountability, that's why. We can't seem to separate ourselves from the idea of education as a competitive enterprise, not a cooperative one. Competition has a place in many areas of social life, but it doesn't enhance the quality of most educational experiences. In educational settings competition reinforces inequalities, creates resentment, and causes us to focus on the wrong things. It's the reason I don't tell my students at the start of every new semester that there are only five As to go around even if there are 30 students in the class. 

People confuse curriculum and standards all the time because most of the people who claim to be supportive of standards don't seem to understand the thing they're advocating for. This is why, even though I find myself sometimes defending the idea of a "common core" of standards in reading and math, I can't quite bring myself to fully support the Common Core as it has been written. To the extent that the standards suggest, impose, imply, or insist on specific methods or techniques, and to the extent that they spell out what teachers should teach and how teachers should teach it, they cease to become standards. They become back-door attempts at dictating curricula to educators, and there's good reason for teachers to resist that.

But imagine a world where we gave some common tests set to some common standards and used them to compare programs to each other—not to impose punishments or identify winners and losers, but to spotlight what works in certain contexts and what doesn't. When currriculum writers from outside the classroom interpret standards in mind-numbingly prescriptive ways, they do it in the name of accountability. We should be careful not to confuse what they prescribe with the idea of setting a standard though. We don't all have to do the same thing to meet a standard. In fact, our standards would be a lot more meaningful if teachers and students were allowed to meet them as creatively as possible. It's too bad that's not the conversation we're having about standards.

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