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Do Curricular Standards Get a Bad Rap?

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This week Jack and Julian are discussing curricular standards, beginning with a conversation about their potential usefulness.

Schneider: Let's talk a little bit about curricular standards. And because we're both skeptical of testing, let's start by discussing standards as if they could be freed from accountability measures.

Is there any point in having curricular benchmarks at the district, state, or national level?

Heilig: Well, the more recent history of standards is that they were a the lynchpin of the systemic reform movement that birthed Texas-style accountability sanctions and No Child Left Behind.

The reformers of the 1990s believed that they would transform schools if they had standards as the foundation and then aligned them to high-stakes tests and accountability ratings. Several decades later, it's clear that the magic didn't happen.

Schneider: Test scores did go up, and a part of that may be attributable to a stronger academic focus. But the more likely explanationand one we have evidence supporting, is that educators narrowed their focus and began teaching more directly to the test—a practice that might actually be less problematic if the tests were better.

Yet unlikely though it may be that we'll see curricular standards divorced from accountability mechanisms, I do think it's a fictional scenario worth considering. Because in so many of our national conversations, curricular standards and high-stakes tests are conflated; and the hostility people feel about high-stakes tests gets directed at standards.

Standards, however, have some merits. Consider, for instance, how they canat least theoreticallyput teachers on the same page with each other. They can establish common ground for teachers of the same grade-level to share ideas with each other. And they can support curricular sequencing across the gradesso that teachers in 8th grade history, for example, can build on what those in 7th grade were doing.

Common standards can also facilitate capacity-building efforts like professional development or input from scholars. Conducting research on 100,000 different sets of curricular standards would be impossible. But 50? That's totally feasible. An in the age of Common Core, we're talking about a single set of standards.

Heilig: The centralization of education reform clearly has some potential benefitsstandards included. The problem is that policymakers have misused policies that might otherwise be positive. School finance is an important example of how the centralization of education reform has been problematic. In Texas, for several decades school finance was litigated due to the inequality in the provision of educational resources. The idea was that if the legislature held the purse strings of school finance, more equality in resources would result. However, what they did with that power was cut $6 billion from education.

You see the same unfortunate playbook in the state standards discussion. You mentioned social studies standards, so let me focus there. In the Harvard Educational Review, we published an article about the Texas social studies standards and discussed how a handful of politicians on the Texas State Board of Education sought to render the history of communities of color invisible in the standards. We concluded that it could be argued that the original intent of many 1990s systemic reformers was to create standards and align high-stakes tests to produce equity and excellence in schools. However, considering the Texas case (standards and school finance), whether subsequent policy makers across the United States will be able to resist co-opting centralized education reforms for their own political purposes remains to be seen.

Schneider: At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems like you're cautioning against putting all eggs in a single basket. And in most cases I would agree with you. A diversified portfolio is far more resistant to catastrophe than a single high-leverage investmentso that's a good general rule.

Yet a diversified portfolio is only stronger if it is characterized by both difference and strength. And that certainly hasn't been true at either the district or the state level with regard to standards. Difference, yes. But strength? Not so much. 

When I worked for the National History Education Clearinghouse, we looked at social studies standards across all 50 states and found tremendous diversity. Some standards documents were greatcontent-rich, inclusive, and oriented toward historical thinking skills. Many, however, were incredibly weak. That's not a kind of diversity worth preserving. 

How many different curricular standards documents does it make sense to have? Why not take the best standards and use them everywhere?

Now, I'm begging a few questions here, I know. Who, for instance, decides which standards are the best? And what is the process for amending them? 

But before we address those issues, I'm wondering if you agree that, with particular protections in place, a single set of standards like the Common Core does indeed make sense.

Heilig: Honestly, I'm agnostic about the Common Core. Many teachers I've spoken with see it as helpful. But the problematic high-stakes exams linked to the Common Core are still forthcoming in most states. My issue with the Common Core is that the testing companies essentially created a vast and lucrative national market for themselves and vendors on the ground floor in the development and political process surrounding the standards. Yet, considering what I am hearing from teachers that I trust, I could see myself as a supporter of the Common Core if they were made optional for teaching and learning, and divorced permanently from the newest gauntlet of high-stakes exams produced by testing companies.

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