For the last couple weeks, Alexander Hoffman has been writing about why he thinks standards are pointless over at Gotham Schools. He raises a number of good points, and I generally agree with him that aren't the silver bullet that many seem to think they are. Anybody sitting in a statehouse who thinks that adding or a deleting a standard is going to magically transform schools is sorely mistaken: most teachers don't even spend that much time thinking about the standards.
But I disagree with the implication that standards are useless and a waste of time. I think they're both moderately helpful and an appropriate thing for state and federal governments to create. Here are my top four reasons why we should support the formation of standards:
1.) They give distant governments the right level of control. Districts, schools, and teachers should all have a fair amount of autonomy when deciding what and how to teach their students. Hoffman points out that standards don't influence those decisions all that much, which seems appropriate to me. If I were still teaching, I wouldn't want a state-mandated curriculum that mapped out every second of every day for me. But it's appropriate that the people of the state, through the state legislature, create a document outlining goals that students at each grade should strive to meet. It allows the state to gently guide instruction without becoming overly intrusive.
2.) Students should have some common experiences in schools. Some education scholars argue that the main purpose of schooling, historically speaking, has been social cohesion -- bonding a country together by ensuring that people grow up with similar experiences and knowing similar things. Even if you don't buy that argument, ensuring that students have somewhat similar experience in school has pragmatic implications as well: I have to believe that the majority of students move to a new school at some point in time, and it helps if that new schools is teaching somewhat similar things in a somewhat similar way.
3.) National standards are the only hope for NCLB-like accountability. NCLB has pluses and minuses, but most people still support an accountability system in some shape or form. And even those who back NCLB-like accountability 100% have to admit that NCLB is not working the way it should. And that's largely due to the way that states have gamed the system when they create their own tests and set their own passing scores on those tests. I am convinced, as are many others, that the only way an NCLB-like accountability system can work is if there are national tests. And the only way we can have national tests is if we first create national standards, both politically and practically. Politically because there's no way that states are going to agree to submit themselves to national tests immediately without some sort of lead up. And practically because without national standards there's no fair way to determine what should be on national tests.
4.) They're the most practical solution to the problem. In all three of the situations I describe above, there are other possible solutions. We could create a comprehensive federal curriculum (like France, for example) in lieu of standards. But that's not happening anytime soon, and I don't think most people would like to see it happen. Let's face it, governments at the state and federal level need to have some level of control over schools. And I can think of no better solution than allowing them to create standards. Sure, they're not going to magically transform schools -- and many teachers will scoff and mostly ignore them -- but it's the best of both worlds: society at large gets a say in determining what happens in our schools, but teachers and school leaders still get to fill in the details.