Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Standards: Why Anyone Should Bother

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.


Claus von Zastrow said...

I think the bigger problem is that standards-based reform often stops short of curriculum and assessment. When yoked to lousy assessments and bad or non-existent curricula, standards don't really mean anything at all. The AFT has made impassioned arguments for curricular materials that actually give standards a presence in the classroom. Simply shoving standards documents in teachers' faces isn't always helpful. Good curricula don't have to be suffocating or overly-prescriptive.

Alexander Hoffman said...


Thanks for reading, and for responding so completely on your own blog.

I'd like to say, however, that I do not think that yo are addressing the same issue that I am. That is, you are addressing the impact that you would LIKE standards to have. I am addressing the impact that they DO have.

1) The right level of government control is a debatable point, obviously. It's not clear to me whether you think that state standards or national standards should rule. My point, however, is that state and national standards DO NOT rule. I specifically address not why I don't like standards, but rather why they are weak and ineffective. If they do not rule classrooms -- and they do not -- then they don't give distant governments ANY control.

2) Again, you are addressing what you want to happen. You think that there should be some common experiences. I think those things already happen, for many other others (e.g. American culture, the "grammar of schooling", common text books, state tests, isomorphism/new institutionalism in teacher preparation). The question is not of your goal, but whether standards actually contribute to your goal.

3) Yes, people still support "accountability." But that is not the same thing as supporting NCLB. Furthermore, you assume that there is any chance that NCLB-like accountability could work. In your longer blog post on your own site, you argue for national tests, without ever acknowledging the critical differences that I explain in #5 in how tests CANNOT match standards. The fact is that the parents who are most satisfied with NCLB are the ones whose schools and children are nowhere near the old bars of the old standards. Raising those bars, revising them, or making them more rigorous is largely irrelevant to those populations, as they are not near there yet. Communities who ARE doing much better -- for whom the revisions of the standards might be more germane -- are big detractors of NCLB-like accountability. Whatever arguments for well-considered rigorous standards might exist, explaining that they are the best hope for a national testing regime misses the technical issues of such a regime and the real experiences of families who have lived with it.

4) I believe that I have spent the last two weeks explaining how standards are anything BUT the most practical solution to the problem. The easiest action? Perhaps. The most obvious step for top down thinkers? Perhaps. But a solution? Not at all. A practical solution? Only if you think that a practical solution does not actually solve anything.

This series has not been about why I think standards or what they aim to accomplish are a bad idea. I have not addressed that at all. This series has been about why they do not accomplish what they aim to. You are writing about their desirability and the desirability of how they would operate in a perfect world. I have been writing about the effectiveness -- in rather their complete ineffectiveness.

If anyone wants to make standards work, they've got to figure out how to get teachers to understand them, to think deep, long and hard about them, and to change their content and practices to meet them. Not just a few teachers, but all teachers. Distant governments do not have that kind of power, and putting out standards documents won't change that. 3 million teachers, Corey. How do we create national standards that are relevant and useful for 3 million teachers, considering the variety of students, backgrounds and abilities of their students? How do we get 3 million teachers to think about and teach to the standards? What would it take to support such conversations and provide the supports for teachers truly engage in them so that they can figure out what they might need to do, and what kinds of supports would they need to enact those changes? In some cases -- in the tens of thousands of critical cases -- we are talking about radical changes in practice, right? That's where school improvement lies.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I think the fundamental misunderstanding here is that I don't think standards should be all-powerful. I'm perfectly ok with removed governments writing standards that provide only a little bit of guidance -- to me, that's close to the ideal outcome. If standards actually dictated what happened in classrooms every second of every day, then classrooms would be dangerously beholden to the political whims of state legislatures and education committees.

Let me do a point-by-point response:

1.) As I said above, I think it's a good thing that standards don't rule. I don't want them to. But you also need to acknowledge that saying that they "don't have ANY control" is factually incorrect. I have personally worked with teachers who rely heavily on the standards when deciding what to teach.

2.) I agree: national standards probably wouldn't make the school experiences of Americans all that much more similar. But I'm okay with aiming for a worthy goal and falling short. My argument was simply that creating standards is an appropriate role for government.

3.) I didn't say that an NCLB-like accountability system based on national testing would be the ideal system; just that it would be better than the current system based on state tests.

4.) The reason that I say "solution" which, admittedly, might be a bit strong is because it does solve at least one problem -- the desire of politicians and governments to be intimately involved in what happens in the classroom. The creation of standards allows them to feel that they are, but without forcing teachers to be beholden to their whims. In other words, standards -- at least in some instances -- are the "least bad solution." But I do see the argument that this also means that politicians and legislatures become complacent and avoid taking other actions that might have more positive and more powerful influences on our school.

I see standards as a good compromise between no government involvement and a scripted curriculum handed down from above. But I see your point that in other ways they may serve as a distraction from real reform. I guess the question at hand is what actions state governments would take if they realized that standards don't matter all that much. Do they have a better solution? It's possible, but I'm somewhat skeptical -- at this point, I trust teachers more on curricular decisions than I trust state governments.

Dick Schutz said...

Have you looked at any state standards, Corey? Or at the new "Common Core" [sic] standards? They're not teachable. There is no attention given to how one would know when they were taught. Per all the state and NAEP test data, they haven't improved anything.

What they do is provide the fog that maintains the status quo.

Alexander Hoffman said...


As you know, I've addressed most of your latest comment over at gotham schools. (Just follow Corey's link in his post above.)

But would like to raise a particular quesiton, here.

First, however, let me make even more clear that my criticism of the link between standards and classroom practice is based upon the dynamic when standards change. When standards change, to practicing teacher change what they teach? Do they add or drop things because of changes in the standards?

Do new teachers teach things BECAUSE they are in the standards. I know plenty of teachers who look to standards to be reminded of stuff. I've seen it happen. And, at one school, I was required to to write on the board what standards I was covering right under my Aim and Do Now, as did the young teachers I was mentoring.

But I never saw a teacher teach something BECAUSE it was in the standards.

I would love to learn about an example. What, specifically, have you known teachers to teach simply because it was in the standards. More interestingly, what have teachers dropped simply because it was in the standards?

The fact is that we have standards in every state. Is changing them, or adding national standards, really going to change classroom practice? I'm looking for even single real example of when it occurred.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I don't think changing standards has much of an effect on current teachers. But when the next batch of new teachers arrives, they start their career with a different set of standards. And I have worked with new teachers who absolutely look at the standards before planning every unit and every lesson. I can't be sure exactly what they would've taught had the standards not been there, but I think it's safe to say that it wouldn't have been 100% the same.