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Raising the Caution Flag on the Standards Movement

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Standards. Higher standards. World-class standards. Standards have become the mantra of school reform. They have replaced apple pie and motherhood as the one thing no educator can be against. On the surface this makes sense. A recent study by the New York City-based nonprofit Public Agenda found that students today do not feel they are being held to a high enough standard of performance. The literature is replete with information on grade inflation, low expectations for minority students, and a raft of other subjects that would indicate that holding students to a much higher set of expectations for their work makes great sense. In my conversations with teachers, school leaders, and with citizens, all seem to agree that higher standards are a must.

Yet, at the risk of pointing out that the emperor's clothes are a bit threadbare, I must raise the caution flag on the standards movement. Not because higher standards are wrong, but because the movement itself is flawed. If we ever expect to reach a higher set of outcomes for students, we'd better fix the movement that we expect to take us there.

Let's start with the assumptions undergirding the reform movement. It is widely reported, and therefore believed by politicians and the business community, that American education has slipped badly in recent years. Starting with the pivotal A Nation at Risk report of 1983, it has been taken for granted that the golden era of American public education is behind us, that we have lost the competitive edge over the rest of the world, and that our economic future is threatened by a decline in the quality of education in America.

It would take more than a few paragraphs to refute this claim. However, let it be known that there is a substantial body of evidence that our schools have held their own against a rising tide of social problems. Despite the dramatic decline in family life, and overall loss of social capital supporting children, schools have maintained and slightly increased achievement. While most international comparisons are bogus at best, because of different samples, curricular assumptions, and cultural variances, when comparisons are made with like groups, the United States does just fine.

We do need to improve what we are doing, though, and improve it dramatically, because incremental improvement will not suffice in an exponential environment. Expectations for all children have skyrocketed against the past, and we have not kept up with those expectations. So improvement is needed. But not for the reasons the critics assume. And if we have misdiagnosed the problem, we are quite likely to prescribe the wrong treatment. A blind call for higher standards without examining what children need to know how to do better could well lead to wasted time and resources.

The second problem with the standards movement is that it fails to consider context as a powerful issue. Having served as a superintendent of a wealthy district, where most children came from two-parent families with high levels of parental income and education (not to mention expectations), and having served as a superintendent of a couple of urban districts with high levels of poverty and "broken" families, it is difficult for me to take the standards movement seriously absent a consideration of the contextual differences the children bring to school with them.

I am not for a moment suggesting that poor children should not have the opportunity to meet the same high expectations that wealthier children are expected to meet. In fact, it is our moral imperative to see that the trajectories of their lives have the same opportunity for liftoff. I am suggesting that a school reform movement that does not consider the problems presented by lack of equity--that suggests all students reach the same finish line, but does nothing to redress the fact that the starting line is further back for some--is a movement I have difficulty taking seriously. Thus far, I have seen nothing from the politicians of either party that would indicate that we can expect this issue to be confronted and addressed. Without dealing with context, the standards movement is doomed to fail.

The fact is, we already have high standards for some children. Students who attend our highly selective and competitive magnet high schools in some of our inner cities--schools such as Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science in New York, or University High in Tucson, Ariz., or the dozens of others all across America--meet and exceed the world-class standards that are currently being discussed. Students attending many of our elite suburban schools also meet these standards. The consortium in the Chicago area that outstripped the world on the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study is evidence of that. Our problem isn't that American students can't meet higher standards. The problem is that we lack the will as a people to do what we have to do to see that all students have the same opportunities that some of our children have.

Expectations for all children have skyrocketed against the past, and we have not kept up with those expectations.

Another problem I have with the standards movement is that it is totally disconnected from everything else we do. Education is organic. It is fluid. It lives and breathes because, of all the aspects of our existence, it is perhaps the most human and the most dependent upon humans to carry out. Those acting and those acted upon are human. And as the old saying points out, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." You can lead a student to knowledge but you can't make him learn. That requires motivation, understanding, and sometimes compassion. It is the stuff of hopes and dreams. And it will take more than a mantra to fulfill. It will take fairness and equity. It will take strength and joy. It will take us acting toward each other in human ways. It will take our behaving in connected ways.

And finally, we must ask, "Higher standards for whom?" For if we want to have higher standards for students, we must also have higher standards for teachers. And if we want to hold teachers to higher standards, we must do the same for principals. And what is good for principals is good for district staff and superintendents. And that leads to higher standards for boards of education. Which naturally leads to parents, and community. For good measure, let's throw in business leaders and politicians. Children are at the bottom of the food chain. Blaming them for their problems, and not as adults taking responsibility for adding to their problems, is really blaming the victim. Yes, children need to reach high standards. So do adults.

If the emperor wants to show off his new duds, he needs to make sure everyone else is dressed as well. When we can truly begin to understand what our kids need to know and know what to do to face an uncertain future, when we can see that all our kids have the same chance at success that is currently reserved for a few of our kids, when we can connect all the parts of education and join together--adults and children working toward the same end of higher achievement--then we can all start chanting the mantra together. It will be more than a mystical incantation--it will be a goal within our grasp.


Paul Houston is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

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