Education Opinion

Explaining Standards: A 12-Step Talking Paper

December 10, 1997 9 min read

One of the standards movement’s chief obstacles, says University of Pennsylvania professor Theodore Hershberg, who directs the New Standards in Education Project out of his Center for Greater Philadelphia on the Penn campus, is the inability of educators to explain--to themselves or the public at large--what they mean by standards and how the concept of new standards would operate in reality. From his own struggles with this task, he has developed the following set of ideas and explanations to better communicate with various stakeholder groups:

1. Effort vs. Ability.

What explains success in school? To this question American parents overwhelmingly respond, “Ability.” Our own school experience makes clear that if your children are smart, they get A’s and B’s, and if not, they get C’s and D’s. And we “know” that not everyone can be “smart.” However, when Asian parents are asked the same question, they respond, “Effort,” by the same margin as we cite “ability.”

The heresy that lies at the heart of the standards movement, as the University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick argues, is that “effort leads to ability.” The harder you work, the closer you come to meeting the standard. Effort itself is not rewarded directly--only results count--but research has shown that effort always leads to student improvement. In this way, the standards movement greatly strengthens the classroom work ethic.

2. The Floor and the Ceiling.

In standards pedagogy, the standard represents the floor, and all students are expected to perform at this level. Effort sustained over a long enough period of time will make it possible for all students to meet the standard. The ceiling is as high as individual students can reach through a combination of effort and ability. Unless you believe that American students are inherently less able than students in Western European and Pacific Rim nations, then you have to conclude that American students can perform at much higher levels. Polls of our own students reveal the belief that we ask too little of them.

3. International Benchmarks.

How high should the bar be set? Our standards should be internationally benchmarked--that is, we should be asking our students to perform at the same levels as their counterparts in the rest of the developed world. It is time to raise the bar--or to change the metaphor--to define the height of the mountain. We do not have to get our students to the top using the identical methods employed by other countries--after all, our culture is different--but in a technologically driven global economy our children have to be able to perform at the same level as their competition. If American workers are to receive high wages and obtain jobs in the high, valued-added industries, they must be able to meet the same educational standards required of students in our competitor nations.

4. Fix the Standard and Vary the Time.

In standards-based classrooms, the standards remain constant. What should vary is the time it takes to meet them. For example, some students will meet 10th grade graduation standards in 8th grade. Some students will meet them “on grade” in 10th grade. Other students will meet them in 12th grade; and still others will require evening, weekend, and summer classes (and this will raise serious resource questions) before receiving “deserved diplomas” or certificates of “initial” or “advanced” mastery.

5. “Move ‘em On” vs. “Hold ‘em Back.”

In the current school system, we bring students into our classrooms, expose them to the curricula, test them, and then move them on in order to prepare for next year’s arrivals. In a standards-based system, only students who meet or exceed the standards can move on; everyone else must remain where they are until they raise their performance to meet the required standards. This will require dramatic changes in how our schools are organized, and we’ll have to invent a way of doing this successfully.

6. Performance-Based Classrooms.

Standards-based classrooms focus on student performance. How did you win merit badges in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts? You didn’t take multiple-choice tests. You practiced with the rope, and then you tied the knot in front of your Scout leader. How do you get a job in photography? Once again, you don’t take a multiple-choice test. You bring your portfolio of photographs with you to the job interview, and you show your prospective employer what you can do with a camera. It’s performance that counts in the real world. In standards-based school reform, our classrooms will be organized around performance and student portfolios that collect student work.

7. Content Standards and Performance Standards.

Content standards tell us what our children should be able to do at given ages. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English have been engaged in establishing content standards for some years. But only very recently have we begun to see performance standards: examples of student work that meet content standards. When teachers use these performance standards in their classrooms--when they can compare the work of their own students with student performance that experts cite as meeting content standards--they are in a much strengthened position to teach effectively.

8. Norms-Based Testing vs. Standards-Based Testing.

American testing is largely norms-based, which is to say that we rate our children in terms of how well they perform in relation to others. But if your child scores in the 85th percentile and most people taking the test are dummies, what does that tell you about your child’s ability? Conversely, if most people taking the test are brilliant and your child scores in the 15th percentile, what have you learned? We should be far more interested in knowing whether our children meet international standards--"above,” “at,” “near,” “below,” “don’t have a clue"--than in knowing how they rank in relation to each other. Let’s find out how close our children actually come to solving problems that students elsewhere in the world are asked to solve at a given age.

9. Open-Ended vs. Multiple-Choice Examinations.

Standards-based exams are open-ended rather than multiple-choice, and they are characteristically of a problem-solving nature. Multiple-choice exams cannot get at problem-solving abilities as well as open-ended exams, but they are cheap, costing $1 or $1.25 each. By contrast, the open-ended, New Standards Reference exams cost $10 to $12. The higher costs are warranted because our tests must measure the abilities students will require for success in an economy characterized by rapid change, one that is ill-served by workers adept at rote memorization. These abilities hinge on the quintessential skills of critical thinking and problem-solving. In standards-based, problem-solving exams, for example, it is not enough to recall mathematical formulas--students must also be able to use these formulas to solve problems.

10. National Voluntary Standards vs. Federal Mandatory Standards.

The federal governments of most developed nations set mandatory standards and establish mandatory curricula for all students. But for better or worse (depending on your political beliefs), America has a long-established and deeply held tradition of local control of public schooling. As a result, the federal government, which contributes only about 5 percent of all K-12 spending, will continue to play a limited role in public school education. Many people believe that in the place of federal, mandatory standards, we can establish national, voluntary standards. Their hope is that educators and business leaders will agree on a core set of internationally benchmarked standards. States and regions will then adopt these core standards, embellishing them to reflect their unique history, geography, and culture. But the strength of the widely adopted common core will mean that students educated in Massachusetts, Mississippi, or Montana will all be able to perform at the same high levels. Whether it’s done state by state or district by district, political realities suggest that our best hope is to persuade parents and students, teachers and administrators, business leaders and elected officials across the nation to voluntarily adopt common standards.

11. The Teflon Standards: Math, Science, English, Applied Learning.

Given the ideological clashes in establishing standards in disciplines such as history--how many times is Booker T. Washington mentioned as opposed to George Washington--it may be wiser to pursue standards in the foundation disciplines of math, science, English, and applied learning. If we could agree on voluntary national standards in these mainstream disciplines--I like to refer to them as Teflon disciplines because ideology has a tough time adhering to them--many people would be deeply satisfied.

12. Ideological Criticisms From the Right and the Left.

The standards movement has encountered criticisms from both ends of the ideological spectrum. “If the call for national assessments fails,” Chester E. Finn Jr. recently told The New York Times, “it will be because the Right can’t stand the word ‘national’ and the Left can’t stand the word ‘testing.’”

From the political right, we hear that national standards are part of a plot in which Big Government is attempting to impose its values on your children. There is some paranoia in this charge because the core standards proposed to serve as voluntary national standards were created by educators and business leaders without federal involvement. Given the strength of local control over the public schools, standards will not be welcomed at the grassroots if they are imposed from the top down. There are 15,000 school districts in America, and for standards reform to succeed, standards will have to be embraced from the bottom up, one district at a time.

From the political left, we hear that if all students are to be held accountable to the same standards, and if wealthy districts spend significantly more per student than do poor districts, standards should be opposed on grounds of equity. Only after school funding is made equitable, the argument goes, should districts adopt standards-based reform. Yet waiting for additional funding assumes that the status quo well serves the interests of students in low-income districts. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do these students a real disservice by asking them to meet reduced standards. All students should be exposed to the same real-world standards at the get-go, and they should be required to meet these standards every step of the way.

The equity issue is real, but it must be addressed in the judicial and political realm, not in the classroom. Besides, standards-based reform, in holding all students to the same standards, significantly strengthens the legal basis for court challenges on the grounds of inequitable funding.