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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Have Standards Ever Promoted Independent Thinking?

By Peter DeWitt — December 29, 2013 6 min read
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It’s hard to always be the ones who decide what students need in every facet of their lives, because ultimately we may set them up to never know what they need when they are on their own.

The criticism of the Common Core State Standards is that they are scripted and lack age-appropriateness. This criticism isn’t all that new. Many critics of the standards-based movement have been pointing out the inadequacies since standards began in the 1980’s after A Nation at Risk. In her new book Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch wrote, “The commission warned that the nation was endangered by “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the schools.”

The standards based movement, from its inception, has called for clear and measurable standards for all students. The standards were supposed to be at the base for all learning, and then just like any good strategic plan, curriculum and assessments were aligned to the standards. In addition, professional development for teachers were also aligned to the standards.

But who chose the standards? Why are they considered experts? Do all children need the same?

From the outside looking in, it sounds like a really good plan. After all, when equity is an issue, knowing that all teachers are teaching the same thing makes it equitable for all students, right? It’s just that simple. Students who are transient can leave one school and go to another school in a different city, or even a different state, and be assured that they will learn the same standard.

It’s not that easy.

The problem is...that can never be true. Even when teachers look at the same standard, they have a different way of teaching it. Due to their teaching style, and perhaps the make-up of that year’s individual class, they may spend more time on one standard and less on another. There are times when they may not even teach a certain standard, so those students walk away without it.

Anyone who has taught children understands that they don’t always remember what they have learned and what they have not. It depends on what is important to them as learners, and of course teachers can help students explore what could be important, but ultimately it’s up to the learner to decide what they find important to them.

There have been times, with my former students, that some of them said they never learned a specific standard (i.e. subtraction, verbs, water cycle, etc), and I knew they did because they looped with me, and I was the one who taught them the concept.

Where do state leaders, policymakers and politicians draw the line when it comes to flexibility?

Interestingly enough, I always thought the standards were so broad that they were open to interpretation, and easy enough to tie into everything I taught. In formal lessons required by principals, it was simple to tie a few standards to the objectives of the lessons. But that was part of the problem right before NCLB, and it was all about to change.

Let’s Up the Ante

Since the implementation of NCLB, the standards based movement has become much more constricting (Ravitch). Whether it’s the standards that teachers must make sure they are teaching because those standards end up on a yearly test, or the yearly test that is now tied to teacher/administrator evaluation; standards have taken on a much more daunting role in the lives of teachers and students.

In NY State, where there is Common Core Curriculum that can be found in modules. The NY State Commissioner and Board of Regents have said that schools are not required to use the curriculum that will appear on high stakes tests that are tied to teacher and administrator evaluation...but why would schools with money ignore the modules when they know their scores may be at stake?

Those schools that have money have the upper hand and we now have an equity issue.

Standards have taken on a whole new role. For full disclosure I did not mind them at first. As a former teacher who taught transient students, I liked the idea that the students coming in at the middle or end of the month from another poor city around the corner would have the same set of standards that the students who I have been teaching all year had. Unfortunately, it was never that easy, and the students often lacked, or said they lacked, the same skills of the students who spent all year with me in our class.

And that is why I chose the title for this blog that I did. Many of us, who have been teaching or leading schools since the 90’s and later, have never taught without standards, so have we ever been in the position to promote independent thinking? Unlike those teachers who are new to teaching now, we have seen loosely set standards become more constricting and get tied to assessments...and then become curriculum that we must teach every year.

We have been told, and sold, on the concept that if all teachers taught the same standards and curriculum, then all students would get the same level of education. In the part of our minds that need that control, some of us believed it. We, very much like the students we are producing, were good little soldiers.

The problem that many educators are asking, if they have been teaching for the past two decades, is what will happen next? They have heard that this will set up students to become more independent thinkers, but we are overly concerned that this will just make them become all the same.

Did Schools Ever Promote Independent Thinking?

It really depends who you ask. If you speak with educators who have been working with students for a decade or more they may answer that they did promote independent thinking before high stakes testing and accountability. Perhaps they did, but they were still tied to a standard, albeit loosely tied to a standard.

If you speak with unschoolers, one of whom will no doubt have a comment on this blog, or homeschoolers, they will tell you that schools have never promoted independent thinking. Personally, I think it depends on who the teacher is, and who the school leader is as well. I believe there is a fine line somewhere down the middle. Some teachers can provide the infrastructure, and set students off to find their own solutions. Other teachers stick to a script and want students to follow directions.

School leaders are no different than teachers. Some school leaders want all of their teachers and students to be good little soldiers, while others want their teachers to speak out, and want their students to learn how to question authority. As a school principal, I always met with students, and if they had a problem with “a rule” they were able to set up an appointment with me and discuss it. Sometimes the rule changed, and other times it didn’t.

In the end, it depends on our own interpretation of the rules. Some believe we have to follow them lock, stock and barrel, and others believe that there is room for flexibility in the standards we teach. Unfortunately, as we see accountability increase more and more, that flexibility is getting harder to find.

Will we ever find a balance?

In the End

If we want schools to improve, and truly want students to become independent thinkers, we need to begin by allowing them to question their world around them. Even if that means questioning us and what we do as educators. Will they have to grow up in a world that doesn’t want to be questioned?

When it comes to the standards, we should probably stop with the six-shifts because there is so much that can be taught by using them, and students can take their learning in so many different directions. It’s hard to always be the ones who decide what students need in every facet of their lives, because ultimately we may set them up to never know what they need when they are on their own.

Given that standards will most likely never go away, how do we, as educators, best work with them?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.