Education Letter to the Editor

More Views on What Standards Must Include

October 26, 2009 2 min read

To the Editor:

In her Commentary “More Is Not Better” (Sept. 30, 2009), Vicki Phillips argues persuasively for flexible core standards that prepare students for college and careers. As a classroom teacher, I appreciated her emphasis on depth and flexibility in the preparation of those standards, as well as her willingness to listen to those of us in the trenches.

If we are indeed to put such a premium on standards, it struck me fiercely that Ms. Phillips did not address the need for standards that prepare students for active citizenship in a democratic society. That is a serious oversight. She calls for core standards free from politics and personal values, but this will never happen. There is no way to have complete objectivity in identifying skills and content “for success” without exercising judgment.

Yes, a college student should have a background in problem-solving and organized writing, but beyond that, what is deemed necessary is as constructed as the truths purported by the evening news.

It is fine to require a certain canon of knowledge and a base set of skills for high school graduates. Of course, we rarely see “love for learning,” “perseverance,” or “creative curiosity” as standards, even though the most successful college students will possess these qualities and attitudes.

All the same, let’s just be real and recognize that social, cultural, and political values will always color the standards. Our responsibility becomes formulating standards that reflect positive values that not only will advance the minds of individual students, but also our society.

Ariana Wohl

Providence, R.I.

To the Editor:

Vicki Phillips makes a good case in “More Is Not Better” for standards that are flexible and focused. An additional advantage of setting national standards is that it creates an opportunity for the dramatic growth and evolution of education technology with the potential to transform learning, just as standardization of shipping containers transformed that industry.

That being said, there is a great danger in setting standards without simultaneously changing the way education is delivered. Educators will tell you that a major obstacle to improving students’ performance is their lack of motivation. No matter how clear the standards are and what investments are made in professional development, getting the students to learn will be just as challenging if something isn’t done to transform the way they are taught.

Clayton Christensen, the lead author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, speaks of the job to be done from the point of view of students when they attend school, and argues that they “hire” school to make them feel successful. There is nothing about the way our schools are presently structured that fulfills that requirement. Teaching styles and peer pressures conspire day in and day out to make weaker students feel less and less successful, and no amount of self-esteem claptrap can change that.

Blending education technology into the curriculum, however, does allow students to learn at “any time, any place, any path, any pace,” as the Florida Virtual School’s motto would have it. It is the “any path, any pace” aspects that are particularly relevant here, by customizing learning for each child in the privacy that a computer makes possible.

So beware of setting standards that will not be met, because that’s only half the story. The other half is determining how we get our children to meet them.

Gisèle Huff

San Francisco, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as More Views on What Standards Must Include