Education Opinion

National Standards a Wild Goose Chase

By Anthony Cody — June 08, 2009 4 min read
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National Standards have emerged as the latest and greatest educational reform, and last week 46 states agreed to participate in an effort to create them. There are some good reasons for national standards. They might allow teachers to collaborate on common curriculum and assessments, and share effective instructional strategies for reaching students. But I do not think good reasons are why this has become so popular.

I think that national standards are a wild goose chase of the sort policymakers love to lead. I think it has become popular for three big reasons. First, it allows us to defer judgment of the strategies central to NCLB. Both Democrats and Republicans signed on to Bush’s major domestic policy initiative in 2001 because it allowed everyone to pretend they were doing something about the achievement gap. Politicians do not have to pass the tests they demand students pass, and they are not judged by how well they have taught students to pass the tests. They did not even need to provide the funding promised when NCLB was originally passed. But they can claim they took “tough” action. Eight years after NCLB began, objective measures like the National Assessment of Educational Progress have revealed stagnation in growth of student achievement, and no significant closing of the achievement gap. So we should be pausing to examine the fundamental strategy embedded in NCLB – standardized tests as the linchpin of reform. But it is easier to fixate on what has emerged as the biggest excuse for this failure – the lack of national standards. If only we had the same yardstick to compare one state to another, the argument goes, that would allow this system of standardization to take full effect.

Secondly, it gives politicians a new project to promote to demonstrate they are still serious about fixing the educational system. We can have commissions and hearings and proclamations about competitiveness -- very exciting! Third, it allows the testing and publishing industries a chance to make literally billions of dollars of profit from revamping the curriculum and tests from coast to coast.

Let’s take a look at the primary argument advanced by those favoring national standards. These standards are supposed to fix the problem posed by the unfairness created by the fact that some states set “easy” standards, and thus ace their NCLB challenge, while others, like California, have much “tougher” standards. But if this was the problem, then shouldn’t we see the tough standards approach working within California, -- an educational system of thousands of schools and millions of students -- where we have had highly prescriptive state-wide standards and tests aligned to them for more than a decade?

I have taught in California for 23 years, and while I see our schools becoming more adept at preparing students for these tests, I do not see the deeper learning and equitable outcomes I would associate with real progress. I see students dropping out, and teachers leaving the profession in droves. Meanwhile, the Governor is preparing to make huge budget cuts to the already cash-starved schools. But while the schools whither from lack of funding, and many of the students in urban districts like mine are taught by revolving streams of poorly trained interns, the Governor can continue to proclaim that we have “world-class educational standards” and we are “holding schools accountable.”

What really matters for our students? First of all, they are affected by underlying economic conditions. They need three square meals a day, decent health care, and safe neighborhoods. In their schools, they need teachers who can earn enough to stay in the profession, so they become experts. They need teachers who have time in their day to plan and collaborate together, to develop themselves as professionals. We all need opportunities for parents and teachers and students to come together to create nurturing communities centered on learning. That learning should be tied as closely as possible to the aspirations of those students, their parents and the communities in which they live. National standards will have very little effect on these things, and in some ways could even work against them.

And what about a democratic process? We are apparently about to be handed a set of standards that will dictate what is taught in millions of classrooms across this nation. How will these have been arrived at? Who, besides the Gates Foundation millionaire’s club, and the standardized test companies and the publishing companies will have been engaged in this profoundly civic process?

I would dearly love to be proved wrong in these rather cynical thoughts. I would be thrilled if teachers, parents and students across the country were actually invited to become engaged in the deep questions surrounding what, as a nation, we agree all students should learn, and how that learning could be measured in ways that move us away from the standardized tests decried by candidate Obama a year ago on the campaign trail. But somehow I do not think that is likely to be the process. Rather, I see this as an exercise in distraction, a wild goose chase on a national scale.

What do you think? Will national standards fix what is wrong with NCLB? Are there other good reasons to support them?

Photo credit: Dustin DeKoekkoek, Creative Commons

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