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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Quality Education in the Era of Standards

By Guest Blogger — February 11, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Last week and this week RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Josh Parker. Josh is an English Language Arts teacher at Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore, MD, and was Maryland teacher of the year in 2012.

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

What if we’re doing it all wrong?

What will happen to society if education reform continues to rush past students, only to bear-hug standards?

Standards, by their very nature, are meant to limit, steer, and direct. Standards themselves never can empower, but only define. When we apply these ‘legible limits’ on students, there can be a ceiling effect on teachers, curricula, and the schoolhouse at large. Is this type of ‘test-teach-test’ culture the reform we want? The only way for standards to have teeth is to match them with an expected measure resulting in a consequence (read: accountability). Like standards, accountability has always been an aspect of education to some extent throughout history; assessment by any other name would still be a test. But, the true measure of quality education still has to be the presence of knowledgeable citizens, willing and able to improve the human condition at home or abroad. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words give us insight over 50 years later:

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

Despite good intentions from stakeholders and policymakers, the gestalt of our reform movement is falling short of that goal. Our insistence on higher standards isn’t new. We’ve gone from ending desegregation, to saving a nation at risk, to leaving no child behind, and now we’re racing to the top. Lost in our social movements has been the academic mobility of minority children, specifically African-American and Latino males. If you combine their stagnation with the increased amount of school violence (both physical and psychological), it is clear that standards won’t save our students--teaching will.

Teachers specialize in saving students, and it happens when we ask the right questions, change our priorities, and focus on culture and content. We certainly need standards, but we must test their merit: Why these standards? Why so many? As an English teacher, if my students could master inferences, main idea/theme, and writing, my task was significantly enhanced. Our instincts informed by experience can select the standards that matter most and decide which ones may better be acquired through a field or hands-on experience.

After asking tough questions, we place students at the center of our pedagogy. Instead of going from standards to students, we should go from students to standards. Every decision we make should be based on a child’s strengths and story. What makes them who they are and when they are at their best. If we let students’ needs drive our supports, we will ultimately end up giving them an education that affirms their worth and improves their college and career ready skills.

Finally, teachers can lead the way in respecting students, affirming their cultures, and praising their effort because we are their most consistent point of contact throughout the day. We must create a culture that normalizes risk by placing failure as a part of success. This is the culture that can create powerful students because if the culture is right, the results will follow. Culture is also impacted by the content we give our students. Every problem, text, or experiment we put in front of a child should have resilient and contemporary qualities. They should matter to the students and be taught in ways that help them better understand and engage the world. Content that is divorced from the subjective experiences of students and their moral improvement will drown education (and all in it) faster than any other action.

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) provides the vehicle for our change effort through its white paper highlighting how we can transform our profession. We ask tough questions through actionable feedback, prioritize students within guiding professional principles, and focus on content and school culture via collaborative practice and distributed leadership models.

These steps can lead to the creation of schools that place students’ strengths and lives at the center of a culture of learning that empowers them to be the highest expression of themselves. The culture is led by teachers who facilitate relevant, rich, and contemporary learning experiences that increase students’ capacity to change their world. In these schools, standards are the floor--serving only to support difference-making children.

--Josh Parker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.