Education Teacher Leaders Network

Should We Have National Standards?

By John Norton — March 18, 2009 10 min read
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In our TLN Forum discussion group, a teacher from Texas wrote:

The question of whether the United States should adopt national educational standards is all over the Internet. Countries like Finland, whose students always get top scores in international comparisons, have already adopted national standards for all subjects. (It is true that Finland has a more homogeneous population than we do, but the large-scale changes they made to their educational system are still impressive.)

After the debacle we went through in Texas this year, where the conservative members of our state board of education pushed through horrendous English/Language Arts standards, I would welcome national standards if they were created by esteemed organizations like the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. As it is, districts across Texas are scrambling to implement standards that do not reflect any research-based practices from the past two decades. I trust national teacher organizations, which have already recommended national standards in most cases.

Many teachers have denounced national standards because they fear we will lose even more of our autonomy in making instructional decisions, but I have to wonder how much freedom we have anyway these days. I would rather teach standards that make sense than standards created to promote a political agenda instead of best practice.

What are your thoughts? What do you see as the benefits of national standards and what are the drawbacks?

Ken, a high school social studies teacher in Maryland, replied:

I worry how political the process could become. We have seen some of that in state standards already, and not just in social studies but of course in science and the evolution debate as well.

Besides the political problems, I might also note that as soon as you have national standards, people will want a national test built on that national standard, and then merrily we go down the road of comparisons and the accompanying pressures to teach to the test, and the inherent distortion of the curriculum.

A math and technology teacher in Michigan signing herself “Riding the Fence” added:

Part of me agrees with [Texas teacher]. I would rather teach to a set of national standards that make sense than something created for the wrong reasons. The continuity of education across schools and states could be more consistent. Standards could be set to raise the bar for actually meeting the statement that all students can/will learn. I like the idea that students who move from one school to another, one state to another, will not be penalized by a change in curriculum.

Then the more realistic part of me kicks in. Michigan has had state standards in place for quite a while. My curriculum is based on the grade-level content expectations set forth by our department of education. The grade-level content expectations do not take into consideration where a child is when I get them. There is no flexibility to actually meet the needs of all learners, especially those struggling, because there is material to be covered (not necessarily taught) and it must all be covered.

It becomes all about passing the test, not whether students have developed a deep understanding of the complex math concepts I am expected to teach them. Test scores are used to compare schools, students, teachers, sometimes justifiably, more often, not.

Until educators, the ones actually working in the trenches with students, are the ones designing the curriculum, and that curriculum is flexible and meaningful, will we be able to even consider what a national set of standards might look like or might accomplish?

A charter middle school teacher on the West Coast began her comments with the flat statement: “Standards are stupid.”

I would much prefer that instead of putting our focus on standards (local or otherwise), we refocus on students. I do not teach standards. I teach kids. Standards are a guide, but ultimately, I teach the kids in front of me what they need in order to grow where they need to grow.

Last year I had a group that was largely behind. They needed me to adjust my instruction to their unique needs. All of my kids demonstrated growth. This year I have a group that came to me largely already at or above grade level, so to teach them strictly to standards would be ludicrous. My one kid “Everett” is reading (and completely comprehending) Walden for fun and just submitted a reflective essay on the nature of reality. Should I teach him 8th grade standards, local or otherwise?

Standards are good guidelines, but learning is messy and kids progress at different rates and come to us with different backgrounds. We teach real, live, complex people. Let’s refocus on giving each kid what he or she needs and is ready for. Let’s look for growth. I know there’s a lot of outside pressure to do otherwise, and I am beyond thankful that I teach at a school that puts kids and their specific needs first.

Mary, a high school English teacher on the outskirts of the District of Columbia suburbs, wrote:

I don’t care who is designing the standards, they narrow rather than expand the curriculum. And they narrow student learning. I’ve taught to Virginia’s Standards of Learning and to the College Board’s Advanced Placement standards. They limit the learning that can go on exponentially. Trying to get everyone to “meet the standards” by the end of the year means that kids at the extreme ends of the bell curve are on their own.

I made the same complaint to a College Board rep about AP standards and his reply was this: “That is the result whenever you have to spread the standards across a wide population.” He was making no excuses. And I rest my case.

But a literacy teacher in North Carolina replied:

I’ve had the opportunity to hear a presentation on national standards given by a representative from the National Governor’s Association, one of the groups behind this movement.

The presenter made the following case for “international benchmarking” in an effort to create national standards: (1) Students are competing in a global economy; (2) we can learn from other countries’ policies and practices; (3) we are seeing an increased demand for higher skills in our economy; and (4) tackling equity issues is critical. After he discussed each of these points, the presenter showed us graph after graph comparing the US to other countries. We saw international PISA and TIMSS scores that made us all think we need to do something and quick.

As far as standards go in general, I like them. I was not a strong teacher until the mid-1980’s when N.C. came out with standards and evaluation instruments that told me what I was supposed to be doing. I love the E/LA Standard Course of Study in N.C. and follow it like my life depends on it (it just might), but I still contend that a student in the Mississippi Delta is different from a student in the Silicon Valley of California. If we are eventually required to teach to national standards, we’ll need to continue to consider each individual child as we plan instruction—just like we do now.

Ken, the high school social studies teacher, replied:

PISA is badly flawed, as a number of people have demonstrated in analyses over the years. As for TIMSS, we are comparing apples and oranges, because we do not test populations equivalent to what other nations test. In addition, on TIMMS and other international comparisons, there is little statistical difference in the rankings among a large group of nations. But we love to rank-order everything. When compared to other industrialized nations, we have far greater linguistic variance than any other such nation except Canada. We have far more economic disparity that most other nations. We include the educationally disadvantaged students in our tallies, while many other nations do not.

I have tried to explain about international comparisons to well-meaning members of congress, but they are concerned because the editorial pages and the think tanks are concerned, and they feel vulnerable on the issue.

David, a high school teacher in northern California, called for greater teacher ownership of the standards issue:

It’s about teacher leadership. We have got to be the ones speaking out here! If there’s a need for more standards or better standards, it should be our voices crying the loudest for some guidance. But more likely, we have enough standards already, and we need to do more for teachers and students, not for bureaucrats and documents and test publishers.

We could also help our fellow teachers, our administrators, and our communities by showing how standards can be a guide without being a fence. For example, my state standards say nothing about multiple intelligences in the language arts classroom. So, how do I justify showing the first half of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” every year, or how do I align to standards in tomorrow’s lesson where we listen to music composed by Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp?

Well, the movie uses storytelling techniques that we study (narrative, symbolism, satire), and it informs students about some of the concepts and themes in Huxley’s Brave New World. The music provides an example of people doing something we address in the literature─responding to tragedy─so it helps them discuss theme. The music provides information about the historical context of the literature.

I think too many people see the standards as a complete document rather than guidelines. If we apply ourselves creatively we can work with standards and teach in a way that meets important, broad and diverse goals and objectives not found in the language of standards.

A teacher in Colorado wrote:

I spoke with someone from Finland this summer. I was excited to hear about what they were doing, but she said the scores were not holding and there were debates and divisions. So once again, the broad picture is not the whole picture. We already have district and state standards─more than we can manage. We live in a big and diverse (thank goodness) country whose strength has (arguably) been tied to individuality and invention. We have been starting small-school communities and charter schools, each with its own unique culture and focus. My list could go on but my visceral reaction when I hear about national standards established by the federal government is a chill. I think “standardized,” as in, all our kids are supposed to be the same all across the nation─like some kind of product.

A former state teacher of the year in the Midwest wrote:

It’s good to know that people in Finland don’t think they’ve got a lock on the perfect educational system and are still tinkering. Finland is the size and population of Minnesota. Imagine if our national educational problems were of the scope of Minnesota’s (and MN ranks well above the national average in TIMMS data, coming in 3rd or 4th in the world). We might be able to raise achievement much more quickly.

The whole “regional variance” argument is, I think, very real. The people pushing for national standards lately (including AFT’s Randi Weingarten and U.S. Ed Secretary Arne Duncan) are saying that “the goalposts have to be the same” for every state. I hate sports imagery, because it just reinforces the “we have to win! win big!” drive, completely missing the corollary: for every winner, there must be a loser, and we’ve gotten into a lot of trouble, as a nation, with our urge to crush our competition instead of trying to work for our mutual benefit.

There are reasons why states establish different content standards and benchmarks. They’re trying to set reasonable, reachable educational goals. Things look different in Cambridge, Mass. than they do in the Mississippi Delta. The kids in the Delta are just as capable as kids in Cambridge, but they’re starting at a different place. Sure, we can set national goals that prove precisely how far behind the children who live in poverty are ─but that doesn’t tell us how to raise achievement for those children. Raising achievement happens in classrooms and schools, not through standard-setting (which is really just data manipulation).

When we set unreal goals (all kids will go to college, all kids will reach grade-level achievement in math and science by 2014), we are just making goal-setting a political tool rather than a strategy to leverage growth for real kids. In the meantime, let’s places like the Delta the resources they need─because that’s where those discrepancies begin.

Renee, an English teacher in the Mississippi Delta, replied:

The push for national standards sometimes lures those who believe in equity and think that having one set of objectives or rules will make things better for all, without looking at the contextual factors, including poverty, tax base, tax rates, and issues of history and culture.

Ironically, the current state standards in Mississippi are now those of the testing companies. Our original standards─written and developed by teachers around the state─were scrapped because they didn’t line up squarely enough with those of the testing package the state had purchased.


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