The Need for Anti-Babel Standards

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About the last thing that we need these days is a new variety of standards in the education-reform movement. Talk of standards began but a decade ago. Soon the descriptors "national" and "voluntary" were added. Then, an important distinction was introduced between "content" standards, which stipulate the kinds of knowledge and skills that students should master, and "performance" standards, which indicate the actual level of performance a student must achieve if he or she is to be credited with meeting a given standard.

The Goals 2000 legislation introduced yet another significant kind--"delivery" or "opportunity to learn" standards. Suppose that the content standard holds that a student should be able to write an effective letter to the editor, and a performance standard indicates which specimen letter qualifies as effective, and which does not. Let's say that a student proves unable to write such a letter. Should the student be penalized, even barred from graduation? Only, says the legislation, if that student has had a genuine opportunity to learn, as measured by such indices as qualified teachers, adequate offerings, readily available resources and technologies, a safe environment, reasonable assessments, and other features "the council deems appropriate." And indeed we have a new federally appointed body, the National Educational Standards and Improvement Council, or nesic, whose assignment it is to examine various proposed standards and certify those judged to be adequate.

We must face the possibility that the national-standards movement may fall apart, like a crumbling Babel.

On any analysis, the national standards council faces a formidable challenge. Following the admirable example of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, nearly every professional disciplinary association either has or will shortly finish preparing its list of standards. Many states, and other jurisdictions and agencies as well, will shortly have their standards drafted. If the documents prepared so far are any indication, descriptions of content, performance, and delivery standards will take up hundreds of pages and will feature dozens if not hundreds of separate requirements. (It is always easier to add than to pare). One can readily envision a scenario where nesic--with its small budget and slender staff--will have to judge dozens of sets of standards and to do so in a way that can withstand not only the scrutiny of critical educators but also challenges in the courts. For if any set of certified standards becomes used for consequences (and if they are not so used, they are destined to be ignored), any group that feels the standards are unfair will have the right to mount a legal challenge.

One can imagine the cartoons now, one can anticipate the skits on "Saturday Night Live" or the spoofs from the ever-eager lips of Rush Limbaugh. Hapless teachers, students, or parents are burdened with numerous sets of standards, some very grand, some very detailed, some progressive, some traditional. The effort it will take simply to assimilate the standards will be enormous; then to implement them, to assess them, to relate them to ultimate employment opportunities, to defend them in court--well, the mind boggles.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

So why should anyone even dare to think of a new kind of standard? Precisely because of the Babel or pandemonium which is likely to result if the relations that obtain among certified standards are not themselves carefully weighed. If, as appears likely (if not legally mandated), NESIC certifies standards on their own merits, one is likely to face a situation where the standards from disparate domains bear little relationship to one another, or even contradict one another. A veritable welter of incommensurate standards is readily predictable. And so, with tongue only barely in cheek, I insist here on the need for Anti-Babel (or, as a secular variant, Anti-Babble) standards.

If we are to have national or state standards which fit together, which complement rather than contradict one another, the certifying body needs to take into account three separate facets:

  • Fit among bodies of knowledge. Over the centuries, different disciplines, subdisciplines, and interdisciplinary specialties have arisen. Some may fit together comfortably, but others may abrade or even contradict one another. We cannot afford to propound, within a jurisdiction, one approach to history--say, an approach that focuses on themes; a second approach to science--say, one that focuses on problem-solving; a third approach to mathematics--say, one that focuses on problem-finding or memorization of facts or creation of new mathematical systems. Like it or not, the standards council must be prepared to don an epistemological hat.

  • Fit for teachers. When teachers are in charge of the entire curriculum, as is typically the case in the early grades, the various sets of standards need to fit together comfortably for the preparation of classes and the teaching and evaluation of students. And when students are working with several teachers during the day, it is perhaps even more important that the messages and methods of these teachers be consistent with one another.
  • Fit for students. In the end, we want students to develop a single, powerful mind, housing strands of knowledge that can be integrated and synthesized. This is no easy accomplishment, even when a single teacher has created the curriculum. We can anticipate enormous confusion on the part of students if the various certified curricula have not been fashioned with a sensitivity to how students relate ideas, themes, practices to one another. Student schizophrenia is as likely as teacher or epistemological schizophrenia.
  • Are there any elements in current school reform that are attending to such a need for fit, that are devising inoculations against the Babel peril? Current efforts at producing integrated pedagogies for the middle grades, or curricula organized around Essential Questions or Generative Ideas in high school, seek fits that make sense for students and teachers. It must be noted, however, that proponents of these innovative approaches tend to be very suspicious of the national-standards movement. Indeed, critics like Theodore Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Deborah Meier see the current standards movements, organized largely around the traditional disciplines, as being inimical to their own preferred views of school reform.

    We must face the possibility that the national-standards movement, motivated by the best of intentions, may fall apart, like a crumbling Babel; or that it may end up by crippling some of the most promising reform efforts under way in our country.

    To forestall these possibilities, I offer three suggestions to NESIC and to NESIC watchers, within and outside of government:

    • Encourage submission of standards by bodies that are not restricted to traditional disciplinary boundaries. Develop criteria for judging such school-based initiatives. Be prepared to offer certification to the curriculum of New York City's Central Park East Secondary School, for example.

  • Insist that submissions by more traditional groups address the Babel problem. Unless a submitter can demonstrate that its content standards can fit comfortably with those submitted by other disciplines or groups, send the submitter back to the standards drawing board.
  • What we need in the country is not more certifying bodies.

  • De-emphasize certification and focus energies instead on the development of standards that will facilitate better teaching and learning. The national educational-standards board might actually turn out to be more benevolent, and perhaps even more powerful, if it ceded (or at least downplayed) its certification prerogatives; it could instead provide detailed feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of submissions, coupled with strong suggestions about how proposed standards might work effectively in different kinds of schools featuring different kinds of curriculum.
  • Before assuming that the power to certify is what confers legitimacy, recall that some of the most important voices in the country--for example, reports offered by the National Academy of Sciences--are advisory only. And recall as well that states have, in effect, been certifying standards for decades, without increased performance resulting. What we need in the country, as a means of improving education, is not more certifying bodies. We need parents and communities who are involved, teachers who are professional enough to devise and critique standards, students who want to use their minds well. A reconceived NESIC could catalyze more sophisticated discussion; it could showcase examples of how to bring about more effective educational practices and how to stimulate students to learn well and to want to learn more.

    Vol. 14, Issue 01, Pages 44, 56

    Published in Print: September 7, 1994, as The Need for Anti-Babel Standards
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