Standards, NOT!

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Who could object to high standards? High standards for teachers, for students, for curriculum, for schools. I object. I object and I accuse.

The concept of standards in education is wrong. It is an inappropriate use of the term itself. And the focus on standards involves two erroneous assumptions. One is that there has been no concern for quality in American education up to now. Second is that a lack of concern for quality has produced a crisis in public education. A key assumption of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton educational reforms is that specific, rigorous standards will eliminate the crisis and assure achievement of national goals.

I accuse the politicians and technicians of the standards movement of using standards as a cover for a well-orchestrated attempt to centralize power and thus control who will teach, who will learn, what will be taught in the nation's schools, and who will determine the curriculum for schools and for teacher education. Writing in these pages last June ("Professionalization and Standards: A 'Unified System of Quality Assurance,'"), Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, lauded this new federalism in American education. Throughout his pitch for centralization of power he used "quality" and "standards" as code words for control. He spoke of a unified system of quality assurance in teaching. Read that as controlling who will teach and how. And he proclaimed that high standards for teachers can be a powerful means to achieve goals for students. That means if you control teachers, you control the learners.

The standards movement promises the political power brokers that by controlling outcomes they can control schools while appearing to support local control, and they can avoid spending money to deal with the real needs of education. Linked to the standards movement is the campaign to privatize education: With national standards in place, the laws of the marketplace can be introduced in education, encouraging profitmakers to compete with public schools and judging all in terms of their ability to meet standards.

It is only the far right that has expressed concern about controlling education through the control of outcomes. Standards is also a code name for outcomes-based education. That was made very clear when the U.S. Education Department recently rejected the draft standards for English language arts developed by the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the Center for the Study of Reading, and withdrew funding for the project. These standards, said the department, dealt too much with process and not enough with product (outcomes). The intent of the standards movement is to control how kids are taught as well as what they are taught.

Why is the use of the term "standards" in education inappropriate?

Originating as a term for a gathering place and then as the pennant to mark that place, a standard came, metaphorically, to mean an arbitrary set of criteria deliberately established to assure uniformity. In moving from handcrafting to mass production, industries needed to establish standards for such variables as size and weight. These standards were really tolerance levels, how much or how little dimensions or characteristics could vary.

The electronics industry is a good example of the problems that exist without set standards in an industry. We've seen competing standards in videotape formats, for example. The issues around standards in computer hardware and software are even more complex. In such dynamic fields, universal standards facilitate use of products, but they inhibit progress and inventiveness. It's very difficult to achieve change if widely accepted standards must be modified or abandoned to achieve it.

The use of "standard" as a noun or adjective produced a verb form: to standardize, to make something uniform and reduce variation. The industrial uses of standard and standardize are the ones which the standards movement in education uses. The standards they seek, as the English-language-arts coalition was told, are precise and tangible. No process standards will be tolerated. A standard such as "Children read widely" is unacceptable.

The industrial model for establishing standards is to bring together the people most involved with the issues and let them set the standards. Yet the language professionals have been dismissed and told they're not qualified to write standards.

Education, moreover, is not a mass-production industry. We don't want interchangeable teachers, pupils, curriculum, and teacher education. In the industrial view, schools are factories taking children as raw materials, shaping them through controlled, uniform treatments, and delivering them as standard products. And teachers are technicians designed to have testable characteristics and meet national performance standards. The business terminology of the standards movement--quality assurance, planning and management of instruction (both used by Mr. Wise in his Commentary)--demonstrates this industrial model.

In the industrial metaphor, the curriculum consists of content fields which have standard measurable outcomes developed through a sequential series of specifiable intermediate outcomes. There are many things wrong with this. A century of research, writing, and development in curriculum is ignored. It is reductionist: Those aspects of the curriculum in which there are no standards established will be ignored in many places. Affective and social objectives in education will also be neglected. John Dewey said that the curriculum is determined by the learner and the content. What the learner brings to the learning is as important as the content. Outcomes-based standards leave the learner out. Instead of starting where the learner is, the standards start and end where all learners must go, as determined by a national committee. This approach is undemocratic: Schools in a pluralistic society do not have the right to force everyone to become alike. It ignores differences in the cultural and life experiences of learners. For many, school will be an experience with which they never quite connect. Leaving what the learners know out is also bad curriculum. Unless we build on what learners already know we are making it harder for them to build new knowledge and new understandings.

This technology of the curriculum precludes alternatives. It is a particular problem for those who believe in integrated curriculum and whole language, and for those who believe in a dual curriculum in which language, including literacy, is developed through theme cycles built around inquiry in science and social studies. Most educators believe it is impossible to isolate English-language-arts standards from the functional contexts in which they are always embedded.

Language, including literacy, is not a content field. It develops in its functional use. We don't just read or write; we read or write something for some purpose. Language is learned best not by specifically teaching it but by supporting its use in a full range of genres.

The common school is the place in American life where we all learn to become participating citizens of a classroom community and a larger society, where we learn the social skills and strategies necessary to form friendships, and where we become empowered to play an informed role as citizens of a democratic society. Meeting national content-area standards will not serve these important social goals of education. That's particularly so if the laws of the marketplace lead to competing schools with ethnic, economic, and ability segregation.

The concept of standardized product is particularly inappropriate when applied to language. The idea of establishing arbitrary standards for language is not a new one. Napoleon created the French Academy. But no political or academic authority has ever succeeded in standardizing language. Regional and class differences continue to exist in every language. In writing his 18th-century dictionary, Samuel Johnson warned lexicographers against thinking that they could fix language and preserve it from change.

Because language is both personal and social, its users develop complex conventions for the language. By internalizing the conventions of a dialect of a language, people assure themselves of participation in a language community. But every individual and every society also invents new language to meet new communicative and learning needs.

Language conventions are not industrial standards. They are social constructs. Every convention starts as the invention of an individual or a group. Much of language invention is short-lived, but some of it moves out into wider circles of society and becomes, eventually, conventional. No committee determines what will or won't be conventional, except in narrow areas such as the naming of elements or heavenly bodies.

There is a popular sense in which we talk about standard English. But standard English is a complex myth. In general the social status of variant language forms reflects the social status of the people who use them. Standard English in New York City is not the same as in Atlanta, or Boston. And it is certainly not the same as standard English in London, Sydney, or even Toronto.

While schools must support learners in understanding a wide range of dialects, it is not the function of schools to standardize language. We want pupils to be flexible, confident, and effective. We want them to read widely for pleasure and a full range of other functions. We want them to write comfortably and confidently, to develop their voices as they write, and to expand on their ability to speak and understand spoken language in increasingly wider genres. We want them to be able to use appropriate language for the particular situation and to feel free to take risks in language and experiment with new forms, words, and styles.

None of this translates into the industrial standards the self-anointed monitors are demanding. That's a major reason why the proposed standards for English language arts were rejected. By industrial definitions they were not standards.

This emerging federal view of what is standard is indeed a narrow one. In the industrial context, it is understood that the standard is arbitrary and that things that are not standard are neither good nor bad, though they may be problematic. Most of us would prefer a custom-made car, suit, or house to a standard one. But as the term is being used in education, the standard becomes the epitome of quality. That leads to terms like substandard and nonstandard to characterize everything or everyone else.

For those who start out farthest from the standard, in language, culture, economic means, or willingness to conform, turning standards into single yardsticks can be devastating for their school experience. It can wipe out for Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans, and the poor everywhere all the gains made since the civil-rights era. Which teachers will survive or even attempt a national certification examination? Which innovative teacher will be supported by school administrators in getting certification? Which adolescents will meet national standards in each content field? And which of their schools will get credit for the heroic job it is doing in building on the knowledge and experience of its pupils? Which local boards will support bilingual education if they know their pupils will only be judged by the standards in English? And which students will finish high school if they will not get a diploma because they have not met the national standards?

So I object to standards. I accuse those who offer standards as the basis of educational reform of using a smoke screen to cover an attack on universal public education. There are those who say we can accept performance standards if there are also opportunity standards. I don't agree; all pupils would still be required to meet the same narrow outcomes. The advocates of standards reveal their underlying values when they reject the need to be concerned for accessibility to educational opportunities by the urban and rural poor.

My alternative is at the heart of my objection to standards. It's time we stopped blaming the teachers and the learners for the failures of the system. The underlying assumption of the standards movement is that American schools are not successful because some kids and teachers aren't trying hard enough. So establish rigorous standards and make these laggards meet them. But that's absolutely wrong. John Dewey said there are two choices in planning schooling. We can make the learners adapt to the school or we can adapt the school to the learners. My solution is to really reform education by supporting teachers and learners, by helping teachers make the school fit the learners. I don't have high standards (except for myself, and those are my own creation), but I do have high expectations. I've already seen enough successful kids and teachers to know what can happen if they're given half a chance.

Vol. 14, Issue 01, Pages 39, 41

Published in Print: September 7, 1994, as Standards, NOT!
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