Accountability Opinion

Why State Standards Trouble Me

By Deborah Meier — December 20, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

It’s hard to resist making one more stab at it—but there’s something beyond logic that pulls us apart on this one! Do send me the California standards you refer to so I can see what you mean by “consensus”. Of who? What “compromises” were made along the way? Were they worth it?

And: Are the California standards without “stakes"—just a source of voluntary information—for faculty, students, school boards and the public? But I fear that our correspondent Paul Hoss—who favors such national standards is more realistic in how he sees them being used—as high-stakes tests. His support for them is, in fact, built on such an idea.

A reader asks whether I’d feel differently if it wasn’t the State that was setting the standards. Yes, I would. I am very concerned at the impact that a single SAT score has on young people’s futures and have joined FairTest (the nation’s sole counterweight to the massive testing industry’s sales job) in their campaign against its misuse. But Rachel is right. The fact that it’s a private choice makes it more palatable to me. Ditto with the math community’s publishing their “consensual” viewpoint on what constitutes a good math education and doing their best to promulgate that view—short of mandating it. Although I equally treasure the minority viewpoint—the hold-outs. Over time they often turn out to be ahead of the curve. Ditto for history, science, et al. The Getty Institute at one point had an enormous—and I think harmful—impact on art education through its influence on setting standards for K-12 art. But it was “an influence”. It stopped being helpful when it became California’s officially sanctioned K-12 art’s curriculum.

I also realize that like Richard Rothstein (see Rothstein’s American Prospect article, Dec. 17, 2007 ) I see the assumptions that the feds are less biased than locals is happenstance. For example, it was the federal court that turned down voluntary local efforts to end segregation this last year, even as it was the same court that mandated integration a half-century ago.

To change the subject—sort of. It occurs to me that between the ages of 5-18 we are all expected to try to be equally good at “learning” everything we are obliged to study. That means in fact, that we are required in reality to spend more time at the things we are not “naturally” interested in or talented at than those things we take to like a duck to water. An odd way to prepare for a life in which I hope we mostly do the opposite! That’s assuming schools (or families) have provided the time for youngsters to develop the passions and interests that make them truly “special” to the world, and which make life itself wonderful to live.

One concern I have about all attempts to assume there ought to be the one-best curriculum or course-of-study is that it squashes, rather than expands, our zest for what strikes our fancy. I know, Diane, that this sounds flaky, but the more I watch young people the more strongly I feel about it. What they need, above all, is exposure to adults who are living their lives with intellectual passion, playfulness. Who are always chasing a new idea or a new way to think about an old idea. And by “ideas” I include far more than what we neatly divide up into academic disciplines.

The old NAEP—with its information-gathering core—doesn’t kill that. It may even offer another source for teacherly curiosity: “I wonder how my students would answer that?” “Hmm, if I’d worded it differently….” But it is clearly a hard battle to keep such “standards” from turning into efforts to decide what everyone “ought to” think (know?), and then into tools for “making them” do so.

This week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine piece on medical diagnosis, ends with a quote I think is relevant, but I’m not sure exactly how. “Doctors,” says author Lisa Sanders, too often “look to the medical literature rather than looking at the patient for their answers.” Sanders concludes by quoting Sir William Osler, “a 19th century doctor considered by many the father of modern American medicine” (as follows): ‘We miss more by not seeing than by not knowing.’”

Have a wonderful holiday season, Diane (and readers).


P.S. Diane and I are saving for 2008 some amazing stuff about NYC’s two newest passions—grading all its schools A-F and giving all 4- and 5-year-olds an IQ test! Both, naturally, in the “name” of equity. My New Year’s wish is for both to disappear but…I fear it will take more than New Year’s wishes.

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