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Standards Opinion

Debunking the Case for National Standards

By Alfie Kohn — January 07, 2010 8 min read
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I keep thinking it can’t get much worse, and then it does. Throughout the 1990s, one state after another adopted prescriptive education standards enforced by frequent standardized testing, often of the high-stakes variety. A top-down, get-tough movement to impose “accountability” began to squeeze the life out of classrooms.

A decade ago, many of us thought we had hit bottom—until the floor gave way and we found ourselves in a basement we didn’t know existed. Now every state had to test every student every year in grades 3-8, judging them (and their schools) almost exclusively by test scores and hurting the schools that needed the most help. Ludicrously unrealistic proficiency targets suggested that the federal law responsible was intended to sabotage rather than improve public education.

Today, we survey the wreckage. Talented teachers have abandoned the profession after having been turned into glorified test-prep technicians. Low-income teenagers have been forced out of school by do-or-die graduation exams. Countless inventive learning activities have been eliminated in favor of prefabricated lessons pegged to state standards.

And now we’re informed that what we really need … is to standardize this whole operation from coast to coast.

Have we lost our minds? Because we’re certainly in the process of losing our children’s minds.

Let’s be clear about this latest initiative, which is being spearheaded by politicians, corporate CEOs, and companies that produce standardized tests. First, what they’re trying to sell us are national standards. They carefully point out that the effort isn’t driven by the federal government. But if all, or nearly all, states end up adopting identical mandates, that distinction doesn’t amount to much.

Second, these standards will inevitably be accompanied by a national standardized test. “Standards alone,” warns Dane Linn, a key player, “will not drive teaching and learning”—meaning, of course, the specific type of teaching and learning that the authorities require. Even if we took the advice of the late Harold Howe II, a former U.S. commissioner of education, and made the standards “as vague as possible,” a national test creates a de facto national curriculum, particularly if high stakes are attached.

Third, a relatively small group of experts—far from classrooms—will be designing standards, test questions, and curricula for the rest of us. Incredibly, the official Web site of the Common Core State Standards Initiative insists that these will be “based on evidence” rather than reflecting anyone’s “individual beliefs about what is important.” But evidence can tell us only whether a certain method is effective for reaching a certain objective—for example, how instruction aligned to this standard will affect a score on that test. The selection of the goal itself—what our children will be taught and tested on—unavoidably reflects values and beliefs. Should those of a single group of individuals determine what happens in every public school in the country?

Advocates of national standards say they want all (American) students to attain excellence, no matter where they happen to live. The problem is that excellence is being confused with entirely different attributes, such as uniformity, rigor, specificity, and victory. Let’s consider each in turn.

Are all kids entitled to a great education? Of course. But that doesn’t mean all kids should get the same education. High standards don’t require common standards. Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence—or equity. (In fact, one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the cause of genuine equity.) To recognize these simple truths is to watch the rationale for national standards collapse into a heap of intellectual rubble.

Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence—or equity."

I know of no evidence that students in countries as diverse as ours with national standards or curricula engage in unusually deep thinking or are particularly excited about learning. Even standardized-test results, such as those of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, provide no support. On 8th grade math and science exams, eight of the 10 top-scoring countries had centralized education systems, but so did nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.

So if students don’t benefit from uniformity, who does? Presumably, corporations that sell curriculum materials and tests will enjoy lower costs. And then there are the policymakers who confuse doing well with beating others. If you’re determined to evaluate students or schools in relative terms, it helps if they’re all doing the same thing. But why would we want to turn learning into a competitive sport?

It’s not only that national standards are unnecessary, they’re also based on the premise that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools,” as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin put it. Moreover, uniformity doesn’t just happen—and continue—on its own. Someone has to make everyone apply the same standards. What happens, then, to educators who disagree with some of them or with, say, the premise that teaching must be split into separate disciplines? What are the implications of accepting a system characterized by what Deborah Meier has called “centralized power over ideas”?

I’ve written elsewhere about another error: equating harder with better and making a fetish of “rigorous” demands or tests whose primary virtue (if it’s a virtue at all) is that they’re really difficult. Read just about any brief for national standards and you’ll witness this confusion in full bloom. A key selling point is that we’re “raising the bar”—even though, as Voltaire reminded us, “That which is merely difficult gives no pleasure in the end.” Nor does it enhance learning.

Then, too, there is a conflation of quality with specificity. If children—and communities—are different from one another, the only safe way to apply one standard to all of them is to operate at a high level of abstraction: “We will help all students to communicate effectively,” for example. (Hence Harold Howe’s enduring wisdom about the need to keep things vague.) The more specific the standard, the more problematic to impose it on everyone. Pretty soon you’re gratuitously defining some children as failures, particularly if standards are broken down by grade level.

The reasonable-sounding adjectives employed to defend an agenda of specificity—“focused,” “coherent,” “precise,” “clear”—ought to make us nervous. If standards comprise narrowly defined facts and skills, then education consists of transmitting vast quantities of material to students, material that even the most successful may not remember, care about, or be able to use.

This is exactly what most state standards have already become, and it’s where national standards are heading (even if, in theory, they could be otherwise). Specificity is what business groups and newspaper editorialists want. It’s demanded by theorists who think being well educated mostly means knowing lots of facts. It’s been a major criterion by which Education Week and conservative think tanks like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute evaluate standards documents. In any case, Achieve Inc. and the governors probably won’t need much convincing; they’ll give us specific in spades.

Finally, what’s the purpose of demanding that every kid in every school in every state must be able to do the same thing in the same year, with teachers pressured to “align” their instruction to a master curriculum and a standardized test?

A prescription for uniform, specific, rigorous standards is made to order for those whose chief concern is to pump up the American economy."

I once imagined a drinking game in which a few of those education reform papers from corporate groups and politicians were read aloud: You take a shot every time you hear “rigorous,” “measurable,” “accountable,” “competitive,” “world-class,” “high(er) expectations,” or “raising the bar.” Within a few minutes, everyone would be so inebriated that they’d no longer be able to recall a time when discussions about schooling weren’t studded with these macho managerial buzzwords.

But not all jargon is meaningless. This language has very real implications for what classrooms will look like and what education is (and isn’t) all about. The goal here isn’t to nourish children’s curiosity, to help them fall in love with reading, to promote both the ability and the disposition to think critically, or to support a democratic society. Rather, a prescription for uniform, specific, rigorous standards is made to order for those whose chief concern is to pump up the American economy and triumph over people who live in other countries.

If you read the FAQs page on the common-core-standards Web site, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “democracy.” Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase “success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”

If these standards are more economic than educational in their inspiration, more about winning than learning, devoted more to serving the interests of business than to meeting the needs of kids, then we’ve merely painted a 21st-century facade on a hoary, dreary model of school-as-employee-training. Anyone who recoils from that vision should strenuously resist a proposal for national standards that embodies it.

Yes, we want excellent teaching and learning for all—although our emphasis should be less on achievement (read: test scores) than on students’ achievements. Offered a list of standards, we should scrutinize each one, but also ask who came up with them and for what purpose. Is there room for discussion and disagreement—and not just by experts—regarding what, and how, we’re teaching and how authentic our criteria are for judging success? Or is this a matter of “obey or else,” with tests to enforce compliance?

The standards movement, sad to say, morphed long ago into a push for standardization. The last thing we need is more of the same.

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