Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Differentiate, Don’t Standardize

By Nel Noddings — January 07, 2010 6 min read

What do advocates of national standards expect to accomplish? Unless the ends sought are both significantly important and feasible, we should turn our attention to problems that are truly pressing, such as reducing the number of high school dropouts and curbing youth violence.

It is unlikely that national standards will have a substantial effect on academic achievement. To begin with, in a broad sense, we have long had a national curriculum for the college-bound, one that has varied only in details across the country. This standard curriculum has been established and reinforced by powerful textbook publishers and by colleges and universities; it has been backed by the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.

Standardization has also been supported by the growth in Advanced Placement courses. But increased participation in AP courses has not produced a greater proportion of students passing the AP tests. Failure rates have risen. Simply stating what students must know and be able to do is not enough to ensure the desired outcomes. When standardization is taken to mean universalization, the result may well be lower achievement for many students.

We have been halfway down this road before. Remember the behavioral-objectives movement? Statements of those objectives contained both content and performance standards. Teachers were to state exactly what students would do as a result of instruction and to what standard—for example, students were to add fractions with denominators up to 12 and get at least seven out of 10 items right on a test. Saying it clearly did not make it happen.

The behavioral-objectives movement failed. “Competencies” replaced behavioral objectives, and battalions of educators who should have known better rolled up their sleeves and started to rewrite curricula in terms of competencies. Like its predecessor, the competencies movement was tightly tied to a system of assessment. In one district where I served briefly as a consultant, the first question asked by the writing committee was what rate of failure would be tolerated by the community. That question lurks just below the surface of the current push for national standards. It is hard to shake off the suspicion that, in order to show the world how advanced our standards are, some kids (perhaps many) will fail. If they do not, the standards will be considered too low and will be raised. Inevitably, some students will fail.

Advocates of national standards object that it is not their intention for children to fail. All kids will have better opportunities; the object is to leave no child behind. How will this be done? By generously insisting that all kids, regardless of interests or aptitudes, will take the standard academic subjects and be prepared for college. Some even argue that preparation for college and preparation for work should be identical. Pointing out the foolishness of this contention is material for another essay. Here, I want to concentrate on what our efforts in this direction have produced so far.

Students all over the country are now forced to take algebra and geometry. The result has been a proliferation of pseudo-courses in these subjects. I’ve observed these classes, and watched students plod through meaningless exercises manipulating meaningless symbols. As a former high school math teacher, this makes me angry. We could be teaching these kids some mathematics that would be useful in their present and future lives. Instead, we are engaged in pedagogical fraud. Many students who graduate from high school with “algebra” and “geometry” on their transcripts are disheartened to learn that they must start their college work with pre-algebra.

It is politically incorrect today to suggest that some kids have neither the interest nor aptitude for academic mathematics. Nevertheless, it is true. When I taught high school math (everything from general math to Advanced Placement calculus), I was continually astonished at the range of achievement that appeared in every course. It was wonderful to work with kids who were eager to learn more and more. But it was also gratifying to help less interested students find material connected to their own purposes, and it was humbling to learn something about the impressive range of human talents. There are many intelligent, industrious, morally decent, creative people who dislike academic math and really don’t need it.

We do not need to standardize. We need to differentiate—to offer a greater variety of courses—and we should work on the quality of these courses. They should not be shabby, dead-end courses for those thought to be incapable of the long-favored academic courses. Rather, they should represent a genuine democratic respect for all the interests and talents required in the contemporary work world. On the practical side, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that most of the job openings in the next decade will be in occupations that do not require a college education; reasonably, then, we should consider how best to provide for students whose interests are not primarily academic.

Vocational education in the United States has had a mixed history. Its commercial programs (office and secretarial courses) were quite successful; its industrial programs less so. At least three reasons for their lack of success should be examined. First, many (by no means all) of the courses in vocational programs were poorly planned and taught; this was especially true of the general education courses taught as part of the larger program. The attitude often expressed was that these students could not do “real” academic work. Second, students were assigned to programs, often on the basis of extraneous factors such as race. Third, there was general acceptance of a hierarchy of programs: academic at the top, commercial in the middle, and vocational (shop) at the bottom. Under such conditions, it was hard for any youngster to choose a vocational program proudly. One landed in such a program not by choice, but by default.

I think we must—politely but persistently—question the motives behind the push for standardization."

If we put our minds to it, the first and second conditions can be remedied. Vocational courses can be well designed and creatively taught, and students—with appropriate guidance—should be allowed to choose the program of study that best fits their interests. Choice should be allowed across all programs. Students should be neither assigned to nor denied access to any program. Such choice is also a powerful motivator. Lagging students can be spurred on by a reminder that they chose a college-preparatory or vocational program.

The third condition—the widely accepted hierarchy of programs—is harder to overcome. Too many Americans judge courses by their titles; we apply a criterion that might be labeled “rigorous by title.” “Algebra” is, on this criterion, more rigorous than “shop,” “office machines,” “cooking,” or even “music.” Thus it seems more acceptable for a student to take a shoddy course in algebra than a challenging course in automotive repair. Educators should read Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft.

But we continue to insist that, like it or not, all children should be prepared for college so that they will have a chance at a more affluent life. The purpose of education has been reduced to making money. What about liking one’s work? What about feeling useful and competent? What about living a full life in family, friendship, and community?

If it is untrue that all children should go to college, and if it is true that the establishment of national standards is likely to increase the high school dropout rate, then we should reject the idea of national standards and work energetically to provide a variety of first-class programs for all our students. I think we must— politely but persistently—question the motives behind the push for standardization. Might money be involved? A seemingly uniform academic program is much cheaper than up-to-date vocational programs. Vocational education is expensive, requiring smaller classes, larger spaces, and sophisticated machinery. Can we afford it?

Perhaps we can. If we redirect all the money now wasted on standardization and testing to first-class programs for all our students, we might keep kids in school and give them hope for the future.

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