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Standards Commentary

Four Reasons Why Most ‘Don’t Cut the Mustard’

By Chester E. Finn Jr., Michael J. Petrilli & Gregg Vanourek — November 11, 1998 8 min read

Millions of students, teachers, and parents are grappling this fall with new or changing state academic standards. In most cases, students, schools, and teachers will be judged by test scores keyed to these standards. Curricula will be revised. Some students may be held back. Perhaps a few teachers won’t be rehired. Parents will have a yardstick by which to measure their kids’ progress. All as a result of these standards.

“Fantastic!” we say, that’s what standards-based reform is all about. Except for one small detail: Most state standards don’t cut the mustard. At least that’s what we found when we took a close look at them.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation recently appraised state standards in English, history, geography, mathematics, and science. With so much hinging on them, we wanted to know how good they are. Are they rigorous? Clear? Could a teacher, parent, or student pick them up and make sense of them? Are they likely to boost student achievement? Do they lend themselves to assessment and accountability? Do they point schools in the right direction?

To answer these questions, we asked experts in the five disciplines to develop criteria--what are the characteristics of good standards in your field?--and apply them to as many state standards as they could lay their hands on. These experts obtained further advice from senior scholars and veteran educators in their disciplines.

The grades have now been tallied. They’re not all bleak. Some states did well in some subjects. A very few did well overall. But the main conclusion to be drawn is that most states have a long way to go before their academic standards will be strong enough to bear the considerable burden now being placed on them. Their present weakness, in fact, is a grave threat to standards-based education reform.

In every subject, the number of states receiving D’s or F’s from our reviewers outnumbered those receiving A’s or B’s. When we aggregate the data across subjects, the picture is just as troubling. We have compiled a grade point average for each state. Using the traditional four-point scale, no state earned an A average, only three (Arizona, California, and Texas) earned B averages, and nine flunked. The national cumulative GPA was 1.3, a D-plus.

What is it about state academic standards that led the Fordham reviewers to give them such low marks? Looking across the subjects, we’ve identified four compelling problems:

1. Many state standards are extremely vague.

Any serious academic standard must be clear, specific, and measurable. Unfortunately, many states have produced vague and nebulous documents. Terry Smith and Susan Munroe, in their appraisal of geography standards, explain the problem:

[T]he essential point of standards is to convey with precision what students should master. Far too many states cast their standards in terms that will likely leave curriculum developers, students, and teachers scratching their heads as to just what is expected of them.

States supply various excuses for vagueness. Some suggest that delineating precisely what is to be learned--a “canon"--would amount to cultural oppression, as some ideas, people, and places would be more valued than others. To us, however, placing value on important bodies of knowledge is exactly the point of standards. Indeed, by spelling out which books children should read in English class, which individuals and events to study in history, and so on, states signal their decisions about what’s truly important for children to know and do. These matters are the stuff of great debate, yet they’re also the essence of academic standards. Avoiding the debates means crippling the standards.

Other states say they believe in “local control” and intentionally defer decisions about educational specifics to individual districts or schools. That makes for a good sound bite but is really an abdication of responsibility. States can set specific, rigorous standards while still allowing schools to find many ways to meet them.

If states advertise that they have standards, they should have genuine standards, not fluff. Vague standards set schools adrift without a map or compass--or even a destination. And they make a mockery of “accountability.”

2. Many state standards are hostile to knowledge.

All our authors searched for the specific knowledge and skills that the states want students to master. Unfortunately, they mostly found plenty of the latter and an acute shortage of the former.

In English, for example, barely any states demanded that students study and know American literature and specific literary movements. Others refused to delineate any essential works at all. Washington state asks its students to read a “variety of traditional and contemporary literature.” What sort of standard is that?

States were palpably keener on skill development. For example, most jurisdictions earned high marks on the skill-based criterion that addressed library research. One might infer that states consider it more important for students to be able to look things up than to read great books.

Skills are important, to be sure. But knowledge matters, too. Surely there are some things that all kids should know, and these should be embodied in the standards. The nation’s founders understood that a knowledgeable--not just skilled --citizenry is essential to the success of our democratic experiment. The standards movement has given states the chance to identify essential knowledge that all citizens have a right to possess. Tragically, many states are squandering this opportunity.

3. Many state standards are entranced by “relevance.”

Copernicus may have discovered that man is not the center of the universe, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at most state standards. Overwhelmingly, they embrace the notion that practically everything must be related to the child’s own life.

This was especially true in math, where Ralph Raimi and Lawrence Braden encountered an overweening emphasis on faux “real world” problems at the expense of mathematical reasoning, computation, and systematic thinking. Games and activities can successfully augment real math, but they shouldn’t replace it.

Reverence for relevance is also evident in many English standards. A majority of the documents that English-standards reviewer Sandra Stotsky examined require students to relate what they read to their own personal experience. Ms. Stotsky warns:

[T]o require students at higher educational levels to read their lives into the literature they are asked to study undermines the very capacity of a literary work to help readers transcend their limited experiences. A major function of literature is to expand perspectives and free students from insularity.

Education should widen children’s horizons. States that “save” children from learning about elements of history, literature, or science that don’t seem immediately relevant do them no favor. The concern of standards writers should be to identify important knowledge, not to ensure that it’s all “fun” or “interesting” or immediately gratifying. Great teachers will always find ways to make the material come alive for students. That’s the teacher’s job, not the state’s.

4. Many states wrote standards of teaching rather than standards of learning.

Education standards should be clear about what is to be learned by students at various grade levels and how well this is to be learned. Period. Standards should not prescribe teaching methods, devise classroom strategies, or substitute for lesson plans. Standards are about ends, not means. Yet many states either do not understand this distinction or do not agree with it. Too often, pedagogy and ideology have seeped into their standards.

For example, Rhode Island’s math standards include a list of features of a “traditional classroom” vs. those of a “learning community.” Messrs. Raimi and Braden explain:

Opposite “Teacher knows the answer” is “More than one solution may be viable and teacher may not have it in advance.” Opposite “Thinking is usually theoretical and ‘academic’” is “Thinking involves problem-solving, reasoning, and decisionmaking.”

In English, several state standards push specific teaching methods, such as whole-language reading or heterogeneous groupings.

This advocacy of preferred pedagogies or philosophies strikes us as dangerous not because the theory itself is necessarily flawed but because these states are using their standards to force a “one size fits all” approach upon their schools. Standards, if done right, should not standardize what happens within schools. Rather, they should free the schools from top-down dictates while obliging them to focus on results. This will enable various school models to emerge, from “progressive” to “traditional,” and everything in between--a range of choices that can better serve the needs and learning styles of children and the passions and talents of teachers.

Standards-writing is a dynamic process, and it’s possible that over time the states will make great strides in improving their standards. Some have already revised them. And in every subject we studied, at least one state received an A. State officials and concerned citizens should read these standards and borrow freely from them.

Should current state standards be trashed in the meantime? Probably not. As Susan Traiman warns in the Fordham report, “We must not get endlessly stuck in the process of perfecting standards, a process that dooms standards-based reform to a state of paralysis.” But let’s put it this way: In standards jargon, most of the documents we currently have are “below basic.” Let’s at least get them up to “proficient.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1998 edition of Education Week


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