Opinion
Standards Commentary

Standards and the Art of Magical Thinking

By Thomas Newkirk — June 07, 2010 4 min read

Years ago, my family enjoyed playing a “Sesame Street” record in which a king was so grateful when the fire department put out a royal fire that he declared everyone in his kingdom would be a fireman. Of course, problems arose: There was no one to cook his meals because everyone was a fireman. The moral, I suppose, was that we need different professions, something the king eventually realized. But I loved the magical bravado of the king’s just declaring everyone a fireman—and it happened.

We get our fair share of magical thinking in the standards movement, such as the goal that every student in the country would be at the proficient level in reading and math by 2014, even though only about a third of U.S. students were at that level when the No Child Left Behind law was enacted. Proponents tried to make this unrealistic goal sound common-sensical—shouldn’t all kids read at grade level?—when in fact we had never been even close to having this level as the norm, let alone the universal requirement. Those of us who questioned the realism of this standard must surely have appeared as pessimists, spoilsports, or defeatists.

But as any decent weight-reduction counselor knows, few things can be more damaging than unrealistic goals. They set us up for failure.

We are now paying the price of this lack of realism. It corrupted the setting of state standards, with some states redefining proficient downward, often way downward. In my own small state of New Hampshire, which has scored among the top states in reading and math on national assessments, over 60 percent of schools are designated “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind. And the machinery of NCLB will only catch more unless radically modified.

As any decent weight-reduction counselor knows, few things can be more damaging than unrealistic goals. They set us up for failure.

The move to “common-core standards” is widely seen as a step forward—with rigorous and uniform standards to be in place in almost all states, so that U.S. students can become career- and college-ready. The College Board (a major “client” of the Educational Testing Service) and ACT Inc. were given roles in drafting the proposals of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, leaving some of us to wonder if there was not a conflict of interest involved. Can we be sure that these organizations, so tied to existing testing instruments, will not benefit financially from developing products that align with the standards they helped create?

But leaving aside concerns about possible conflicts, these standards are one more example of magical thinking: the universalization of “advanced placement.” The framers of the common-core standards have consistently taken a level of proficiency attained by the most accomplished students and made it a general expectation. Like the king on the “Sesame Street” record, they have declared everyone AP.

Let’s look at examples in the area of writing from the draft standards released in March. (The final set of common academic standards was released on June 2.) (“Allies Shift Focus Toward Promoting Standards Adoption”; “Final Version of Core Standards Assuages Some Concerns,” June 9, 2010.) Here is one of the draft core standards for 2nd graders (remember: 7-year-olds, missing teeth, a lingering belief in Santa Claus):

“Write informative and explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, present similar information together using headers to signal groupings when appropriate, and provide a concluding sentence or section.”

While a few students may be able to accomplish this independently, the standard is wildly beyond the range of most 2nd graders, particularly boys, unless the activity is made into a formula with boxes to be filled in (and I fully expect these boxes are being created in curricular material as I write).

Or take this 12th grade standard for writing about literature:

“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms fictional source material, such as how Shakespeare draws on a story from Ovid, or a later author draws on Shakespeare.”

This sophisticated task of text analysis is daunting for AP literature students, and I would argue more appropriate for college literature classes. Again, it’s wildly unrealistic as a general standard for all 12th grade students, many of whom struggle with the general sense of a Shakespeare play.

Many of the objectives for persuasive writing at this age level describe the work I do with advanced college students—particularly the handling of multiple perspectives on a topic, a very complex skill for young writers. All of which makes me wonder, ungenerously, if those who created these standards have really taught in actual schools, with actual students, and actual teaching loads of over 120 students. I suppose we can declare high school the new college, but saying so does not make it so, or even make it possible.

So I see two possibilities. One would be mass failure, if these standards are actually applied to all students and rigorously tested. Teachers and students would once again be set up for failure.

The other, more likely result is a version of “just kidding.” These complex standards will morph into more modest “real” standards—ones that are tested through modifications to tests like the AP or the SAT writing test, or current state writing tests.

In either case, the core standards as written are utopian fictions, illusory, magical thinking.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Standards and the Art of Magical Thinking

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