Assessment Opinion

The Trouble With National Standards

By Deborah Meier — November 04, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Following up on our recent exchange leads me try to spell out where we stand with regard to another old disagreement on what you probably call National Standards and I call A National Curriculum: a requirement that all kids study the same things and thus that schools be held accountable for covering the same content year by year. It’s what I understand the search for a set of national standards seeks to do—and then assess. Of course, if the assessment is not attached to high stakes (or even low ones!), many of my fears are mitigated—but then why do it?

Since you and I were both students of history (although I switched from studying history to studying 5-year-olds!), there is good reason for us to think aloud about “standards” in our field. (Actually, I feel the same about standards in other academic fields, too.)

Standards as a flag to lead us forth contrasts for me with standards as a way of standardizing our minds. (Readers can find much of what I say below in Will Standards Save Public Education? Beacon Press, 2000.)

When I studied at the University of Chicago, history was offered in the graduate department of either the humanities or the social sciences. I chose humanities because I preferred taking literature as my minor. Also, while I was a leftist with a Marxist bent, I did not believe that we could fit history into the framework of the sciences. I still feel that way. But today I would add that there are important arguments among scientists as well as science-educators about what it is that constitutes the fundamentals of “science” and what the most important contribution of science is to society, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness.

As in history, these differences lead to different conclusions regarding the content of a K-12 science education. I’m hoping none of the many sides in these disputes compromises for the sake of a consensus. I don’t want our “academic” disputes decided by anyone’s fiat. The argument itself, and the insights we gain from appreciating contradictory and conflicting theories and even evidence is important. The dogmatism of particular scholars is part of what drives them to pursue their ideas in ways dilettantes won’t. While simplicity is one test of a good scientific hypothesis (hardly a critical one), it’s not at all true in history.

Settling on THE history of the Civil War (my specialty) undermines good intellectual work rather than elevating it. A good course in history—yes, starting in kindergarten—is consistent and not in contradiction with what the highest standards of history are about. The coursework may be “simpler” in one sense, but it should not treat 5-year-olds to a false view of history. Even little children are aware of how witnesses retell the playground fight from different viewpoints!

But then I have long suspected that that my favorite interpretations might not make it into “The National Consensus.” I’ve come out of a dissident history and have often been on the losing side of policy matters. So my natural inclination is to assume I need policies that protect my views.

My inkling is that many of our theories are much related to our personal strengths, histories, and attachments. As one with a terrible rote memory—a lifelong problem for me—I appreciated the schools I attended in the 1930s and ‘40s for having been progressive! Since there were few such schools in the public sector, it meant my parents sent me to a private school. Still I was a firm believer in the validity of standardized tests (despite being a poor memorizer) until one of my three children turned out to be bad at them—and I had to become an expert on testing to defend and understand him better.

So whether it’s my personal history or my understanding of the nature of history as a discipline—or my fear of the tendency to rewrite history to support the dominant political actors—or something else entirely, I’m afraid of creating a “Single Inspiring American History Story.” I’d like us to delight in three or more good stories and then explore how close to The Truth each gets by seeking evidence on behalf of their claims.

At Central Park East Secondary School, the final history “exam” consisted of doing just what I’m talking about. Students had a choice of what portion of history to be experts in and then had to defend their understanding of issues, both on paper and in person. The final query from the review committee required students to explain how they might pursue this subject if they had the time and inclination. Such an exercise helped us design experiences for those as young as five that fostered both the love of history and the curiosity needed to take it seriously. We’re all entitled to “our opinions,” but schooling should take us beyond “mere” opinions into tentative conclusions that once again are held with care. Will this approach lead to dilemmas? Yes, yes, yes. It narrowed how much we “covered” because it focused instead on “uncovering.”


P.S. Regarding your latest blog comments: Actually, “open education” was mistakenly interpreted as “open space” or “no walls.” Nothing could have been more counter effective than those big anonymous spaces that teachers had to struggle to personalize, reinventing their own walls.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.