Thursday, July 29, 2010

National Standards: Friend, Foe, or Irrelevant?

As more and more states adopt the Common Core National Standards for K-12, I find myself unsure about my feelings toward these standards. My gut feeling when I first heard about them was: they are evil. One size fits all is never a good thing. Then I thought that maybe the standards will raise the bar for students in some states, and that is a good thing. In California, the Common Core standards are actually easier for my grade level than what I have to teach now (which is good considering many of the current standards are 100% developmentally inappropriate). Then again, the adoption of the Core allows for states to change the Core by 15%. Who knows what that might mean in California.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham points out that there is no correlation between the quality of state standards and NAEP scores ( Willingham contends that either standards are irrelevant to schooling, or that academic outcomes are determined by a multitude of factors. He thinks the latter is the case. Standards help, but they are not enough.

I agree with Willingham. Education of our children is a complex issue, yet No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top treat it so simplistically. It all boils down to test scores - high stakes testing. As David Berliner illustrates in his book Collateral Damage, high stakes testing only corrupts education. And with standards being "an inch deep and a mile wide," students learn very little that they will retain and actually use.

After reading up on the national standards and having conversations with fellow educators (most recently Mary Cowhey, author of Black Ants and Buddhists), I have come to the conclusion, at least for myself, that standards are irrelevant. I am not saying standards are not important - I think it is important that we have meaningful and attainable standards. But whether these standards are the state of California's or the Common Core's does not matter. (Although I do think both need to be narrowed down a great deal.) What matters is HOW the standards are taught. No matter what the content happens to be, if that content is not taught in a meaningful, relevant, and comprehensible manner, the students will not learn. Oh sure, they might memorize facts and formulas for a test. I did that all through college. Once the test was over, the knowledge was gone. Except of course for the classes (that I can count on one hand) where the professors actually taught. Standing up there and lecturing is not teaching. The only person interacting with the curriculum is the lecturer. Bubbling in answers does not assess learning. It only shows how strong of a test-taker you are.

As Susan Ohanian puts it, "Let's stop focusing on the hole and pay more attention to the bagel." Let's start creating spaces for learning where students engage in curriculum authentically. Let's have standards that allow students to delve "an inch wide and a mile deep." Let's make sure we teach students, not content.


  1. I could not agree more. I have been saying this for a while that the content should be the vehicle, not the destination. The challenge is how do we measure learning on a grand scale? The CST's don't do it, and our government is all about measuring results...

    There are some assessments in other countries that have been shown to be better measurements of student achievement. Tone Wagner's book, "The Global Achievement Gap" highlights some of these. I will post them after I dig the book out of my bookcase.

  2. It should be Tony Wagner. It was late when I wrote it! :-P