What is wrong with setting standards? I ask this question because I do believe the intentions behind the movement are sound yet the implementation is flawed. Before I explore some challenges of setting standards, it is important that to identify the standard I am referring to. In his book Research on Educational Innovations, Arthur Ellis identifies three types of curriculum standards which he calls – academic, content and performance standard. Here is how he describes them,
“Academic standards are designed to illustrate what students should know and able to do in academic subjects at each grade level. Content standards describe what experts concur constitutes the essential knowledge that students should know in each academic subject area or discipline. Performance standards indicate the specific level of competent performance that qualifies students to be described as advanced, proficient, below competence, and so on.”
When I read the above definitions, I was convinced that nothing was wrong with asking our students to work a littler harder. After all, every parent would like to see their children excel in their academic subjects. My narrow reasoning was that if we set high standards and ensure every teacher was well trained to meet those standards, our future generations would be better prepared to confront the ever-changing world. But it’s not that simple, especially in a multicultural society like the United States.
In this blog, I will concentrate on academic and content standards and not on performance standards. The whole debate on proficiency vs growth is so huge it deserves its own lengthy blog. With regards to academic and content standards, it is evident that teachers are not well trained to implement these standards. Apart from creating various professional development days (which are valuable instruction time lost) where they discuss and learn how to enact these standards, there is not much training for teachers regarding standards. Teacher inability and inadequate training, however, pales in comparison to my other concern.
My main concern is the professionals who create these standards; the so-called experts with little knowledge of actual classroom experiences. Analyzing the definition of content standards, for example, I find it troubling that the ‘experts’ have been given so much power to conjure the ‘essential knowledge’ that every student should be required to learn. It is evident that these professional experts tend to create standards that favor certain groups of students while neglecting and marginalizing other groups. This is less so in areas such as mathematics and science and more so in history, literature, writing, and civics. Setting standards in a multi-cultural society such as the United States, fells to accommodate the material and emotional needs of many students, especially students of color.
Setting blanket standards is a complex issue and I am not sure anyone has the right formula for it. On the surface, without much thought, it makes perfect sense to have general standards for all in order to measure and assess achievement across the board. However, what is measured and assessed as achievement can be relative. This is why I firmly believe that local teachers and parents should be highly involved in creating standards. Simply put, academic and content standards should largely be a local issue. Local teachers, parents, and administrators know the material and emotional needs that’s best for their students.
This would also create a sense of freedom and ownership among teachers and administrators, opening up room for innovation and creativity. Having someone far removed from students’ personal life experiences determine their academic and content performance based on a standardized test creates academic atrophy for students and teachers. In my two years of teaching experience in Boston, I quickly learned how good students were at sensing and noticing that someone with a political agenda created the tests and did not have their best interests at heart. This affected their effort and generally led to complete withdrawal and rote learning.
Alfie Kohn notes that, demanding higher test scores will accomplish little more than studying for tests, and emphasizing rote learning. This is not to say that we should get of rid of standardized tests, as I believe they have an important role in education, but these tests should be utilized appropriately and only used as a complementary measure of assessment, not the sole and primary method.