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Why I Love/Hate Standards : Are We There Yet?

Why I Love/Hate Standards

August 1, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 

Some years ago (2001), in my book “Technology Standards: A Leader’s Manual” (you must remember it–it sold literally dozens of copies) I made this point about academic standards:

But standards are not merely goals and objectives. In fact, real implementation of standards in a school system should turn instructional practice on its end…’Traditional instructional practice  fixes the time that a student has to learn and allows the learning outcome to vary. You take Algebra II for nine months. At the end of that time, the result might be that you get an A, an F, or something in between. Standards-based instruction, on the other hand, fixes the learning outcome and allows the time to vary. Every student will show mastery of the performance standards, but some of them will show mastery earlier or later than others will.’

Read that again. It is a fundamental change in instructional practice that should shake public education to its foundations. In a standards-based system, giving a grade in reading, math, or written language would be almost impossible because what we should be measuring is progress toward mastery of a standard, not performance relative to a fixed time line. Our job as educators is not to grade students on what they remember over time but to make sure that they attain the standards set by the school system or the state, no matter how long it takes.

I still stand by my statement, but I’m increasingly aware that the standards movement of the H.W. Bush era backfired on us. The move toward academic standards should have driven a shakeup in the way we educate K-12 students. Instead, it gave us high-stress, high-stakes testing and new restrictions on creative instruction. I think it’s more than coincidental that our schools have become progressively less engaging for students as a result of the standards movement, when just the opposite should have happened.

That’s why the Common Core Standards movement concerns me. Don’t misunderstand me–I support the concept of clearly defined academic standards and I don’t have any specific quibbles with the content of the Common Core standards. However, I think the focus on standards–e.g., curriculum–detracts from the real issue of what’s wrong with our schools: instruction.

We need to face the fact that, in spite of considerable effort over the past 30 years to establish state and federal academic standards, students in many K-12 classrooms are simply disengaged from the process of learning as a result of instructional methodologies that focus on memorization and test-taking in lieu of problem solving and creative pursuits. If it’s not on the test, it’s not covered. Schools have typically been slow to adopt new technologies, and when they are adopted they are often used to extend traditional instructional models instead of creating new ones.

I would argue that what students learn–call it content, curriculum, standards–is ultimately less important than how and why they learn. Passionate involvement in a topic–any topic–will produce a better-educated student and one that is more prepared for current and emerging careers than will a focus on high-stakes test content.

I applaud the notion behind the Common Core Standards. But I fear that national adoption will create a “feel good” sense of accomplishment that will deflect focus from the real reason that our schools are failing our students. Focusing on standards did not work in the 80s-90s and I have a hunch that, in the absence of a fundamental transformation in the way we instruct K-12 students, it won’t work this time either.

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