This is an "op-ed" written by Lauren Marriott, a student studying education at the University of Washington. She wrote the piece as an assignment in an education policy class and asked me if I would publish it. Of course I will.
Standards Themselves Are Not the Enemy- but Standardization Will Be
By Lauren Marriott
Browsing the education blogs these days, you notice a voice that is missing from the debate about the direction of school reform: students. So as a current undergraduate at the University of Washington, studying and exploring a future career in education, I would like to briefly represent the student voice in this debate about standards-based reform. This issue matters a great deal to young people. The choices that are being made by policymakers today impact my generation and the students younger than me who have grown up and been educated in this current policy climate.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone involved in American education today that would argue against the desire of having every child be able to read, write, analyze and compute at a high level. We want high achievement and we want it for all.
Within this current climate of standards-based reform, 48 states have signed on to adopt the Common Core, a set of reading and mathematics benchmarks for students from Kindergarten to 12th grade. These standards will replace the hodgepodge of state standards being used across the nation.
They promise that students in Massachusetts will learn the same skills and concepts as kids in California. Proponents of the standards highlight that in our mobile society, students who end up moving from one state to another can count on encountering similar material within their grade level.
The mere exercise of creating these reading and math standards for American students has finally drawn educators and policymakers to the national roundtable to decide what every student in the U.S. ought to know and when. Having these expectations be explicit, for teachers, students and parents alike, will mean a common understanding in this country of what it means to be well educated. These standards can inform teacher preparation programs, curriculum and textbooks and of course, the assessments that will measure whether or not our students are meeting them.
The standards alone are not the enemy. Like most policies, they were designed with the best intentions. But the standards alone will not improve American education.
The standards alone will not guarantee equal opportunity, resources, or achievement for our nation’s students. The devil will be in the implementation. Where the standards will fail will be in the standardization of American public education.
Like so many of the reforms wrapped up into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, these standards support the premise that the purpose of education is to produce individuals who are ready to work; ready to help the American economy reign supreme in the global marketplace.
Lofty rhetoric that echoes the President’s latest State of the Union address asserts that the Common Core will prepare our students fully for success in college and careers, so that American students can compete in the global economy. They will help us “win the future.”
These are the ideas supported by business leaders who see potential in transferring metaphors from the worlds of business and systems management into the realm of education policy. The appeal of national standards for business leaders is that they can count on a “uniformity of product.” They know what to expect in an American-educated worker. All students will be capable of doing A, B, and C at point X.
If this is the premise that we designed the standards around, then we will use the same line of thinking to standardize the mechanisms to achieve them: assessments and curriculum, and that will be the most detrimental outcome of the national standards movement.
Linda Perlstein, in her book Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, chronicled how the macro-level reforms of NCLB played out in the everyday classroom. In order not to be penalized under the various accountability measures that use test scores to track progress, administrators and teachers had to adopt a “teach to the test” mentality. The Maryland State Assessment took over the classroom and the learning at this “blue-ribbon school” was limited because of it.
High-stakes testing breeds anxiety, competition and a narrowing of focus for educators and students alike. For students it means that learning is a means to and end and that knowledge is limited to artificial contexts. For teachers, especially when their performance is evaluated based on the scores of their students, feel the pressure to drill students on test-taking and as a result, the joy of creative lesson planning has to be justified and aligned with the standards or questions that will be assessed on the exam.
“Standardized-test scores can provide useful information about how students are doing,” said Diane Ravitch in a Newsweek article criticizing the legacy of NCLB, “But as soon as the scores are tied to firing staff, giving bonuses, and closing schools, the measures become the goal of education, rather than an indicator."
One of the main goals of the national Common Core is for assessment of student achievement to be comparable across states. Some predict this will result in a national standardized test, perhaps administered at every grade level, as the Obama Administration has proposed in it’s re-envisioning of NCLB.
With standards only covering mathematics and reading, educators also worry that curriculum will narrow to only to teach to what is tested.
If standardized tests will be the tool to measure whether or not the standards are being met, and federal incentive funds are tied to performance, then states and school boards will want curriculum that will guarantee that students score highly on exams.
Already, for-profit entities are announcing their support of the standards, and are designing instruction materials that will coincide with them. This will be the most injurious effect of the standards’ implementation: taking the creativity and individuality out of instruction.
“Teacher-proof” lessons are perhaps the most insulting result that has arisen out of the current reform climate, as Jonathan Kozol describes in his book The Shame of the Nation. He says that scripted lessons serve as a crutch for new inexperienced teachers, and chafe educators who feel that they are treated like assembly-line workers instead of professionals.
One argument for standardization; of standards, of tests and of curriculum is to address the grievous inequity we find in American public schools today. However, mandated standards will not mean that suddenly students in inner-city schools will have the quality of education that their counterparts in the suburbs do.
Progressive educators like Deborah Meier would criticize the Common Core on its presumption that one-size-fits-all standards can work for every community in the nation, or that every kid should be on track with grade-level benchmarks, regardless of the factors that contribute to their individual development.
In her book The Power of their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, Meier argues that diverse communities with diverse needs require solutions that properly address the reality they face every day in their schools.
I think we need to take a page from Deborah Meier and promote her vision for the promotion of democratic equality through education. Equality will not come from standardization, because all it would mean would be the majority exercising its power and influence over all. Rather, true equality can be had when everyone- no matter their background- has the opportunity to gain practice in building their own world and making their own decisions.
In that spirit, even if national standards were implemented, assessment and instruction should feel more homegrown and communities should feel ownership over the standards, because they had the freedom to decide who students would achieve those standards.
Teachers need to feel co-ownership of standards. They need to believe in their purpose, be a part of the goal-setting process, and understand how to get their students there. Any heavy-handed, top-down solution proscribed from bureaucrats will feel just that; heavy-handed and out-of-touch.
Any teacher would tell you that they would bristle at a policy that comes down from designers who have never stood at the head of a class. So I wonder how well received these standards will be by those who actually interact daily with America’s students. Will they be on board, or will they see no difference between state-mandated standards and exams and nationally proscribed ones?
In the end, we want every student in America to have the opportunity to succeed. We want an American diploma to mean something. What I fear most is that with national standards will come national assessments and curriculum, turning education into a uniform and devalued commodity instead of the uniquely personal development that it should be.