More Standards?

Speaking of incentives, isn’t there an enormous perverse incentive built into this current common standards push?  One of the problems with standards now is that they’re often vague, vacuous, and/or voluminous and impossible for a teacher to possibly cover.  That’s because this is a field that doesn’t really like to make hard decisions when they can be avoided.  But to get more states to buy-in to this effort, even accounting for their ability under this proposed framework to augment the core some with their own standards, isn’t there a powerful incentive to be as inclusive as possible in order to get the most states to sign-on and appease as many constituencies as possible?  In other words, in the media this will be seen as a failure unless some critical mass of states sign-on to it.  Yet, in fact, it might really be a success even if only a handful join initially.  Perhaps the problem isn’t that few states will join, it’s that everyone will…

12 thoughts on “More Standards?

  1. Rory

    Note that the two states with the toughest standards at least as compared to the NAEP, Missouri and South Carolina, didn’t sign on.

    Alaska (my home state) and Texas are just independent sort of states that like to do their own thing.

    Here in the local Anchorage media, the Superintendent is against the Governors decision.

  2. Steve Peha

    I’ve been working in schools for 15 years, all over the country, at every grade level, and in every subject area, and I can tell you that standards are pretty useless when it comes to actually teaching kids anything useful.

    When you throw in all the problems that have been noted in the research on standards, I wonder why we’re still talking about them. Answer: standards give the standard-makers the power to control freedom of speech and censorship. It’s another ideological head rush for some state or national committee member who thinks he or she knows best about what kids need.

    But what he or she likes to ignore is how standards play out in the trenches. Teachers no longer teach students, they teach standards. Regardless of what their kids actually need, the standard goes up on the board and every kid has to learn the same thing, the same way, at the same time. Differentiation is out the window. Choice? Fuhgeddaboutit! Most of what great teachers have learned in the last 20 years has to be thrown out to live in most standards-driven schools.

    Now, I’ve studied standards enough myself to know that “in theory” this need not be the case. But in practice, it is. It’s simply a truism that all around the country, standards are wreaking havoc with good teaching. They are also allowing teachers to distance themselves from the most important question they must learn to ask and answer: What do I need to teach my kids today? Developing that skill is key to becoming an effective teacher. But when teachers are told to teach standard X on day Y (which happens all over the US now), they take little ownership in the results.

    How long will it take us to realize that standards are not the path to better schools? They are only a path to more standardized schools. Standards are great for hunks of meat, and fuel mileage efficiency, and tolerances for gaskets on airplane exit doors. But they’re not good for humans, especially children, who differ so widely in where they begin and where they are likely to end up. In life, we know that there are man paths to success and happiness and that none of them could be called “standard” by any reasonable person. Yet we strive to get kids to these different places by teaching them all the same thing?

    At the same time, there are many other things we could standardize in schools that would be very helpful. We could, for example, standardize high quality teaching techniques. We could standardize high quality teacher and administrator training. We could standardize the amount of time kids have for literacy (and raise it!). We could standardize school funding. We could standardize half-day pre-K and full day K. And the list of smart things to standardize goes on and on.

    We could have standards for many things in education, things that would have positive effects on teachers and kids. So why do you think we only talk about learning standards? And why do you think kids are the only ones who are really held directly accountable for them? Is it because kids can’t vote or pay taxes? Or is it because education is, more and more, being created in the image of a government who wants increased and highly centralized control over the means of production — and is less and less concerned (in a practical, day-to-day way) with what it produces?

  3. john thompson

    Steve,

    I’m really not cyber stalking you. But I read your fantastic post just after a comment on my blog at TWIE turned me on to the work of Charles Payne. You wrote:

    We could standardize the amount of time kids have for literacy (and raise it!). We could standardize school funding. We could standardize half-day pre-K and full day K. And the list of smart things to standardize goes on and on.
    Payne wrote that we need “STANDARDS OF IMPLEMENTATION” of reforms.

    He concluded:

    “We know now that one of the main impediments to improving instruction in urban schools is the fact that teachers tend to be isolated from one another. Similarly, the fact
    that reformers are isolated – by ideology, attitude, cohort, geography and multidinous tribalisms – from one another makes larger scale change much more difficult. Each group learns implementation the hard way –or fails to learn….”

    So: “Where a rough consensus can be hammered out –
    and “hammered” is doubtlessly the word – they would take the form of actual guidelines with suggested minimum resource levels” before engaging in Whole School Reform or Systemic Reform.

    Just to add on to your reality check. I’m supposed to cover 1200 pages in World History with students who read about 5 years below grade level. I tell my students that my real goal is for them to have the background and the confidence to get out of the gate next year in US history, and to be on track for college and for learning how to learn. If I’m supposed to cut back on topics that are tested or cut back on my hitch-hiking stories through Europe and the US, backpacking in Mexico, and Morocco, the system can just try to fire me. But at my age, I confide, I’m so sick of sophomores that firing is no threat. Just kidding, I then say …

  4. john thompson

    mathteacher,

    To make sure I don’t take the bait, I’ll quote Steve who wrote:

    “Now, I’ve studied standards enough myself to know that “in theory” this need not be the case. But in practice, it is. It’s simply a truism that all around the country, standards are wreaking havoc with good teaching …”

    In what world would an administrator go on record saying that this or that Standard doesn’t need to be covered.? The #1 rule in a data-driven accountability regimes is Cover Your Ass.

    And you know how that works out in real life. Even though it would take three or four years to cover the Standards of one year, everyone pretends it just requires “High Expectations.” Then, under the guise of “scope and sequence” teachers are tipped off about what will really be tested, and hint, hint, this is the area that gets extra test prep. That way, the consultants and the testing companies get their cut, the “bubble” in state test scores grows, while NAEP scores stagnate. Commited educators try to compromise enough without selling out their souls, while those who are just collecting a paycheck don’t even notice the difference.

    And that fundamentally is the reason why we need tenure – to protect educational values.

    Or perhaps I’m giving too much credit to “reformers.” Perhaps what you mean is that we SHOULD just roll over and show our jugglar to the big dog. In that case, I don’t get it. In fact, read the last question and answer in yesterday’s discussion of positive incentives. Their consultant basically came out and said just that. Education schools, he argued, should give up their quaint concepts of evidence, clash of ideas, etc. and just train their students for the brave new world that “reformers” want.

  5. mathteacher

    Mr. Thompson:

    When I was in middle school, I had this Earth Science teacher who talked about the trials and tribulations of putting an in-ground pool in his backyard. Now, it ostensibly started as story about sediments or something, but he kept coming back to it every day even when we studying other things. He became a laughing stock, and not just because he looked and sounded like Ben Stein, but because he thought that we would bond with him about this (why, I know not). Do your hitchhiking stories really teach your kids World History? Or do you think they make you a more interesting teacher?

    “And you know how that works out in real life. Even though it would take three or four years to cover the Standards of one year, everyone pretends it just requires “High Expectations.”

    Well, frankly, I can teach all of the standards in my grade and subject in one year and my kids still do well on the tests. Sure, I have high expectations, but I also teach a reasonable, well-thought-out class helps my students understand concepts behind the math that I teach. (I also work a longer year and day, but to me that’s worth it to make sure that my kids enter 8th grade ready for Algebra I). If you’re only getting through 1/4 of your standards in a year, perhaps you don’t have a great enough sense of urgency about your kids’ learning.

    “Then, under the guise of “scope and sequence” teachers are tipped off about what will really be tested, and hint, hint, this is the area that gets extra test prep. That way, the consultants and the testing companies get their cut, the “bubble” in state test scores grows, while NAEP scores stagnate.”

    Well, actually, I develop my own scope and sequence of the standards and sub-standards as I see fit and design my course around that. I have a good sense of what will be on the test not because I get tipped off about the test, but because I study question trends and make sure that students are prepared to answer a wide array of questions. Oh, and by the way, I work in MA where the NAEP scores keep rising…

    Here’s the thing: we buy that the standards are important, but we go above and beyond them to make sure that our students are getting the best possible education. We constantly refine what we teach and how we teach it to make sure that our students are ready for competitive high schools when they leave us.

  6. john thompson

    EdResearcher,

    Is the gap between your job and the realities of schools THAT big? You really don’t know about the pervasive roles of consultants? You really don’t know how test companies operate? The district pays its money and in workshops teachers get guidance on what parts of the scope and sequence to emphasize. “A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse.”

    Do you really think its different in other institutions? If I go into Lehman Brothers and buy one stock, do you think I get the same heads up as the billionaires? If I donate x number of dollars to a politician, I’m I just getting access? If I’m a reserve in the NBA taking a charge when a superstar is driving on the bucket, do the refs treat me equally? Show me a human institution where everything is above board just like it says in the rule books, and nobody “gets by with a little help from my friends.” Schools are like everything else, with imperfect organisms conforming to their cultural norms. You may be “shocked, shocked” to find gambling in a casino. If so, you may be shocked that schools game the system and CYA is pervasive.

  7. Andrew Bell

    I think the standards idea is great! Set an average NAEP score (or whatever) for every school in the country. Make sure that it’s reachable, or course, or what’s the point. When we reach the score in question, we’re done! We can go home and we can call ourselves proficient — teachers, students, policy makers…everyone!

    But seriously, how about we educate students instead of teach material.

  8. john thompson

    mathteacher,

    I resent the implication that I’d tell a story involving digging a hole that makes a point about sediments. I’ve got several shovelwork stories, but all have a gross dynamic, and the best ends with a turd dropping at my feet.

    And as far as hitchhiking stories, “I got a million of em.” Even without repeating them (more than necessary) and with different stories for five different classes per year, I still don’t get to 3/ths of them Neither do I do more than scratch the surface on political jokes, oil field experiences, camping adventures, and mother-in-law jokes.

    Congratulations on your hard work in designing scope and sequence and sub-standards. You don’t think I’m equally conscientious is refining my punch lines?

    During my two decades in academics where I earned a doctorate in history and became an award-winning author, I patterned myself after a lot of world-famous mentors. Why would I have invested so much time in scholarship if it hadn’t been fun? What’s the point of history if you can’t revel in our cosmic wierdness? That reminds me of the story when I was being taught how to bowl in cricket by … Now when I tell that story about a famous historian who had lost his false teeth that day, I pull out my own false teeth and gross out the kids even more.

    I stay in teaching because I love it. But when I go back to politics or policy, I’ll no longer have to censor my favorite dirty jokes.

    I know I can’t top you in stories about lesson planning and all the miraculous things you do in classroom management, but I have demanding classroom procedures. The kids all know the drill when my joke bombs, or a mis-spell in a particularly intersting way. draw out my versions of maps, or invent new dance steps. You might not like my class, but nobody denies its “interesting.” You’ll have to take my word for this, but when you have a truly deep understanding of the subject matter, it makes it easier to find the most illustrative metaphors and spin your stories for optimal understanding. And like I said, why read and teach history if you don’t enjoy stories about humans including stories about our frailities?

    You should be thankful for your opportunities in a charter, and perhaps think twice before criticizing teachers who work under more constraints than you do. The following comes from a Standards Alignment and Pacing Guide from a major district that is not mine.

    Sophomores are supposed to master:

    colonialism; the causes and effects of World War I; the causes and the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution; the causes and effects of the Depression; the causes and effects of World War II; the causes and effects of the Cold War; post-war independence and national movements; trench warfare, the Blitzkrieg, the Russian front in World War II, genocide, the Korean and Vietnam Wars as case studies of the Cold War; and key leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

    They are supposed to master those concepts in three weeks!

  9. mathteacher

    Mr. Thompson,

    I am certainly thankful for my opportunity to work in a charter school where

    1) I am expected to teach the standards and beyond

    2) I have the freedom to decide how and when to teach each one

    3) and my colleagues and I are able to vertically align our curriculum to make sure we are not be redundant

    I think this is a fair deal for teachers – the accountability to teach particular things, but the freedom to make choices about how and when to teach those things. Do you think this is a fair deal? Should I be able to teach whatever I want in 7th grade math because I feel like it? Or should I be forced to take on a pace and style that doesn’t suit me because the district says so?

    If my compromise is a good deal for teachers, why then the opposition to charter schools? Jealousy?

  10. john thompson

    Hey, I’ve never opposed charters. I’ve always made myself clear on that. After all I’ve chosen to stay with the kids who were left behind. Try to undercut unions or tenure or collective bargaining or my rights to defend my students, and then we’ve got a fight. But we in the NEIGHBORHOOD Schools did not pick these fights. loosen up. Enjoy your opportunity. And when we get unionized charters we’ll have the best of both worlds. By the way, did you hear the one about the young bull, the old bull, and the cows on the top of the hill …

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