The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, January 29, 2007

Setting the wrong standards

There’s been a great deal of talk lately about a move to a national set of academic standards. The reasoning is sound in some ways (efficiency), not so sound in others (resistance to top-down initiatives). But the debate has uniformly skipped over the most important question: is our current approach to standards taking us where we want to go?

My answer is no – standards, as we have framed them, are not accomplishing our objectives for public education, and simply moving them from state to national in scope will do nothing to change our schools.

To explain, let’s start with a little history. Academic standards have been with us for less than 20 years: the first President Bush initially floated the idea at a 1989 education summit with the 50 state governors, and then publicly introduced the idea in his 1990 State of the Union address. The idea caught fire, and we soon saw voluntary national standards introduced by various professional associations, and soon thereafter saw mandated standards (often just versions of the voluntary national standards) introduced at the state level.

The way in which standards were developed is critical. Think about it: for every subject taught in school, a professional group pulled its brightest minds together and built an exhaustive list of everything a student would need to know in order to master that subject. The economics folks built a list of everything one should know about economics to be considered educated in the subject; the health people did the same; and so did every other group and subgroup involved in subjects currently taught in school.

This approach presents two problems. First, the end result of this process is a set of standards, as many others have said, that are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” with textbooks and a classroom experience to match. These standards were simply a list of all the things that one who mastered this subject, regardless of the purpose or value of mastery, would be expected to know.

What’s more, no one ever worked through the critical question that must precede such an exercise: what is the purpose of public education? If we want kids to be “prepared” upon graduating, what does that mean? Prepared for what? And if we know what we want to prepare them for, THEN what subject areas, and areas within subjects, are important for them to learn?

In essence, we didn’t determine what a child should know – we instead determined what a child could know, thereby avoiding some very difficult questions, but also doing nothing to increase the relevance of formal education.

I was first exposed to the implications of this approach while attending a
conference in 2005. Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, pointed out during one session that many sets of state standards do not result in a child being prepared for college. In other words, if assessments align to state standards, and a child passes every assessment, that child will still not be college-ready.

Let that sink in for a minute. And then think about this: if we’re not preparing kids for college, are we preparing them for life? Remember that only 18% of 9th graders go on to earn a college degree. For them, and for the other 82% who don’t earn such a degree – are we preparing them for life outside the school walls?

How many people would agree that financial literacy is critical – yet how hard is it to incorporate into public schooling? Sure, we have standards for financial literacy – everything that could possibly be taught in schools has a set of standards – but how has that helped us increase the rate at which kids are exposed to this vital subject?

If our standards fail to reflect our priorities – if they fail to lay out the things that we know we want kids take away from schools – we cannot blame those in public education. We asked for standards, and absent any other input, they looked at what they were doing and codified it for us.

Rather, it is a failing of the stakeholders of public education. We knew the question we wanted to answer – how, specifically, do we define a good education? – but rather than answer it ourselves, as is our proper role, we punted. We left it to the schools to deal with, and they didn’t (nor should they; nor could they). And the question remains unanswered.

Without answering that question – without determining the end goal of public education – standards do us no good. They simply tell us what is possible to be learned, not what is desirable or needed. And it matters not one bit whether the list of things that can be learned is housed at the state or national level.


  • Actually the figure you used:

    Remember that only 18% of 9th graders go on to earn a college degree.

    is an underestimate.

    According to this document Educational Attainment 2000, the actual figure is more like 26% (see figure 2 or table 1).

    Some have interpreted the 15.5% earn a bachelors degree of figure 2 to mean “at least a bachelors degree”, when in fact it means “exclusively a bachelors degree” and one must add in the totals for the higher degrees to get the result you want.

    By Blogger Dr. P., at 10:58 AM  

  • Thanks, Dr. P - I'm a fan of hard facts in lieu of anecdote. I googled around after seeing your comment, and saw a similar disputation from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which puts it closer to 33-35% - see this link (a cached page) for details.


    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 10:03 PM  

  • I certainly agree that federalizing standards (or any other aspect of education practice or theory) will be anything but helpful.

    We should realize that we have, in many respects, built our own dilema regarding readiness for college. We now seem to believe that not only can everyone go to college, but everyone should go to college, and we have established the financial and other means necessary to act on this misbegotten belief.

    The truth is, a significant portion of people really aren't capable of genuine college work. I'm not saying that they're stupid or that they cannot live very happy lives doing meaningful work of great value to us all. The fact is that not everyone can be above average in intelligence or in any other pursuit.

    Is it any wonder that colleges have to establish remedial writing (and other) classes for incoming freshmen? Is their inability the fault of the schools who aren't preparing them for college, or is their inability simply a result of our unrealistic expectations for who can and should function well in a genuinely rigorous college environment?

    And exactly what do we mean when we say that high school should prepare students to function at some level and in some fashion after graduation? Some have suggested that every high school graduate should be able to count back change (as in store clerking), or that all should be able to walk into virtually any business and be essentially immediately fully employable.

    Speaking as a 52 year old English teacher remembering the good old days, I know that when my high school class graduated, every one of us knew that we'd have to take entry level positions in every business and with dedicated effort over years, learn those businesses from the ground up.
    High school is many things, but it is not an advanced business education that promises upon graduation $50,000 a year salaries.

    Whatever problems we have in education, federalization is not likely to be helpful. The clause, "I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help," should send chills down the spine of any rational being.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:40 PM  

  • Brett,
    I agree that the "kitchen sink" approach to state and local standards ain't working. And federalizing this approach won't help us, either.

    You quote Michael Cohen and Achieve. What do you think of the American Diploma Project?

    Do you think it is possible to agree--as a nation--what the minimum requirements ought to be for a high school diploma?

    No doubt the process of forging this agreement must include discussions, as you note, of what the purpose of education really is in this country. But I would consider such a discussion salubrious. Today, education is supposed to do it all. It cannot. So we must pare away the fluff and get down to the core. It's a difficult process, to be sure, but absolutely necessary, in my view.

    Thanks for a provocative post.

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