As everyone in the education world is aware, we are inching closer and closer to a set of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The more I dig through the standards, and the more I learn about how they're intended to be used, the more I think they're an excellent idea. Now, admittedly, I've only known an education world in which standards were the norm. So, I"m probably less likely to yearn for the days when they weren't a fundamental part of a teacher's planning process, but the more I learn to use standards, the more I find them useful, not so much for deciding how to teach my own students, but as a tool to more efficiently align and teach content across both grades and schools.
First, you sort of have to understand the purpose of standards. I've come to believe that the two most valuable functions of standards are to help ensure quality education is being provided in a more equitable fashion AND to help teachers make decisions about where to go with their content based on what they should be able to expect was taught in previous years. Honestly, I don't know how you could offer an equal and organized education without standards. They provide a foundation on which teaching can build lasting skills and concepts over the years. Without them (or without a common curriculum), you're likely to find unnecessary overlap or egregious gaps between what Mr. Johnson taught in third grade and what Ms. Sampson teaches in fourth. Or you might find that Steven, a student in your twelve-grade American Government class, already knows everything there is to know about the structure and function of the Constitution because he learned it in Civics.
But, as every teacher knows, standards alone are worthless. As Diane Ravitch notes in National Standards in American Education:
"National standards and assessments will accomplish little by themselves. Unless they are accompanied by better teaching, a better school environment, better instructional materials (including new technology), and more highly motivated students, student achievement will not improve."Obviously rolling out national standards on their own will do virtually nothing by way of improving education. But they are a promising start, and here's why:
1) The CCSS are clear, skill-based and basic. They provide a map for teachers to help ensure all students master certain fundamentally important skills. The standards note that many children will be able to move beyond these standards before leaving high school, in which case they should be provided with increasingly rigorous courses designed to help them make the most of their public education. They provide for lots of opportunities for teacher enrichment and for schools to develop appropriate curriculum to implement them. And because they're skill-based, they again allow for extreme flexibility in terms of content and strategy.
2) They will allow us to more accurately assess the success of our schools. For years NAEP results have remained stagnant against the backdrop of millions of national, state, and local reform efforts. I suspect this is largely a result of this nation's ongoing catastrophic schooling inequality, but I also think that it's partially a result of misalignment between state standards and what NAEP is testing. Because the two don't necessarily align, there's a good chance the results don't accurately portray exactly how much a student is learning. The proposed CCSS reference NAEP in their introduction and will work with NAEP to align their standards with the test. This will allow us a much better sense of how effective our schools are.
3) As Jason Zimba (a mathematics professor and member of the CCSS work team) pointed out at an event at the Fordham Institute yesterday, the standards go a long way toward solving the mile-wide, inch-deep problem many classroom teachers find themselves faced with on a daily basis. In other words, as it is now, many teachers find themselves rushing through material just to cover it all, and in the process they can teach none of it to mastery. And if you read the standards, I'd have to agree. They focus nicely on common themes, in both mathematics and English/Language Arts (ELA). They really allow teachers to go into depth. I especially like the way the ELA standards are the same across the science, social studies, and English disciplines. Again, these are not content standards; they are skill standards, standards that experts in each of these areas can agree are crucially important for students to master in order to achieve success in each content area. This provides teachers with a common focal point for staff development, lunchroom discussion, and strategy sharing, which I think has the potential to greatly enhance the richness of a child's education.
4) The CCSS will necessarily generate more research around what skills are predictive of a student's success beyond high school. As research begins to narrow those skills down, the standards can be fine tuned accordingly. Additionally, they will provide a focal point for further research around effective curriculum, cognitive development, and best practice.
5) The CCSS will allow for more efficient resource allocation in the professional development and textbook publishing industries. As many teachers know, the standards of the biggest states often decide what's included in textbooks. These are then sold to smaller states whose teachers then have to work to find ways to match them to their own standards (most teachers know that you can make anything align with a standard if you're a good enough wordsmith) OR the books are enlarged to encompass smaller states' standards, thereby leading to books that are far too big. A similar process happens with professional development. There a people who travel around the country selling their programs to different districts across the country, and most of them probably spend their nights in hotel rooms figuring out how to cram their system into the standards of whichever state they're visiting the next day. Common standards will provide us with more efficient professional development and a common dialogue at national conventions.
6) The CCSS will (and have already) lead to increased communication among and between professionals at all levels of education. Many college professors were consulted in determining what skills were necessary for high school graduates. There is even talk of creating pre-K standards AND post-secondary standards.
7) When a child moves to a new district, it is more likely s/he will see continuity in his or her education when every teacher in the country is on the same page in terms of what constitutes "grade-level."
There are of course those who adamantly oppose national standards. Neal McCluskey (who is the associate director for the for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute) is concerned that the federal government has overstepped its bounds in terms of influencing the everyday classroom (and I think that is an important concern). However, when I heard McCluskey speak I found his fears to be unwarranted. He argues (as befits a Cato scholar) that national standards will require every student to learn the same thing at the same pace and at the same time of year. All kids are different and we should stay away from attempting to mold them all into the same thing. We can't force all kids into a box, his argument goes. And I agree. But that's not what these standards attempt to do. They don't require that every student learn the same thing at the same pace, that they learn them at the same time of year, or that different schools can't develop wildly different (and regionally appropriate curriculum). Again - they're not content standards. They're relatively short, relatively simple skill-standards that, in my mind, are very predictive of a student's success in our contemporary world. McCluskey also argues that today's model is more desirable because if you find yourself living in a district where the standards are poor, you can change districts. But if you find yourself living in a country where the standards are poor, it's less likely you'll change citizenship. I honestly don't think national standards as they've been presented here are going to have nearly the impact on education as he apparently does. These standards aren't going to vastly change the course of education. They merely provide what I think are a desperately needed foundation on which to build content and curriculum, which, in their current draft, still leave up to states and local school districts.
Another opposer of national standards is, of course, Alfie Kohn. Kohn writes that national standards imply a national test and national curriculum, which will largely serve only the interests of for-profit testing companies and textbook publishers. This argument is part of a movement forming against many of the proposals made by Arne Duncan surrounding Race to the Top, increased school choice, and national standards that suggests that the whole thing is a giant scheme to milk the government for all it's worth on behalf of the likes of Richard Barth, Wendy Kopp, and ETS. And, honestly, that may be true. There's a lot of money to be made in education off of school choice, curriculum development, professional development, and new tests. BUT - if you read the CCSS in their current form (and they're not yet finalized) and you listen to those who worked on them talk about them, you don't get the impression that they will be used to create a new national test or a national curriculum. And in terms of textbooks, if the national standards are aligned with NAEP, we might be able to hold publishing companies accountable for the quality of materials being produced for once if we can isolate their effectiveness at improving student comprehension (which would be a good thing). However, if Kohn is right, and standards do begin to look more like revenue generators than quality benchmarks, I will hastily withdraw my support.
I should reiterate that I don't believe national standards alone will significantly impact education. They need to be implemented with appropriate curriculum, training, and assessment. And even then, they probably won't provide immediate improvement in student achievement. But I do believe they're a step in the right direction. I can absolutely see them improving my productivity.