National Standards?

Yes, yes, I'm definitely thinking yes.

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.


  1. Thanks for posting a detailed, nuanced, and well-reasoned post on this topic. I happen to disagree with you, though. I've only looked at the standards that would affect English teachers, and the draft itself is not so bad; it's a document that I could work with. My concerns are much more about the use of the standards. I'm not convinced that they're necessary, not pleased with the process that was used to create them (near total exclusion of teachers), not confident that we can avoid the unintended negative consequences of homogenizing education to ensure performance on a single national test. When they get into national standards for other areas, I'm fearful that they will move away from a skills-based approach and make the same mistake that so many state standards do in over-prescribing an amount of specific content that cannot possibly be learned, and frankly, doesn't need to be.

    Keep your fingers crossed, and we'll hold you to that suggestion that you might still withdraw support. And if the best-case scenario comes about, I'll change course and offer my support.

  2. You forgot one other educator who opposes standards, Jonathan Kozol. I cannot help but remember his wonderful speech at the International Reader Association's conference in Chicago about 5 years ago. He spoke to both rubrics and standards. He spoke to the fear that standards set in stone do not speak to the flexibility that a teacher must have nor the fluid nature that learning really is calling them "thankless mandates coming down from Washington" and saying they were written by "sour natured and unhappy people who make certain that children are unhappier and more depressed then they are." I kept notes throughout the speech so these quotes are accurate. Kozol talked about teaching coming from the love the teacher has for their subject. I agree with you that standards can be useful, my distrust of the push for a National Standards system is that this will then be used as a cudgel by the testing crowd to beat teachers with. It is so important to remember where the child is, not where one thinks they should be. I have had kids that I taught in first grade who ended the year barely able to read and resisted the push by others to test them for SPED and saw these same children, the following year, reading like demons - because they came into their own, naturally and with their own enthusiasm. You cannot rush this process and standards can be used, like it or not, in such a way that you are almost forced to push. As teachers I believe our main task is really to instill a love of learning, a desire for learning, in the child. Standards can be useful to us as a tool but all too often these very tools we use to diagnose and plan for our students are turned into devices used by some autocrat to judge our "effectiveness". Kozol, in his speech, accurately described what these schools would look like (and these days I feel most of us are living in), he said:

    "In the task driven school where the principal lives in a state of anxiety they cling to anything."

    National Standards will mean more testing and I have to wonder whether that will really do much for what our schools are truly in need of - inspiration.

    Thanks again, for your thoughtful take on these matters. I really appreciate the way you address these issues, the thought that goes into what you say and the reflective nature of your discussions on this blog. Your name is well deserved.

  3. The Common Core ELA standards are not so much skill-based as task-based. They will make a big difference especially in secondary English, because they reduce the scope of the discipline to a few dozen fairly specific tasks.

    This is particularly problematic because there are many, many, many schools in this country where each lesson must address one or more specific standards, as specified in your lesson plan and usually written on the board. If a standard is expressed as a specific task, the only thing you can do is, well, that task.

    Anyhow, you can read more along these lines here:

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. They've definitely helped shape my thinking here.

    David: I share you fear of the negative consequences of a national high-stakes test. I also agree that if they move toward seriously dictating content, that would be a mistake.

    lodesterre: I adore Jonathan Kozol and believe his opinion is inestimably more valuable than my own. But the national standards that Kozol, Kohn, and McCluskey fear seem to be disconnected from the Common Core Standards that have been put forth here. They seem to rightly fear highly detailed, content-specific standards that would be an awful intrusion on our profession. And if that happened, I may have to leave it. So I feel that fear, but I also think the standards as presented could help. Could they be a stepping stone toward what we most fear? I think so, and that scares me too. So should I withdraw my support from something that, as is, I think could help? I honestly don't know. You may be right.

    Tom: Could you please provide a standard that wouldn't be deemed "task-based?" Even if we used a overly simplistic skill-standard like, "identify," one could still make the argument that that is a task. I'm afraid I've lost your point in semantics. Also - I disagree that they reduce the scope of the discipline to a few dozen tasks. If you listen to many of the authors and read the document, they say over and over again that these serve as a foundation, and that teachers should absolutely teach beyond these standards.

    To everyone: I don't think we should view these standards as anything more than (as lodesterre says) a useful tool. They don't mean we don't use diagnostics to gauge where our individual students are at, they don't mean we only teach the fourth-grade standards to fourth graders, and they don't mean we can't scaffold, support, and differentiate our process, content, and assessment as we deem appropriate. But they DO mean that we will have more of a common mission that will necessarily lead to rich dialogue over what they standards mean, how valuable they are in our content areas, and how we can become better teachers......I hope.

  5. Attention! Attention! Carpetbaggers, Politicians, and Snake Oil salespeople… now is your big chance to get rich quick with no history education, no classroom experience and no sweating in the trenches….. and with years to profit before you are outted…. AT NO LEGAL consequence to you.

    Take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to sell the distracted and worried public on an educational idea that takes NO training. It’s easy… become “national common standards” drum beater.

    Be paid to SUPERVISE and dictate to overworked history teachers what they can and cannot teach. It’s easy. Simply follow the magic formula of narrowing curriculum to teach to the state test, demonize and restrict ANY original lesson plans that might recognize differentiation in learning styles and then start raking in the money convincing the public that your history students are achieving.

    Imagine, what at one time was only legal in totalitarian states and extremely fundamentalist venues can now be practiced with the BLESSING of self appointed, high power, high dollar, educational big wig, bureaucrats in Washington DC, at your state level, inside your local district and YES, even with the assistance of your former gym teacher/ex-coach principal.

    Hurry now, because there are a numerous hound dogs (like Diane Ravitch) who are on your trail. But if you act now, you can make a few $100,000 before the tar is warm and the feathers get plucked. Agents are waiting in California, Arizona and Florida to help you get re-settled in your cushy retirement at bargain basement prices. (Warning: Damage to America, veteran teachers, idealistic students, democratic principles and academic freedom will result. Not responsible for kids that can’t think. Paid for by the “Keep History Boring” Committee.)

    Jim Bullabrew

  6. Jim: thanks for your comment, and I think your point is well taken. But since you didn't actually comment on any of the reasons I suggested the CCSS might actually be helpful, I'll go ahead and let your comment stand as is while assuming that you did actually read my arguments in favor and simply chose to ignore them as valid.


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