Remember the days when Arne Duncan insisted that having different ‘goal posts’ in every state was preventing us from improving public schools in America? Good times.
I wish I could say we’ve evolved since 2015, when Duncan stepped down. Or after it became obvious that the pandemic was rendering test data even more corrupt and useless than the test data we were enthusiastically generating early in the 21st century to solve our problems and raise that bar. (Sarcasm alert.)
Alas, we’re still hooked on the idea that a third grader in Manhattan should know and be able to do the same things as a third grader in rural North Dakota, that Algebra belongs in 8th grade (or is it 9th) and six year-olds should be starting to read, dammit. Because global competition, falling behind, blah blah blah.
In fact, one of the problems with the word “standards” and its etymology, is that everyone thinks they know what standards are supposed to mean and determine. A precise definition…
I’m not actually referring to standardized testing in this blog, although if you believe standardized testing is the only way or best way to understand how your child is doing in school, read this.
Nor am I particularly concerned about the standards (whether local, state or cleverly disguised Common Core Standards) that many educational institutions use to organize curriculum. It’s worth remembering that most of the first “national standards” (in the 1990s, spurred by the Nation at Risk report) were created by educators’ disciplinary organizations, with lots of teacher input—and were voluntary, with grade-span suggestions for what students should know and be able to do, and the order in which things were most effectively taught.
If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because those standards sank like a stone. It’s hard to even find links to them by diligent googling, but non-educators rejected them for various reasons, most notably Lynn Cheney who went after the History standards in the Wall Street Journal. They often included updated instructional methods and curricular ideas (constructivist math, teaching English as a second language, hands-on science and, of course, new ideas about how America actually became a nation).
The first round of national standards weren’t attached to mandated standardized tests, either. They were about curriculum and instruction. When the second round of national standards—the Common Core– were developed, they were part of a standards-aligned tests package, part of the movement toward “accountability” (a word that should forever have scare quotes when mentioned in an educational context). Practicing teachers weren’t seriously invited to the creation process and the word curriculum was not mentioned.
If tests and curricular benchmarks aren’t standardization, what is? Here’s a quote from Nel Noddings that explicates this beautifully:
The worst feature of current moves toward standardization is the insistence that all kids meet the same standards, regardless of their interests and aptitudes. This insistence is claimed to be a gesture toward equality, but it really is a sign of contempt for the wide range of human talents and the necessary work done by many of our citizens.
Any parent of two, different children understands this at a cellular level. Contempt, indeed.
Can’t meet the standards? We’re placing you on the left downslope of the bell curve, when you’re eight years old. Because we’re pursuing equality. It’s science.
There is value in knowing at what age we can expect most, if not all, students to reach intellectual and developmental milestones. That’s not the problem.
The trouble arises when we use the tools of school—instruction, curriculum, assessment—to compare the students in our care, to label them, to sort them into standardized categories when they are very young. To essentially assign their potential. To show contempt for the wide range of human talents.
What about grade levels? Aren’t there specific skills and knowledge we should be demanding of 5th graders or sophomores? Shouldn’t they all be getting the same core content at the same time?
It’s important to remember that grade levels were an efficiency tool invented when there was a big push to get everyone to go to school, rather than relying on tutors, homeschooling—or no schooling at all. Anyone who has taught school can tell you that grade levels are ephemeral, an organizational fiction.
A room full of children of precisely the same age will always have different skill and aptitude profiles. That’s not to say that we should try to adjust groups to meet academic levels, because kids learn at different rates, at different times, and in different ways–and punishing students by keeping them from their peers is insulting and bound to backfire.
Age-based grouping is probably as good a method as any for group instruction and socializing. The trick is providing children with educational experiences that match their interests and present skills. Teachers know this as differentiation—and it’s a major challenge. (One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of a teacher who is trying to differentiate instruction for a wide range of same-age students can be found in Alexandra Robbins’ The Teachers. Mind-boggling.)
Here’s another thing Arne Duncan used to say: Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.
I actually think he was mostly right about that—and the fact that his phrase has been co-opted by ugly right-wing thinking and lawmaking may be proof that it’s a powerful thought, when it comes to actual equity and using our schools to support and encourage individual potential.
Which is the opposite of standardization.