Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why I'm Anti-Standard (TL;DR)

The school reformy landscape is wide. Toward the center you'll find "the CCSS are valuable, but must be delinked from testing." A bit past them is"the CCSS are good, but the implementation was bad." Further down the road you'll find "the CCSS are flawed, and we need a better standard to replace them." And way over there at the end of the dirt road and out in that left-most field, you'll find "no national standards, ever." I'm with those guys.

I'm not an anarchist. And I completely understand why reasonable, intelligent people would like the idea of national educational standards. I don't. My objections come in two flavors-- 1) why I think they can't work and 2) why I think they are wrong. I'll leave #1 for another day; today I want to explain #2. And to do that I have to explain what I think standards are.

Standards are an attempt to codify values. They want to look objective, but they are not. They are simple instructions for acting as if you shared the values of the people who created the standards.

Let's take the go-to metaphor for standards-- the yardstick.

When I hand you a yardstick to measure an object, it doesn't matter if you like to measure things in cubits or hands or meters or along the curved edge. You are going to measure that object as if you shared my value-- inches, feet, yards, and straight-line distances. As long as you use my yardstick, you will measure as if you value what I value. It's a standard, and it's consistent, but it's not some sort of objective values-free judgment, as anybody who lives in the metric-speaking entire rest of the world can tell you.

Standards throughout history have been set to codify both admirable and terrible values. Jim Crow laws were passed to set and preserve standards of racial behavior; so was the Civil Rights Act.

Now, standards are useful, even necessary, for communication (I told you-- I'm not an anarchist). If we all measured by whatever standard we wished, we wouldn't be able to have any meaningful conversations about the results. But we can't lose sight of what the standards actually are-- a way to get other people to act as if they value what we value.

Imagine, for instance, that we were going to write standards for that most universal of experiences-- marriage. Oh, wait-- never mind. We've already been having this argument forever. It's not just our most recent arguments-- is the standard that marriage must involve one man and one woman?-- but the arguments before then. Can marriage involve mixing races? Must parents be married? Must married people be parents? What sort of official is required to certify it? Does it involve two people who love each other? Do they have to be of a particular age?

Today, in 2014, if a man walks up to you and says, "Why, yes, I'm married," you can make virtually no assumptions about what situation is waiting for him at home. For some folks, that is a sign that we have lost our standards as a society, and it is a Very Bad Thing.

Should we have standards? For individual, I believe standards are absolutely necessary. To be a human being in the world, you need to have some idea of how you act out your values in your life. Having standards, a way of measuring your actions against your values, is the foundation of living with integrity.

But that's as an individual. As soon as you start creating standards for other people, you are telling them what values they should live by.

That's not automatically evil. I'm okay with imposing a value that says human life matters and taking it away is not okay. But imposing values on other people, particularly young, impressionable people, will always be operating close to a difficult moral line, and it takes deliberate thought to avoid drifting across that line.

The CCSS are bad because they encode bad values. From the very start, where they casually define education's purpose as college and career readiness, they impose a set of values that rub many of us the wrong way. Some of us choose to read them as if they say what we wish they said. Some of us deal by imagining that, as with NCLB, we'll be largely able to close our classroom door and disregard them. And some of us think that if we could revise, rewrite or replace them, we'd be okay.

I disagree. As soon as you try to write national education standards, you are deciding what every child in the country should value in his or her education. This is a guaranteed fail. You are not just declaring a one-size-fits-all set of school activities, but a one-size-fits-all set of values for every single living human being in the country. It cannot be done any more than you can set national standards for what marriage must be. And not only can't it be done, but it shouldn't be done.

"Don't we all need to use the same yardstick so that we know what we're all talking about?" Actually, no. Because once we settle on that yardstick for everybody, we've declared that project in art class must be one that can be measured along straight edges in increments of inches.

Standards become less useful the further away they move form the individual. Standards that exist to help me understand myself are valuable. Standards that exist so that somebody else can measure me for their own benefit are not valuable.

I know, I know. If the government can more accurately measure everybody with the same yardstick, the government will be able to do a better job of educating them. I disagree. The damage inflicted by trying to get everybody to line up with that yardstick, by the imposition of somebody else's values on each and every young human mind-- that damage far outweighs any possible benefit that might accrue from bureaucratic data management. It is killing the goose that could have laid a lifetime of golden eggs.

We could set a marriage standard in hopes of knowing what Mr. I'm Married means by that, but that would just take us back to a day when peoples' personal lives were all twisted up in order to fit the standards of their time. Who are we to demand that their personal values be pushed aside and mulched up so that we have the illusion of a tidier world to live in?

So while I get the desire for national educational standards, it's an area in which I always expect to be pushing in the other direction. I don't expect to win, but I don't expect to give in, either. Yes, we will always have to be accountable, and we should be, but that's a matter of transparency and reporting-- not a matter of standards. I respect your right to stand where you will on this issue (and I respect you even more if you actually read this whole post), but this is where I stand today.

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