Monday, February 1, 2016

How High Are the Standards?

Raise standards. High standards. Deciding whether Core standards are higher or lower than the old standards, or the newer standards.

And nobody has any idea what any of it means.

I mean, I'm not an idiot. I understand what it means to say that I hold my students to a high standard or that my classroom is based on having high standards or hold the donuts I eat to a high standards. As a general principle, we all know what high standards are.

But as a matter of policy, "high standards" is really meaningless. In fact, it's worse than meaningless because it's a metaphor that obscures an important truth.

"High standards" suggests a two-dimensional model of education. It suggests a model in which all students are trying to climb exactly the same ladder in exactly the same direction.It's a single one-directional arrow, with all students progressing steadily, dutifully along the single path toward the single point.

It's a model that doesn't correspond to anything in human experience or behavior. Instead of the blind men and the elephant, we can tell the modern fable of thousand blind administrators and the feds.

The blind administrators were called before the Department of Education. Looking down at them from his throne made of 95% excellent mahogany, the Secretary said, "Have you all led your schools to higher standards?"

"Yes," they all roared in reply. "We are all running schools where high standards rule."

"Excellent," said the Secretary. "You must each tell me, one at a time, and in greater detail, if your school has set high standards." And so the thousand blind administrators lined up to answer his question.

"Yes," said the first blind administrator. "We require our students to get the very highest scores on a standardized English test."

"Yes," said the second blind administrator. "Our students must get the very highest scores on a standardized math test."

"Yes," said the third blind administrator. "We insist that every one of our students leave our school with a positive, happy attitude about themselves."

"Yes," said the fourth blind administrator. "Every single one of our students must be physically fit."

"Yes," said the fifth blind administrator. "We demand that every student achieve competence on a musical instrument."

"Yes," said the sixth blind administrators. ""Every one of our students must graduate with the tools to be an excellent scientist."


Okay, it's a very long fable, because each one of the thousand administrators had set their school to a higher standard, and not one of them was like the other. Because when you try to fill the grand hollow platitude of "we must have high standards" with anything specific, you quickly realize that all the blather in the world can't fill that gaping cavern in a useful way.

Should we have high expectations for each of our students, demanding and encouraging that they become the best they can be? Absolutely-- that is fundamental to good classroom practice. But using "high standards" as a policy is useless, a thick slice of baloney that may make bureaucrats and politicians feel as if they're really Doing Something. You can't further a conversation with words that don't actually mean anything. 


  1. Here is a situation where I think field matters.

    Assignments in ELA are often so open ended that students can produce world class work in response to the assignment. A short story written as a class assignment could possibly win the O. Henry award. An literary analysis might be published in a profession journal like Contemporary Literature. I am sure that anything that approaches this kind of work would be instantly recognizable to the instructor lucky enough to have this student.

    Mathematics is different. No assignment in K-12 mathematics is designed to allow a student to produce world class results. If the mathematics student does some work at all close to the boundary of mathematical knowledge, I doubt the instructor of the course would recognize it's merit, and I am certain that the student would be criticized for not doing something the way the book said to do it.

    In mathematics classes at least, class room practice is not to encourage students to be the best they can be. The class room practice is to have the students engage in solving whatever problem is in the text or the worksheet in front of them using only the methods taught in the text or in the class. If you only teach base 10 arithmetic, students are only given the opportunity to learn about arithmetic. If you teach modal arithmetic they will get to learn model arithmetic. In mathematics classes, the standards, defined as what we allow the students to learn about, matter a great deal.

  2. I think the only reason to have the comparison, like Chris Tienken's, is to further demonstrate the depth of the snake oil parents have been sold. NJ becomes a really interesting place to see that comparison because we have done (ranked) so well for a long time. I reject the stupid measures of a test, but it's what the powers that be use. If we've just spent god-knows-what on Common Core aligned everything, including the stupid PARCC tests, and someone can demonstrate that the Oooh, look it's shiny and better crap is NOT. Then it becomes relevant. Then parents who know very little about what's been happening have something to latch onto and fight back. Maybe demand a little of that accountability the reformies are always talking about.

  3. "High standards" are pretty nearly an impossibility. Sure, you can have high expectations, because expectations are relative to each person's starting point. But standards are, by definition, applied to everyone. Expecting me to run a 10 minute mile is an extremely high expectation, but it's not a "high standard" because there are plenty of people in the world already running sub-10 minute miles. In order to set a "high standard" you'd have to say that everyone will run a four minute mile which, of course, would be ridiculous.

  4. I'm a high school science teacher facing the new Next Generation Science Standards, which are not just very high standards, they are performance standards. We have to somehow teach things like: "Ask questions to clarify relationships about the role of DNA and chromosomes in coding the instructions for characteristic traits passed from parents to offspring." How do I assess close to 200 students on something like this?

    My students on IEPs struggle with multiplying fractions and never really learned scientific notation but somehow I'm supposed to teach all of them the mole, how to use Avogadro's Number, chemical equilibrium, and stoichiometry.

    There are no textbooks at all for NGSS, just some piecemeal curriculum written by various teachers online. The official website has a few project examples but they would be challenging to teach at the college level and include things like semi-log graphing, pages of tables to interpret, and require something like two weeks in the computer lab.

    We are supposed to come up with new course pathways,rewrite all our courses, and prepare our students for a standardized test that isn't written and nobody, including the people who wrote the standards knows what it'll look like. All with one hour of collaboration time a week. Talk about building the airplane while flying it. Except, we don't know whether it's an airplane that we're supposed to build or a submarine or maybe a rocket ship. I'm sure we'll find out that we built the wrong one in about five years, once it's almost complete.

    1. Sounds like they are trying to push college-level material into high school for all students in an attempt to create rigorous standards. The result will be most students won't learn anything and they won't be prepared for an actual college chemistry class when they get there. Your prediction of failure will unfortunately prove correct.

    2. Just move very slowly, then there won't be too much to change back.