Standards. Standardized. The same for everyone?

by David Safier
I think Ed Sec Arne Duncan really, truly wants to improve education in this country, and I don't think he has a political agenda. He doesn't want to make education more liberal or more conservative. He wants to make it better.

That doesn't mean he'll do a good job, but it does mean he'll try his best.

Having said that, I've always disliked the term, "standards." Maybe it's because I was always a non-standard teacher who did things my own way and got results. Shove me in a box, and I get claustrophobic.

Duncan is working hard to set national reading and math standards. He's got most governors on board, and now he's putting money where his standards are.

Duncan said the efforts of 46 states to develop common, internationally measured standards for student achievement would be bolstered by up to $350 million in federal funds to help them develop tests to assess those standards.

When testing started to get big in Oregon in the mid-90s, people talked about "raising the bar." My literary criticism training makes me look at every metaphor as a literary device. "Raising the bar" is a sports metaphor referring to high jumping, where people have to clear a bar set at a certain height. The problem is, the metaphor only has one bar. "Raising the bar." Not "Raising a bar for every student so everyone has to jump higher than before."

When getting more students to jump over that one bar — that standard — is the focus, perverse incentives are created and bad things happen. You don't worry much about students who are advanced enough to step over the bar with their eyes closed. They're already over. They're money in the bank. If you want to maximize the number of students who get over the bar, you plow most of our energy into the "almost made-its." If the bar is set at 4 feet, for example, you work hard to add a few inches to students who can already clear 3 feet, 10 inches. That's where you're going to show the greatest numerical gain and become a "successful school." The lowest scoring children who can only jump 3 feet and those who can clear 4 feet with ease get the short end of the educational stick. They're either too far away to clear the bar, or they're already over it.

I saw that kind of thing happen in Oregon. I'm sure it happens here. I know Texas, where the whole state testing push got its start and was spread when we all became Texas from 2001 to 2008, is rife with abuses creating the illusion that more and more students have jumped over the state's standards bar.

I hope Duncan's standards push doesn't end up having perverse incentives that harm the education of the highest and lowest students, or turn reading and math instruction into drill, test, rinse and repeat. Maybe Arne Duncan and the educational community are smarter than that. We'll see.

NOTE: The term I prefer is "expectations," not "standards." My goal was to have high expectations for all my students. An "A" essay wasn't a perfect essay, and I always tried to give students criticism and suggestions that would help them write a better "A" essay the next time. Top students knew I was rarely satisfied with their work, that I wanted them to jump a little higher. A "C" essay would get different comments, geared at pointing out the areas where the student would be most likely to improve on the next paper. I tried to expect a little more — and sometimes a lot more — from every student than I was already getting. If I had 25 students, I tried to have 25 bars, and my goal was to raise each of them an inch at a time. (By the way, this was my goal, one I never reached. Like all teachers, I failed and succeeded with students on a daily basis, but I never much liked the idea of a single standard I was supposed to apply to all my students.)

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