Rational and Evidence-Based Responses to Standards Advocates and Critics

Because the education agendas and discourse by Democrats and Republicans are essentially indistinguishable, as I have argued before, educators have no political party.

Educators are similarly trapped, however, in the Common Core debate between standards advocates and standards critics, who are also indistinguishable for two prominent reasons: the failure to start the consideration of standards on either a rational or an evidence-based foundation.

Political leaders, the mainstream, media, and education reform advocates with the highest profiles represent the most distinct and influential evidence of this dynamic. Typically, the better considerations of standards broadly and Common Core narrowly are left to bloggers—for example, Rachel Levy’s The Common Condescension and Peter Greene’s Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars.

While Levy and Greene offer critiques with much greater credibility than the Common Core commentaries they refute, the wider public is likely to be left with having seen only the original, and flawed, claims. We edu-bloggers who have both experience and expertise in education are more or less left to preach to the choir.

But since the most recent trend concerning Common Core is for advocates and critics to discuss and analyze the Common Core debate itself—again, evidence that Common Core advocates have in fact won—I want to offer one more time the two foundational reasons that pursuing standards is a failed structure for education reform, two reasons that standards/Common Core advocates have been successful at removing from the table entirely.

Let’s start with basic logic problems for basing education reform on standards (especially the perpetual pursuit of new and better standards).

In order for new standards to be a major or significant solution to education problems, we would need to establish that current standards (or a lack of standards) are the source of those problems. This may surprise some, but I have never seen a single careful examination of whether or not standards are the problem (see below for the evidence on what we do know about standards as a part of the reform agenda); thus, standards are unlikely to be the solution.

A practical logic problem also exists for those advocating or criticizing standards: If I am teaching, my job is to identify where any student is in her/his learning and then to take that student farther, both in terms of direct teaching and by motivating that student to learn. That fact of real-world teaching renders detailed standards irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what a standard deems any student should know and when since the reality of that student supersedes those mandates.

Calculating something such as 8th-grade reading level (a spurious venture at best) and then crafting standards to hold all teachers of 8th-graders and all 8th-graders to that goal remain mostly theory, achievable in the abstract maybe, but, again, prove pointless in the real world where any classroom of 8th-graders has reading experiences and abilities all along a wide spectrum that each teacher must work with and from.

My 8th-grader reading above grade level and my 8th-grader reading below grade level both deserve my teaching them, and not that I try to accomplish the state-mandated standards. (And to suggest that I need someone to mandate my standards lest I know not what to teach is a truly offensive claim for a professional.)

A rational and ethical approach to teaching begins with where students are, not with standard calls for where every student should be.

However, if the rational approaches to considering standards-based reform aren’t enough (and they should be enough to show that the debate itself is fruitless, that we should be pursuing something else), let’s now turn to what we know about standards-based reform.

Modern education in U.S. has existed from and through a series of broad eras: From the 1890s and into mid-twentieth century (the foundational years of establishing standards as well as a factory, and thus standard, approach to public schooling), the volatile 1950s and 1960s with Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation establishing racial equity, and then the current accountability era begun in the 1980s, reinforced in 2001 with NCLB and later expanded under President Obama (again, the Bush and Obama agendas are indistinguishable from each other).

To be blunt, in fact, U.S. public education has never been absent arguments about what should be taught (both standards and curriculum) and how that should be taught, but the past thirty years have provided a solid research base on how accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing impacts education reform.

And that brings us to the second problem with both advocates and critics of Common Core: They never address what we know about standards-based education reform.

A significant research base along a wide range of political ideologies has been essentially ignored, primarily because Common Core advocates have successfully established a debate about Common Core itself and thus never allowed the necessary initial debate to occur: Are standards the problem, and thus, are better standards the solution?

The bad news for both standards critics and advocates is (i) the presence or quality of standards have no correlation with student achievement, (ii) standards-based reform fails to address equity, and (iii) standards-based reform linked to high-stakes accountability has asked less of students and teachers (Hout & Elliot, 2011French, Guisbond, & Jehlen, 2013; Loveless, 2012; Mathis, 2012; Whitehurst, 2009; Kohn, 2010de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Horn, 2013).

Educators and those who value universal public education are left with two difficult positions. One is that we have no political party, and the other is that we find ourselves outside the Common Core debate—demanding in both instances that we try something else, notably that we start by first identifying the causes of our problems so that our solutions have a chance of succeeding.

We re left with being rational, with calling upon evidence in the wider public debates, and to be honest, those are significant uphill battles in the U.S. where the irrational and unmerited thrive.

Common Core will not save our schools and our children, and neither will Common Core destroy our schools and our children—except that continuing either the pursuit of new standards or debating standards endlessly is a distraction guaranteeing we will never get to the work needed.

4 comments

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