Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Education: Debunking the Case for National Standards - Alfie Kohn

originally posted at Daily Kos

Alfie Kohn is one of the most cogent critics of much of what goes on in education. He is well known for his belief that eliminating homework and grades will lead to more and better learning. You can explore many of his ideas at his website.

He has a piece coming out in Education Week, of which he has a slightly expanded version at the website, which you can read in its entirety here. Consider this paragraph from the middle of the piece:
Are all kids entitled to a great education? Of course. But that doesn’t mean all kids should get the same education. High standards don’t require common standards. Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence – or equity. (In fact, one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the cause of genuine equity.) To acknowledge these simple truths is to watch the rationale for national standards – or uniform state standards -- collapse into a heap of intellectual rubble.

First let me clarify something. What Kohn is addressing is NOT the US Department of Education mandating a national standard. Rather is an effort being pushed by a number of organizations, starting with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to come up with COMMON standards across all states. This is known as The Common Core State Standards Initiative. A number of people have noted that those most involved in drafting these "standards" do NOT included practicing or recent classroom teachers, have far too many people from testing companies, and are being drafted with little consideration to some basic understanding of the nature of teaching and learning, to wit - that not all students learn all subjects at the same rate.

Kohn offers a number of arguments against the move to national standards. To begin with, if one looks at international comparisons such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), one finds, as Kohn notes
On eighth-grade math and science tests, eight of the 10 top-scoring countries had centralized education systems, but so did nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.
That should clearly demonstrate that it is not the existence of national standards that leads to being highly ranked on TIMSS - and here let me note I do not think that TIMSS really provides all that much useful information, and our standing on that and other tests should not be the subject of all the hand-wringing that ensues, but I will explore that further at another time.

Let me offer a few selections from Kohn's pointed prose to give you a sense of the piece, which I strongly encourage you to read in its entirety. I will offer a few comments of my own with each selection, which are not necessarily in the order they appear in Kohn's piece.

a key premise of national standards, as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin observed, is that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools.”
As a classroom teacher, it seems to me that the lack of input from teachers who collectively deal with the students is one reason the curricular decisions that are made are so often unconnected with students' lives, and which results far too often in bored students who retain little of what they feel is simply being shoved down their throats.

these core standards will inevitably be accompanied by a national standardized test. When asked, during an on-line chat last September, whether that was true, Dane Linn of the National Governors’ Association (a key player in this initiative) didn’t deny it. “Standards alone,” he replied, “will not drive teaching and learning” – meaning, of course, the specific type of teaching and learning that the authorities require.
So of course there will be the imperative of tests to drive the process. That may not be what is being pushed now, but many of those supporting the current standardization effort have made it clear their desire to have some tool to compare schools across states, across the country. If you think current state tests are high stakes . . . .

If you read the FAQ page on the common core standards website, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “democracy.” Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase “success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”

If these bright new digitally enhanced national standards are more economic than educational in their inspiration, more about winning than learning, devoted more to serving the interests of business than to meeting the needs of kids, then we’ve merely painted a 21st-century fa├žade on a hoary, dreary model of school as employee training. Anyone who recoils from that vision should be doing everything possible to resist a proposal for national standards that embodies it.
Which of course brings me back to what I often raise as the key yet unaddressed question, one to which we lack agreement: what is the purpose of education, of our having public schools? The push that we are seeing from the economic argument insists upon more math and science, even though the vast majority of jobs now being created do NOT require that much of either. Certainly, we want people to have basic skills in language and mathematics. Our recent approaches, even when they raise test scores, are not demonstrating that we are developing those skills. Even as we ratchet up "standards" (as if raising the high jump bar another 6 inches will therefore mean more students will jumpt over it) we are finding both increasing rates of students dropping out and increasing numbers of those heading off to higher education requiring remedial courses.

Even more, this is supposed to be a democratic republic. One might note that No Child Left Behind started with math and reading, never included writing as an important skill to be tested, was supposed to add science, but the scores were not to count for Adequate Yearly Progress - AYP is the stick used to beat up on schools and systems. What's missing? History, civics, the knowledge basic to being a citizen, and not just a cog in an economic system.

Even more, if this ia a democratic republic, should not the process of setting any standards include broad participation of those affected? Instead, as Kohn rightly notes,
a relatively small group of experts will be designing standards, test questions, and curricula for the rest of us based on their personal assumptions about what it means to be well educated.
Kohn later adds this:
to get everyone to apply the same standards, you need top-down control. What happens, then, to educators who disagree with some of the mandates, or with the premise that teaching should be broken into separate disciplines, or with the whole idea of national standards? What are the implications of accepting a system characterized by what Deborah Meier called “centralized power over ideas”?

I recognize I am going beyond fair use, but in this case that is allowed if I included the following verbiage:

Copyright © 2010 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.

Kohn's conclusion is pretty much to the point:
Yes, we want excellent teaching and learning for all -- although our emphasis should be less on student achievement (read: test scores) than on students’ achievements. Offered a list of standards, we should scrutinize each one but also ask who came up with them and for what purpose. Is there room for discussion and disagreement -- and not just by experts -- regarding what, and how, we’re teaching and how authentic our criteria are for judging success? Or is this a matter of “obey or else,” with tests to enforce compliance?

The standards movement, sad to say, morphed long ago into a push for standardization. The last thing we need is more of the same.

Eve if you do not agree with Kohn, I think the points he raises deserve to be addressed. I find that in this rush to Common Standards there are questions not being asked, there are - yet again in the making of educational policy - voices that are not being heard. That is one reason for my bringing this to your attention.

There is another. Public education should be the concern of all of us. We pay taxes for our public schools, and the vast majority of our students attend public schools, something like more than 9 in 10. Between the Common Core Standards approach and what is being pushed by Arne Duncan with his Race to the Top funding, American public education is being totally reshaped without the changes being vetted by parents, teachers, students, or the American public as a whole. It is being driven by economic concerns, some of which (testing and textbook companies for example) stand to profit handsomely. I can remember a candidate for President saying of the debate on health care that the insurance companies should have a seat at the table, but not all the seats. What is happening to education policy is that there is no debate, the decisions are being made by a relatively small group, and there are no seats, no table, for the vast majority of those who will be affected.

Do you think that is right? I don't. So I wrote this.



Barbara Stengel said...

Alfie and Ken raise important questions. I'd like to highlight a distinction that I think is in their comments -- that the standards movement has morphed into a standardization movement.

I believe that it is a good thing to have "non-binding" national academic standards for schools students. I prefer that these be formulated by stakeholders in negotiations every five or ten year, and sent out there as a thesis or theory that we can test in our teaching. As a teacher of ten year olds or fifteen year olds, I want a target, an end-in-view that tells me what other kids around the country are shooting for. If I don't have that, I may tend to evaluate my work (my work, not the kids!) by comparing one child to another but not realizing that I may need to stretch, to more radically reconfigure what I'm doing to bring kids up to speed. I just think it's helpful to have a reminder and national standards, regularly renegotiated and treated as a hypothesis, can serve that purpose.

Now, having said all that, it's pretty clear that this current effort is NOT about that. It is about standardization. Once we get the standards, we can make the tests.

OK, this we have to resist in the name of a profession of teaching and of the learning and growth of the nation's kids.

And maybe it's not possible to decouple standards from standardization in the way I'm suggesting, (not only or primarily me, of course :-) Diane Ravitch and others have made similar points). given the current political climate and the incredible disappoint that the Obama/Duncan regime have brought with them. But I still think standards are useful if limited, and standardization is mind-killing.

Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

Alan Cook

Nancy Flanagan said...

I appreciate Barbara's distinction--I think it's the reason that both the practice community and policy-makers are now acting as if "national standards" are a brand-new idea. In the late 80s and the 90s, virtually all major disciplinary content organizations-- NCTE, NCTM, NSTA, etc.-- developed what were called (by teachers, anyway)"the national standards," describing core content and skills and where they fit into a curriculum framework. Many states built their own grade-level content expectations, benchmarks and assessments on these national standards.

There have been ongoing and bitter arguments about these, of course, especially the Mathematics and Social Studies standards. Who can forget the acrimonious battles over the correct amount of glory and credit given to George Washington? The NCTM standards, when revised, actually did reflect some of that national debate. Whether you preferred the old Math standards or the new ones--debate in the practice community over what to teach and how to teach it is an unqualified good. It demonstrates professional engagement with critical issues.

I can speak with authority only about the national standards for Music (part of a set of standards for the arts), because I used them to guide my teaching and curriculum for years. The national standards pushed me to explore things-- for example, cultural significance of music, students as composers-- that I hadn't done previously. They were broad enough to be used in schools with few resources for the arts, but rigorous enough to push award-winning music programs in beneficial new directions.

Of course, fine arts teachers will continue to use these national standards, as the Common Core movement will run out of money as soon as those Reading, Math and Science tests are developed.

Why isn't anybody talking about the already-existing voluntary national standards? Because they were developed by the practice community?

Here's one in a three-blog series on the common standards movement, from "Teacher in a Strange Land"-- a thought experiment set in the Reagan era: http://tinyurl.com/calcba