Educational Standards

Educational Standards

State standards writers are reluctant to take sides in the “culture wars” or to participate in the selection of a “canon.” By spelling out which books children should read in English class, which individuals and events to study in history, and which discoveries and inventions to discuss or replicate in science lab (and, of course, which to omit), standards authors are making decisions about what is important for American children to know and be able to do. They are setting priorities.

That, in our view, is exactly what the writers of standards are supposed to do. But, of course, such matters are contentious, the stuff of great debate, the underpinnings of disparate worldviews. Perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from timidity, many states opted to sidestep such choices. The results, not surprisingly, are vague and (to us) unhelpful standards.

A second explanation is the “committee process” that many jurisdictions used to develop their standards. It’s possible that there were just too many cooks adding to the broth (often including politicians, educators, citizens, experts, “resource persons,” business leaders, textbooks publishers, parents, etc.), and therefore the final result was less than tasty. Either too much was included in order to placate various factions and satisfy individual enthusiasms – and the product was therefore shapeless and sprawling, or – in the interests of committee consensus – the process had to settle for a high level of generality rather than featuring the specifics that would be of greatest value to consumers of the standards.

A third explanation – actually voiced by several states in response to low marks in these analyses – is that the state believes in “local control” and intentionally defers decisions about educational specifics to individual districts or, perhaps, schools.

In reviewing states’ scores, one can spot a clear division between states that take the responsibility to assert leadership in promoting history as the means to deliver information and develop skills for effective American citizenship, and states that delegate this responsibility to local districts. The distinction between state standards meant as mandated guidelines for local districts and those meant to be flexible or advisory is important. Those states that leave all substantive decisions to districts or schools receive the fewest points of all.

The problem here is that vague standards are bound to serve as a barrier rather than a ladder to achievement. How can we monitor the progress toward benchmarks if we refuse to state those benchmarks in clear, identifiable, and measurable ways? How can we enlist the help of parents, volunteers, corporations, and others if nobody knows what they’re supposed to be working towards? Vague standards set schools adrift without a map or compass – or even a destination.

The fourth possible explanation for vagueness in academic standards is that the state may be having political or organizational problems with its assessment and accountability arrangements. Of course, the more explicit standards are, the easier it is to hold people accountable for attaining them – and to know for sure whether they’ve been attained. One way to ease or defer that pain is to keep the standards nebulous.

On the other hand, many states are actually in the process of pinning high-stakes assessments to their standards. Attaching high-stakes assessments to vague standards is a formula for disaster. It is worth acknowledging that a few states’ standards have been criticized for being too specific. The argument is that by blitzing students with long lists of facts to learn, the standards will produce a curriculum that’s a “mile wide and an inch deep,” and perhaps the patterns that should link the facts will never be explicated. This is a risk, to be sure, if standards turn out to be nothing more than lists of facts. The evidence to date suggests that the opposite problem is far more widespread: nebulous standards that provide no real guidance to anyone who might benefit from it. It does no harm to caution some states to guard against “list-itis.” But it seems to us that many states would benefit from a mild case of this malady.

Standards essentially clarify what students are expected to know and be able to do at various points in their academic careers.

There is nothing – in theory, at least – oppressive about including in a standards document a requirement that students study the literature of their own country, particularly in grade 11, where it has traditionally been taught. Nor is it oppressive to expect students to study works by well-regarded authors who wrote about their own state or region, an intention that can be expressed in a general statement without necessarily mentioning specific authors. However, it appears that many states were anxious that even hinting at a literary “canon” would expose them to charges of cultural insensitivity.

If states base their assessments on their standards, yet their standards are devoid of specific literary works or movements, then what knowledge will their assessments test? Obviously, they won’t be asking students what they understand about Invisible Man or Mark Twain or A Tale of Two Cities. Many students will continue to graduate without studying the classic works that helped define American culture.

States were far more enthusiastic about demanding skill development. One might infer that the states consider it more important for students to be able to look things up than to read great works of literature.

The dichotomy between knowledge and skills has long existed within the education world. Tracing back to the 19th century is an assumption that, as long as a student “exercises” his/her “thinking muscle,” what he/she studies is not important. This theory was used to justify instruction in Greek and Latin, since these tough subjects were thought to strengthen one’s mental discipline.

Students should be allowed to learn what they want to learn, these theorists argue. What really matters is learning how to learn, learning “higher-order thinking skills.” Thus, for example, learning how to do library research (regardless of what the student is researching) becomes more important than reading great works of literature.

But by omitting knowledge, the states missed half their opportunity. In a democracy, it is imperative for every voter to have a working knowledge of the nation’s heritage, history, and cultural and intellectual institutions. Today’s students should become part of the story that is the American Experiment. There is a legacy of hundreds of years of political and intellectual argument. This is not only true in history and politics; every major field, from science to literature, is an evolving conversation. If we want students to “have a voice,” then they need to know what was said before they stepped onto the Earth. Pointing to specific knowledge and asking students to acquire it is not oppressive; rather, it is empowering, as it allows young people to participate in and add to arguments that have raged for years.

Mathematics is today widely regarded in the schools as something that must be presented as usable, “practical,” and applicable to “real-world” problems at every stage of schooling, rather than as an intellectual adventure. Obsession with the “real world” can also result in plain silliness, as lessons are stretched or crammed to fit into a Procrustean bed of relevance.

Reverence for relevance is also evident in many state English standards. We should want to know what new insights into human relationships or into the deployment of literary skills students have gained from a literary work, rather than to compel them to reduce the experiences within the work to those with which they are already familiar.

Great teachers have always found ways to spark classroom enthusiasm for the material studied. Children have always enjoyed learning about far-away times and places; imagination that can transcend personal experience is one of the finest achievements of mankind. Worrying about how to motivate children to learn should be left to schools, parents, and teachers. They will find many creative ways to engage children.

Perhaps standards-writers also harp on relevance because they want to help students understand themselves. Self-actualization might be a worthy goal for individuals, but it is not the interest of the state. The state should want a student to use literature, math, and history to understand the world; helping the child understand himself is best left to parents and clergy.

Standards are about ends, not means. Too often, pedagogy has seeped into state standards, muddling their usefulness and confusing their aims. Instead of just clarifying expectations and trusting schools and teachers to decide how best to meet them, some states have embraced a particular philosophy of teaching. In a sense, these states have written standards of teaching rather than standards of learning. This mingling of means and ends is especially evident in mathematics and English.

Schools can figure out hundreds of creative ways to reach these standards, ways that state-level policy makers could never imagine. States should think twice before promulgating standards that may stifle this ingenuity. Yet many pushed particular teaching philosophies – usually of the “constructivist” variety. Why was this so?

Perhaps many standards-writers believed their mission was to reform teaching in their states rather than to clarify what students should learn. This was especially true for standards written by professional education groups. Many of these groups show a missionary zeal for the constructivist philosophy, though in fairness, many outside groups show equal enthusiasm (and dogmatism) for phonics and memorization.

If they focus on core knowledge and essential skills and leave the teaching techniques to the schools, they will have provided a workable service. They will also enable a plurality of school models to emerge, a range of choices that together can better serve the needs and learning styles of every child.

To what extent do state standards documents – intentionally or otherwise –  appear to indoctrinate students with particular views on issues and controversies, to color information in an ideological way, or to coax students to adopt fashionable social and political agendas?

For obvious reasons, it’s important to guard against politicization in academic standards, especially those meant to apply to all the schools and schoolchildren in an entire state. Furthermore, nothing would more quickly and surely wreck standards-based education reform than the perception among a state’s citizens that their daughters and sons are being manipulated.

How politicized are today’s state standards? Thankfully, not very. Most stayed focused on academics. Still, each subject revealed a few infractions. One might expect history to be the subject with the greatest potential for politicization. It isn’t enough for history standards to be well written, to present necessary historical skills, and to be truthful. History must also avoid being slanted or propagandistic. Programs that deliberately attempt to impart particular political dogmas or social ideologies have no place in public education. Programs should not attempt to predispose children to somebody’s political causes or social agenda.

In geography, too, most states managed to keep their standards balanced and free of a priori value judgments.

National standards have been drafted, some with the cooperation of the federal government and some without. They are circulating today in each major academic subject, and we thought it important to assess the degree to which they are impacting standards at the state level. That is not a product of direct influence by the national standards so much as an indication of the zeitgeist of the education profession with respect to English/language arts.

In history and geography, several sets of national standards are in play. The national history standards, of course, have been a political lightning rod. Meanwhile, various drafts of the national history standards are in wide circulation, and pieces of them are showing up in textbooks and state standards nationwide, though few cite them by name.

In geography, the national standards turned out reasonably well, and as a result, many states followed their lead and borrowed liberally from their pages, typologies, etc.

In addition to national history and geography standards per se, national “social studies” standards are circulating that have influenced the history and geography standards of many states. Indeed, most states use a “social studies” model for their history/geography standards. This approach did not generally produce high marks from our reviewers.

In mathematics, the influence of the national standards was clearest and heaviest. The standards are perhaps the best known of all the national standards.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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