We have not yet figured out how to educate our children, all of our children, and it’s not as if we haven’t been trying. As evidence for this statement, two observations. One, the nearly 50% dropout rate from our inner city schools (25% nation wide) and two (this an example of anecdotal evidence so overwhelming that it becomes statistically meaningful), that large numbers of those who stay in school through highschool still cannot read, write, or figure well enough to either go on to college and finish college in a reasonable length of time, or obtain anything but menial work following a job search.
At the present time there is only one proposed “fix” for this situation, and that is the standards movement, meaning that all children be required to meet and master standards in math and language arts by the time they graduate from highschool, or, in other words, that all students be judged “proficient” in these two areas. On the face of it the fix, the standards movement, seems not unreasonable. Richard Riley, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, in 1989, wondered why we shouldn’t first
determine what a child should know and then develop tests to
determine further if that child is learning what they should know.” Highly reasonable.
But our leaders were not always so reasonable. In September of 1989 President Bush and the nation’s governors called an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a follow-up to the Summit came the National Education Goals Panel of 1991 and a number of the goals were closely allied to the standards movement. For example, "By the year 2000, American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy." A bit extravagant, that, but others even more so, for example, Goal 4: "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement." What does being first in the world in math and science have to do with the education of all of our children?
In her book, National Standards in American
Education: A Citizen’s Guide, 1995, former Secretary of Education Diane Ravitz, had this to say, among much else regarding standards: “Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected.” One needs to be far away from the classroom to make a statement like that. Faced with 25 to 30 children right there in the room with us how many of us have ever been able to "clearly define what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected" from all of them. It can’t be done, I don’t think. That’s perhaps why we have, up until now, failed to improve things for kids in the classroom.
In the new century with the new Bush presidency came the No Child Left Behind Act of Congress, a further and much more substantial step in applying the "standards fix" to our children’s schooling, but stirring up with its passage, and even more with its initial applications, more substantial opposition to the standards movement than ever before.
Perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of national standards is the fact that so many other countries, liberal developed democracies no less than we, have them. In France, for example: “a French math text for 16-year-olds begins by spelling out the national curriculum for the year so that all 16-year-olds know what they are expected to study…. the text makes frequent references to math exams the regional school districts have given in the past. Students practice on these exams to help them prepare for the exam they will face; they know where to concentrate to meet the standard.” We certainly ought to look more closely at the French experience.
What is the source of the growing opposition to the standards and testing? Are the opponents being unreasonable? Why is it that the full scale adoption of national performance levels in our country is still today, after all these years, very much a long shot?
I don’t think it’s primarily because we don’t want to lose local control of education to the Federal government. In my experience local educators do not shut themselves off from the outside world, but have always easily adopted and benefitted from best practices from elsewhere. Rather, I believe, it’s because we sense that national standards will inevitably create what some have called an educational apartheid. For under any system that applies the same achievement benchmarks to all there will always be a good number of children who will not reach those achievement goals, and will be even more left behind, separate from their more successful peers, than they are now. It’s ironic that those who created NCLB would have most of all prevented this from happening. It was in their plan to bring up those now at the bottom of the educational ladder, not leave them further behind.
What is it about our children that the standards movement with its performance levels is overlooking? Harold Howe, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education while addressing the reauthorization of the NAEP in 1988, gave what is for me the best reason to oppose the same performance levels for all:
"The NAEP was created to be a service to tell Americans what young people know and can do in certain important areas of learning and how it is changing. The main objective of the new legislation was to extend that purpose to encourage state level use of NAEP. Those of us who recently supported the new legislation and its funding had no intention of creating a new authority to tell all American schools what to teach in each grade or even that schools should be organized by grades. More importantly, most educators are aware that any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons. To suggest that there are particular learnings or skill levels that should be developed to certain defined points by a particular age or grade is like saying all 9th graders should score at or above the 9th grade level on a standardized test. It defies reality."
What I take away with me is this: "…any group of children of a particular age or grade will vary widely in their learning for a whole host of reasons." Why isn’t this bit of wisdom, or common sense, in the forefront of our thinking about how children learn, and about how best we may evaluate that learning, and for their benefit, not for ours?