Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why We Need Common Standards

by Douglas Grudzina

Well, the big “ed-news” the past couple of weeks is, of course, the release of the final draft Common Core State Standards. These are the product of a year-long cooperative effort of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, for people who like initials) and the National Governors Association (NGA, pretty dull initials by comparison).

They figure pretty prominently in the federal government’s “Race to the Top” initiative. You can see the standards here.

I actually think they’re pretty good standards. Of course, I’m in the camp that wholeheartedly endorses the idea of common, national standards for education. Here’s why.

First of all, despite a lot of the verbiage of those who oppose such standards, national standards are not new. What we now call the College Board was founded in 1900 with the express purpose of codifying college-entrance standards. Their intent was not to inform member colleges what they should look for in their applicants but to inform high schools across the country what they were looking for. (Their efforts, of course, resulted in the development of the SAT.)

Did the standards assumed by the College Board in the development of their College Entrance Exam have an impact on state and local educational policy and practice? (Well, come on, you know it did!)

Advanced Placement is another long-embraced program founded upon common, national standards. The College Board began offering advanced placement exams in the 1950s. High Schools responded by adapting their curricula and offering AP courses very shortly thereafter.

More recently, but still more than four decades ago, the foundation of the International Baccalaureate program was an attempt to establish high and consistent standards for “internationally mobile students preparing for university”.

Even the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery) offered in many high schools to students who are considering enlistment after graduation, is a form of national standard that has implications for what a graduating high school senior needs to “know and be able to do” in order to enter the military field of his or her choice.

So, the United States has had de facto national standards for more than a century. Some schools and districts have adopted international standards since 1968. The push for common standards is not new. I firmly believe that the ongoing push for common standards (New Standards Project, NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts) is a good thing—a very good thing.

In addition, common national standards are fair. I’m tempted to say “equitable,” but that’s one of those emotionally charged words that cloud the issue more than open conversation. One of the main reasons those Ivy League colleges joined forces in 1900 to form the “College Entrance Examination Board” was that they were finding too many applicants who were simply academically unqualified to enter college. The colleges suspected that the schools graduating these students were not intentionally holding the students back but were simply unaware of what their graduates needed to “know and be able to do.”

The CEEB, therefore, codified their standards and developed their exam as a means of helping these schools give their students a fairer chance at college.

The result was, ostensibly, improved education and increased opportunities for a number of students.

Moreover, (sorry, but I’m running out of transitional phrases) common standards admit to certain truths about our society that local control advocates often disregard: how utterly un-unique our children are, and how transient our population is.

One of the most common arguments of those who oppose common standards is that adults in the local community know best their children’s ability and limitations. They know their children’s future and can best determine what their children need to know (and be able to do).

However, do we really believe that sixteen-year-olds in Oxnard, California, are significantly different from sixteen-year-olds in Biloxi, Mississippi, or Painted Post, New York? I’m not talking about superficial differences like manners of dress, favorite foods and music, or regional accents. I’m talking about significant differences—differences in intellectual capacity, emotional and psychological development, physical growth, and so on.

Do different states produce different species of sixteen-year-old? Of course not. Even those superficial differences all but disappear in the age of electronic media, social networking, and the like. Now, if we honestly believe that kids in California are smarter—more mature, better able—than kids in New York (or vice versa), and if we honestly believe that kids in Painted Post are smarter—etc.—than kids in Elmira (or vice versa), we have a case for unique state or local standards.

If, however, we recognize that a kid is a kid is a kid, then not so much.

Let’s look again at the impetus behind the foundation of the College Board. The representatives of the original member schools apparently did not believe that New York and Mississippi teens were ready for college, but California teens in the same age group and with the same number of years in school weren’t.

If the United States Military Entrance Processing Command maintained a tacit understanding that students in Mississippi were developmentally slower (or faster) than their California or New York counterparts, they would probably require the ASVAB to be administered later (or earlier) in Benton than in Bakersfield or Beacon.

Fact is, given some individual variance in the first appearance of facial hair or the last adolescent tantrum, kids everywhere are pretty much the same; and if a tenth-grader in Maine can be expected to formulate a coherent thesis and cite four facts in support of it, so can a tenth-grader in Missouri.

Not only are our children and teenagers vapidly similar from state to state and region to region, their parents are curiously nomadic. Think about it; probably every single person reading this post (yes, both of you—hi, Mom!) knows kids who have transferred from one school to another, probably across state lines, and have found themselves significantly behind—or significantly ahead—of their new class.

Unless there has been a change in grade level, shouldn’t the new school be pretty much in synch with the old?

You might convince me that each state or district should establish its own standards if you could show me that your kids are uniquely smart or uniquely stupid. You might convince me that each state or district should establish its own standards if you could show me that the kids graduating from your high school were by and large the same kids who’d entered your kindergarten thirteen years earlier and would live, work, retire, and die locally.

As soon as you admit, however, that during the course of your district’s thirteen-year course of study, you’re going to be taking in transfer students and bidding farewell to others, as soon as you concede that your high school graduates are very likely to leave town and live their adult lives elsewhere (and, conversely, that a significant number of the adults in your community grew up and went to school elsewhere), then you have to admit that maintaining your own insular set of educational standards is probably not in the best interests of the public you serve.

Consider the original goal of the International Baccalaureate program: to provide a consistent quality of education to “internationally mobile” students. I taught in a military town, and I had many students who were coming to me straight from Germany, Japan, or the UK. I also had a handful who left me for those countries. I also had many, many students who were coming to my district (in Delaware) from Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc., etc., etc. So transient was the population of my district that, every year at senior awards night, we recognized the few students who had been with us from kindergarten through graduation.

My district may have been extreme, but it was not unique.

Military families move. Corporate families move. Transience (and I dislike that word because it connotes a kind of seediness that I do not intend) is increasing in the United States, not decreasing. Some sources estimate that a “typical” family relocates every three to five years. This means that these families’ children will attend school in no fewer than three districts—probably in three states—before they graduate. If we insist on maintaining our own unique and discrete standards, without keeping an eye to the left, the right, the north, the south, then we are fostering the frustration of our kids’ being significantly behind or significantly ahead of their new classmates when they move.

In other words, we’re part of the problem.

Now, let’s be clear that I am by no means advocating a common, national curriculum. A curriculum specifies whether we utilize a descriptivist or prescriptivist approach to grammar, whether we use a vocabulary and writing series or take a more “whole language” approach. A curriculum would specify that Julius Caesar be our students’ eighth-grade introduction to Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird the tenth-grade United States novel.

Those are all local decisions, and they should be. The local school’s curriculum must be allowed to reflect the local community’s interests and values. None of our working models of standards—the SAT, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate, the ASVAB—impose this level of specificity on their participating schools. (I. B. does call its program a “curriculum,” but their grade-by-grade requirements are still broad enough to be tailored to meet the local community’s needs.)

Indeed, if the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association (I like words better than initials), or the College Board, or the International Baccalaureate Organization (or anyone else for that matter) dictates that all tenth-graders read A Tale of Two Cities and memorize ten words a week from the Funk and Wagnalls Word-a-Day Classroom Pocket Dictionary and Style Book, then the Biloxi Public School and the Oxnard Union High School Districts have just cause to complain. But to recognize the knowledge and skills colleges expect their incoming students to have; to publicize what the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines expect their recruits to know and be able to do; and to propose that every high school in every school district in every state in the nation has an obligation to help every student gain those skills and knowledge is necessary and just.

We need common standards, not because everyone needs to read Macbeth but because there is a fundamental inequity (okay, there’s that word, sorry!) in one tenth-grader’s being taught how to analyze the narrative structure of a play with flashbacks (like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman) and another being asked to identify the characters’ names and relationships in a young adult novel like Johnny Tremain.

Those are both true examples of current tenth graders I know personally. I think the disparity in what is being expected of them and what they are being taught to do speak volumes in favor of common standards.

I’m just saying …


Allan Lappin said...

One of the most common arguments of those who oppose common standards is that adults in the local community know best their children’s ability and limitations. They know their children’s future and can best determine what their children need to know (and be able to do).

My (admittedly anecdotal) experience is that this usually means "Our children don't need to learn [evolution, World History, physics] because the Bible is sufficient!" or "That subject is taught in a biased fashion!" (Sorry, the Civil War was largely (though not solely) about slavery; the Holocaust did occur.]

Anonymous said...

Great case making Doug. I'm convinced.