February 4, 2011

Are National Standards Useful?

After a rousing discussion with a few students following our class this morning, I now am forced to consider the usefulness/purpose of national standards in practice. Because I teach music, I thought that the justification of the national standards in Music Education offered by my profession's national organization, MENC – The National Association for Music Education, might be an effective foil for discussing the usefulness and purpose of national standards, in general. I admit that I am not too familiar with national standards and their justifications offered by other national organizations, but I suspect they are quite similar to those shared below.

This is what MENC lists as the "importance" of standards on their website:

The Importance of Standards. Agreement on what students should know and be able to do is essential if education is to be consistent, efficient, and effective. In this context, Standards for arts education are important for two basic reasons. First, they help define what a good education in the arts should provide: a thorough grounding in a basic body of knowledge and the skills required both to make sense and make use of the arts disciplines. Second, when states and school districts adopt these Standards, they are taking a stand for rigor in a part of education that has too often, and wrongly, been treated as optional. This document says, in effect, an education in the arts means that students should know what is spelled out here, and they should reach clear levels of attainment at these grade levels.
These Standards provide a vision of competence and educational effectiveness, but without creating a mold into which all arts programs must fit. The Standards are concerned with the results (in the form of student learning) that come from a basic education in the arts, not with how those results ought to be delivered. Those matters are for states, localities, and classroom teachers to decide. In other words, while the Standards provide educational goals and not a curriculum, they can help improve all types of arts instruction.

Consider the first statement - "Agreement on what students should know and be able to do is essential if education is to be consistent, efficient, and effective." This presupposes that "consistency" is a goal of education. If this were the case, wouldn't all schools follow the same curriculum? Have the same achievement goals? The same instructional methodology? The same materials and resources? Clearly, this is not the case. Issues of educational equity and authority likely would prevent a goal of "consistency" from becoming reality.

How do standards address efficiency? According to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, ““efficient” has several definitions, including “productive without waste.” It is possible that efficiency may be achieved by eliminating the need for standard adopters to consider carefully what subject matter they will teach and how the material is taught. However, I believe that careful consideration and revision of curricular content should be an ongoing practice of educators, and that eliminating the need for teachers to think, rationalize, and justify why they are teaching specific content cannot result positively for students. It is doubtful that such abdication of instructor responsibility will ever be held up as a "best practice" exemplar. Efficiency is a term most commonly associated with productivity in business and industry. And so it seems, even here the "factory-model" of education and training workers for the jobs of the future again rears its ugly head. 

Use of the word "effective" in the MENC statement likely is very deliberate in that it implies achievement of a desired result. But, this then requires an agreement as to what the result is or will be. If learning is to be student centered, won't the desired results for students necessarily vary depending on student needs, ability, and experiences? Further, if the standards are not adopted by an educator or institution, can it be said with such certainty that the quality of instruction and student learning is not "effective?" Is, then, standards-based education always effective? A quick look around our schools and the breadth education reform movements that exist throughout all levels of government - local through national - demonstrate that a causal link between standards-based education and "effective" education does not exist.

Moving ahead, the MENC statement identifies two reasons that the standards are important: 1) They help define skills and knowledge essential to understanding the subject matter, and 2) They are symbols of academic rigor. 

By design, standards are written broadly to accommodate multiple instructional approaches and achievement levels. Typically, educational standards do not indicate the specific depth of understanding that is necessary to achieve "essential to understanding the subject matter." Rather, national standards indicate broad content areas only. Doesn't then this lack lack of specificity in fact make standards less useful to educators/practitioners? And isn't it this lack of specificity that work directly against the consistency and efficiency adoption of the standards is purported to achieve? As stated above, "standards are concerned with the results," yet typically standards do not describe how one would know if the desired results are achieved (assessment). 

In regard to adoption of the standards association with academic rigor, rigor itself describes a designed unyielding lack of flexibility and exacting precision. The standards are written too broadly to inform institutions or educators seeking to instill greater rigor in their programs, classrooms, or institutions. Further, the association with standards as an indicator of rigor is a contradiction with the goal of implementation flexibility inherent in broadly-written standards .

Perhaps standards are written so broadly simply because agreement cannot be reached across affected constituencies on defining the depth of understanding necessary for achievement of essential understanding in a subject area and the assessments necessary to identify successful standards achievement. The variability of students, teachers, administrators, educational infrastructures, economics, policies and politics, etc. prevents consensus agreements from being reached without altering the constituencies and/or the authors of the standards themselves. Consequently, what is adopted are those general points on which all sides can agree. This approach to defining standards through negotiated consensus, unfortunately, sounds more like politics and less like education, and moves the discussion away from what is best for the students to what is best for politicians. 

So, if broadly written standards have little practical use in the classroom due to their lack of specificity and assessment guidelines, and if highly prescriptive standards that are capable of achieving the sought-after consistency and rigor are too inflexible to accommodate the everyday variability of those who adopt them, how are standards useful?

Maybe the one thing - the best thing - that can be taken from any group of national standards is the concept of communicating and working toward a shared goal. That goal, however, is not most effectively defined not at the national level, but rather at the local level, at the level of the student and his/her teacher. The student must have a shared voice in defining the outcome for learning authenticity and relevance to be possible. And, this shared vision must be open to review, revision, and reinterpretation as situations and needs change. 

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