Column #1, posted 2/12/99

What's Wrong with Standards?

Standards, standards, standards. Everything will be better in the schools if we just had higher standards. Sorry. I don't think so.

Diane Ravitch writes in an op-ed piece in the New York Times of February 6, that

for thousands of students in New York State, and especially in New York City, time is running out. To pass all the Regents examinations, they need well-qualified teachers in every grade. To know how to prepare their students, teachers need clear standards and a core curriculum. Yet the state has provided neither.

What is she so concerned about? She is concerned that New York has raised standards for its students but has not provided any clear way for students to meet those standards:

What will happen if 95 percent of those who complete 12th grade in poor neighborhoods fail to receive high school diplomas? What will happen if more than half of all seniors in the city fail to receive high school diplomas? Will support for higher standards evaporate?

On the surface this seems like a reasonable worry. Higher standards for students without help to reach those standards looks like a disaster about to happen. The reason why this is not a problem, and why this kind of concern tends to bury the real problems in education is worth explaining. But, before I explain let's look at one telling remark of Ravitch:

When it became obvious that these so-called standards were useless verbiage, the State Education Department generated a 161-page document, which still failed to name any poem, essay, novel, play or short story that all graduates in New York should be expected to have read. Instead, the department supplied a list of hundreds of readings, pointing out that these were suggested but neither required nor even recommended.

There is a subtle battle going on here. Ravitch wants to know what to teach students so that they can be tested and then be found to know it. It is not everyday that I find myself on the side of the government on an education issue but if what Ravitch says is to be believed, the State of New York has done a remarkable thing, something that is quite surprising. Well, maybe they didn't mean it.

The problem is very simple. Those who want to fix the schools by raising the bar seem to have the moral upper hand. "Students don't know much, let's make them know more." Sounds good. But it is not at all good. The problem with the schools is not that the standards are too low. The problem is that the standards are irrelevant. Every school child knows this, which is why they slack off in the first place. Putting more pressure on them to memorize more stuff that they will forget one week after memorizing it is not a solution to anything.

The State of New York should name a poem that every student should know? Does this make sense? What will they do to demonstrate this knowledge -- memorize it? Memorize the teacher's or the State's official interpretation of it? Ravitch's view is that if we just tell everyone what they have to know and make them know it that we will all be happier for it. Isn't it possible that we don't know what everyone has to know? Isn't it possible that there isn't one right poem to know? Isn't it possible that every child might be better off if he could choose his own poem, and his own interpretation, or decide he (gasp!) doesn't like poetry?

This standards stuff is insidious. It is all about seeing education as a set of facts that if everyone knew then everyone would be educated. Well, get this -- there is no such set of facts. Every student shouldn't be on the same page at the same time. Every student shouldn't know exactly the same stuff because every student isn't interested in the same stuff and we are a very diverse nation that can benefit from a diversity of knowledge in each student.

Standards are not for students, make no mistake about it. Students don't benefit from higher standards. The more standards there are, the less freedom there is for each student to pursue what interests them. Standards are for school administrators and politicians. They make the people who run the system happy because they can pat themselves on the back about what a good job they are doing because students have done well on a particular test, when in fact they have accomplished nothing at all.

And just as I am writing this, here come headlines across the country in every paper about how reading scores are up in the U.S. Vice President Gore is very gratified. Why? Because he thinks maybe you will elect him president if reading scores are up. Never mind that they are probably up because a few school districts intimidated their children into learning a few more antonyms. Instead of saying "some children know some more antonyms," we say,"test scores are up and the country is saved."

I don't think so. I just hope that the New York State Board of Regents sticks to its guns and doesn't tell anybody what they need to know. But don't count on it. Those guys make Regent's exams. Pretty soon there will be a poem on one of them…

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