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Proper role of ‘standards’ in education

In Idaho, and nationwide, there has been intense focus on the Common Core state standards. New Idaho State Superintendent of Instruction Sherri Ybarra stated in her first press conference a renewed commitment to high standards, though her commitment to the CCSS itself was veiled in ambiguity.

Standards are not bad in themselves. They have existed in U.S. education nearly as long as public schools have existed. Academic standards serve an organizational purpose, an accountability purpose, and a pedagogical purpose. Yet, too often in our current educational climate, the standards have mistakenly become the very objective of schooling. Their influence now wildly out of balance, standards overshadow other teaching and learning matters. 

The organizational purpose of standards is to help codify what is important to be taught and, often, the level of proficiency students must achieve. Standards can provide a baseline for evaluation and measurement. This also means they are often used as a way to compare students, curriculum, and schools. Knowing how a student is progressing through their studies is important.  However, we need not attach high-stakes to standards propped by a billion-dollar testing regime. 

Recently, we have compulsively centered on the accountability purpose of standards. Rather than using standards as a benchmark from which teachers can make modifications to the curriculum and provide additional support to students to best meet their learning needs — the pedagogical purpose of standards — today standards are used primarily as an evaluative measure to determine whether students, teachers, and schools are performing to a publically acceptable, if contrived and ambiguous, level.  We speak of “The Standards” as though they are a sacred text, brought down from Mt. Sinai alongside the Ten Commandments. If any teacher fails to live up to the standard, she is chastised, shamed and threatened with excommunication from her profession.

Unfortunately, students, who are future teachers, have internalized the accountability purpose of standards above the pedagogical. They are afraid to deviate from the standards, even when doing so would provide the best opportunity for student learning, because they fear getting into trouble. “The standards made me do it” is their common refrain. And too many of them accept that the standards are all that constitute an educated person.  In this environment, what we lose as a profession is exactly that which makes good teachers, namely creativity, flexibility and professional judgment.

As deliberations continue about the Common Core in Idaho and elsewhere, let us hope that whatever standards are created and implemented, they are restored to their proper function as a tool to empower teachers to meet their students’ educational needs.


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