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National Standards: Should We Take a Seat at the Table?

May 18, 2010

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In the last decade, the talk in the education community has been focused around the buzz words of accountability and reform.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 encouraged schools to aim for high test scores for all of their students, and thus a disproportionate focus was placed on English-Language Arts and Mathematics, the two disciplines most widely tested and measured by NCLB.  At that time, the middle school in which I worked quickly jumped on to the test score bandwagon and reduced the number of elective classes for students, in order to increase the amount of instruction in English and Math.  “Hey, if the kids can’t read, why should they be fooling around making wooden ducks in shop class!” Gone were the ceramics, drama, wood shop, and home economics classes.  It almost seems like another lifetime ago.  Confession:  I wholeheartedly joined the bandwagon, thinking I was doing the best for my students.  The data, almost 10 years later, does not show that those students have done markedly better for what they had to give up.  Bethune Middle School is still an API level 1 school, and narrowly avoided being on the LAUSD takeover list last year by a sliver.

Today, one of the latest reforms being proposed is the idea of National Standards, also known as Common Core Standards.  In California, this initiative, AJR 39, passed 70 to 1 recently, with 64 co-authors all rushing to put their name behind this new reform.  In this endeavor, all states would have a unified curriculum and all disciplines would be tested, thereby preserving the relevance of all academic subjects and giving Social Studies teachers, of which I am one, a seat at the table.

I’m not sure I want to eat at this table.

On the one hand, popular wisdom shows us that what gets measured gets taught.  The Social Studies arena has seen a rapid decline in the instructional time allotted for it.  Some schools have reduced instruction in this area by 50%, or condensed the year into an 8 week summer course.  In elementary schools in Los Angeles, a great amount of time has been allotted to Open Court, a prescribed ELA curriculum that focuses on phonics and fluency.  Elementary teachers confide that they have to sneak in Social Studies and Science when administrators are not looking, saying this with a gleam of pride and defiance, because they know the importance of a well-balanced education.

The idea is that the train has left the station, and we either participate in its navigation, or jump out and…become irrelevant.  But what is to be said about decisions made in fear?

Teachers and teacher leaders around the nation have expressed concern about jumping on the National Standards bandwagon.  Alfie Kohn, a Boston education writer states, “the goal clearly isn’t to nourish children’s curiosity, to help them fall in love with reading and thinking, to promote both the ability and the disposition to think critically, or to support a democratic society.”  Instead, he believes these standards are geared toward providing measurable uniformity for the purpose of creating workers for an economic society.  Some might consider this a good thing; we want to remain competitive, right?  But I wonder if national standards are what will return our nation to its golden age of art, invention, and democratic ideals that have defined us in our short lifetime?

Did national standards inspire Maya Angelou to write the beautiful poetry of Why the Caged Bird Sings?  Did they inspire Walt Disney to create a fantasy land that has brought joy to millions of people throughout the world?  Did they light a fire under Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Co?  Our pride as Americans has been in our innovative, independent streak that has produced critical thinkers who aspire to a better world, a life on a higher plane.  As a teacher, I am unsure National Standards can further us along this path.

A belief being perpetuated in the media is that teachers want to shun accountability measures in order to escape responsibility for their students’ performance.  I would argue that in fact, it is the exact opposite reason why teachers sometimes question programs proposed by the sudden rash of “ed reformers,” few of who have any substantial experience in education.  As my school participates in our state’s accountability testing this week, the California Standards Test, I muse to myself how easy it would be to get students to show an increased performance on the exam.  You would simply focus all instruction on the specific content standards that will be measured on the test, and exclude all other content and instructional activities that will not be tested.  But can teachers ethically, morally, support the elimination of the type of instruction that may keep alive our legacy of being a nation of innovators, creators, and inventors?

Some in the education community will say we have no choice.  We have already seen what NCLB did to non-essential subjects.  If we do not jump on board with the current administration’s reforms de jour, we can kiss our relevance goodbye.  What is worse: cookie-cutter Social Studies instruction, or none at all?  Do we work from the inside, or do we refuse to contribute to the lock step pedagogy espoused by the federal government?  Perhaps there is a happy medium we can reach. Teachers, what route should we take?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 11:04 am

    I’ll be pretty surprised if they actually get to social studies and history standards, because of the inherent political difficulty, because it isn’t clear that it is possible to add much more high stakes testing to the burden schools now carry, and because it will make it that much more difficult for anybody to achieve the kind of extraordinary results a few charters currently do to “prove” that it is possible for schools alone to close the achievement gap.

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    May 18, 2010 11:27 am

    The main reason I’ve been able to embrace standards (gradually, and with some resistance earlier in my career), is that the standards for English Language Arts in CA are almost entirely skill based. They describe what a student should be able to do, but not what they should read. My understanding as a spectator in the history/social studies debates is that content standards are inherently problematic. How detailed do you get? What’s essential? Every expert has their own take on it, and there’s a ton of highly specific content that doesn’t really serve students’ needs in the long run. When I was in high school, I passed both A.P. European and American history tests and did well in the courses. However, especially in the case of the European history, I’ve had little reinforcement and I’ve forgotten huge amounts of content. What I retained was the ability to understand how historians operate, and to do some independent, critical thinking about different historical approaches, the use of data and documents, and other skills. If the Common Core Standards process becomes embroiled in debates about WHAT to teach, rather than how, they’ll divide more than unite educators. The inclusion of a recommended reading list for the English standards really bothers me, because of its potential to become enshrined and to narrow the curriculum.

  3. Kelly Kovacic permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:28 pm

    Martha: You raise some significant concerns about National Standards. As a Social Studies teacher, I also want to make sure my students are able to use their creativity, be inventive, and fully understand the democratic foundations of our nation. In addition, I want my students to be critical thinkers with the ability to understand and evaluate bias, synthesize data and ideas, and express complex themes orally and in writing with a thorough and fair analysis. The Social Studies Standards do not appear to prescribe particular content (dates/facts) to cover, but rather a set of skills that students need for college and the work force. We must make sure that a child sitting in any classroom in our nation has access to the same level of rigor and support. The National Standards seem to be one way to help create a fair system of accountability that is not merely testing rote facts but important skill sets. I’m not sure there is a more effective means to ensure equity for all students.

  4. May 19, 2010 8:33 pm

    You answer your last question earlier in your post. If the ten year trend downward in student performance in math and language arts are any indication, making social studied a tested subject will likely not lead to improved student performance in that area–at least, not long-term performance. Colleges and universities across the nation are reporting (and paying for) shockingly sharp increases in the number of students needing remediation in math and language arts. Somebody should get the hint.

    • May 24, 2010 8:04 pm

      Renee, the ten year trend in test scores at my previous school was upward, albeit slowly. My concern is that to gain this incremental growth the students had to give up all their elective classes. In my opinion, it was not worth giving such valuable material up for such minimal growth on a standardized test. And that’s what concerns me; major decisions about curriculum and access to the arts are being in an effort to achieve a certain score. In California, students do not even have to submit a writing sample (other than in 4th, 7th, and 10th grades, I believe) to score Proficient in English-Language Arts! So the test instrument is imperfect, yet we are designing our instruction towards it.

      I too have heard of the concerns of colleges, re: remedial students. What changes are taking place to cause this? Prescribed curriculum? Poor teachers? Societal changes? All of the above?

  5. June 6, 2010 10:37 pm

    Hi Martha,
    Though I share your concerns about so much of what is going on in the “train-has-left-the-station” current education dialogue (i.e. the 4 models for “fixing” schools that are currently in the ESEA blueprint seem seriously under-conceptualized and research is very questionable)–I am actually encouraged by what I’ve read so far in the ELA Common Core Standards. The fact that students are expected to read and write about complex and multiple types of texts in content area classes (social studies and science described in some detail) suggests that these standards could push against the kind of narrowing we’ve seen in the curriculum over the NCLB years.

    • June 7, 2010 5:47 am


      To me, your comment is an expression of just how far off the path we’ve been taken by this process. We’re willing to grasp at the most meager advantages to find some good.

      It isn’t the role of English Language Arts standards to make sure science and history are included in the curriculum. No other country frames their standards in that way.

      And the Common Core standards simply re-capitulate their full set of reading standards twice for science and history, changing a few words in each case but effectively tripling the number of standards in a work whose goal is ostensibly to have fewer and clearer standards.

      • June 8, 2010 10:17 pm

        Tom and ruth,

        Maybe I got a bit ahead of myself. According to the released standards, Social Studies does not even really have a seat at the table. A stool? A bench? An open door?

        How frustrating.

  6. January 16, 2012 8:34 am

    I’m coming at this from a science and technology perspective as an analyst. In my field, standards run into the problem of too many players insisting that their specialty topic be part of the core. No student will be able to tackle all of this–significant pruning is essential for any core scheme.

    My biggest worry is that focusing too much on such a limited core list will leave students thinking that they have proficiency when they only have covered the core. Teachers, administrators, and politicians that take away time from synthesis and extrapolation might be able to gin their stats, but it will come at a steep price down the road.

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