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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Response / We Need More Than “Educentric” Standards

Content standards that define what it means to be a good student within the traditional system don't prepare students for the rapidly changing future they face.

In “Not All Standards Are Created Equal,” Matthew Gandal (March 1995) illustrates some of the confusion surrounding the substance and role of standards in education today. I readily concede that Gandal's 10 characteristics of good standards reflect those of the American Federation of Teachers and at least a sizable percentage of its members. They also seem consistent with current policy-making and reform initiatives.
Unfortunately, the majority of national, state, and local standards being proposed today are overwhelmingly educentric, and therein lies the problem. Gandal's characteristics of good standards are “educentric” in the sense that the key features of the existing educational system serve as the basis for defining how the school system is to be organized in the future. Educentrism arises out of an inherently inward-looking, closed-system perspective of education.

Educentric Standards for Educentric Schools

Educentrism treats the major features of our educational system as givens—things like academic subject areas, grade levels, self-contained classrooms, nine-month school years, and A through F grading. Thinking, discourse, and policymaking about education almost always start and end with these features.
For a century, they have defined the system and people's roles and responsibilities within it—roles and responsibilities that are now institutionalized in professional preparation programs, professional licensure, staff contracts and evaluation, and staff performance expectations. In addition, these features have fueled a vast textbook and testing industry that fosters their continued existence. The result is massive institutional inertia of the existing system, which educentric standards will only reinforce.
Now, in the name of greater system effectiveness, national, state, and local initiatives all seem to be marching to this educentric drummer. The goal: world-class educentric standards for both students and schools. Gandal would have us develop world-class standards defined according to the curriculum categories, grade levels, and organizational structures that have existed in the U.S. for most of this century. Setting standards around these traditional structures assures their preservation, making genuine curriculum restructuring all but impossible.
The bottom line: Educentric content standards define what it means to be a good student within the system. If met, they will presumably tell us that U.S. students have learned as much traditional content as the children in other countries have learned. The perplexing irony is that these standards are being justified as the key mechanism for assuring that our young people are prepared for the complexities of life once they leave school. Yet, educentrists like Gandal continue to ignore the pleas of leaders in social, political, and economic organizations who have forcefully argued that the substance of most traditional school curriculum does not equip young people with the kind of “core knowledge” and “role competences” that they need in real life.
Further, futurists and education reformers like David Pearce Snyder, Willard Daggett, and I, who look seriously at the nature of the challenges that today's students are likely to encounter as graduates, continually point out that educentric content standards are not only insufficient, but they are also grounded in the wrong paradigm of learning and performance. Being just as good at traditional academic curriculum as the students of other countries in an institution that changes extremely slowly is not the same as having the demonstrated ability to make sound social, economic, political, and cultural contributions to a society that is changing more rapidly than most of us can comprehend. The former may serve as a kind of foundation for the latter, but in no way is it the same.

The Fundamental Issue of Purpose

Gandal also confuses the issue of curriculum standards with performance standards. Most would agree that the main issue being debated today is: What should the standards of student performance be? Not: What standards should be used in designing curriculum (for example, Gandal's example of California's grade-by-grade curriculum frameworks)?
To answer the former question, we must first answer an even more fundamental one concerning the purpose of defining, establishing, and administering standards to which performance credentials could be attached—a question that Gandal sidesteps. One plausible purpose of standards is to document that students can successfully demonstrate what they have been taught in a curriculum, presumably to prove (1) that they are prepared for the curriculum that lies beyond it, and/or (2) that their teachers have done a good job of teaching it. This is largely an accountability oriented educentric purpose.
A very different purpose of standards is to confirm that students are qualified to perform successfully in the roles and challenges that lie beyond school by demonstrating a subset of those roles and challenges. Only when the curriculum has been explicitly designed around such future challenges can the two purposes legitimately be viewed as one. Otherwise, meeting the first kind of standard may be entirely unrelated to a student's ability to accomplish the second.

The Content/Competence/Context Dilemma

Gandal and his colleagues come down on the side of having students meet standards generated from the academic curriculum. This reinforces the existing curriculum and system structures, and it assures their preservation. I, and others, come down on the side of defining standards (and curriculum) based on future challenges and requirements, which almost inevitably will require changes in existing curriculum and system structures. This approach means focusing on the complex performance abilities that students must develop and apply, using rigorous, complex content of all kinds. It also means having students apply those performance abilities in challenging contexts of all kinds.
  1. using rigorous content in a variety of interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary ways;
  2. extending the meaning of competence far beyond that of narrow skills and the ability to execute structured tasks in a particular subject area and classroom; and
  3. introducing the often-ignored challenges and circumstances of authentic contexts into the demonstration of performance.
The hard reality is that accomplishing these purposes undoubtedly will require more rigor from the system and its personnel than they are now equipped to deliver.
  1. involves more than covering academic content in depth;
  2. requires fundamental change in the structures and capacities of the system and its personnel; and
  3. demands that the public and policy-makers rethink in a major way the key purposes of education in today's world and how to structure the system to accomplish those purposes.
So, those concerned with the quality of American education and the impact of schooling on America's future are caught on the horns of a dilemma. The need for change seems critical, but the prevalent wave of thinking surrounding content standards offers little hope of systemic change.
For all of the attention given to major educational change over the past decade, the reform effort is rapidly being enveloped in a sea of educentrism involving old categories of content standards. As long as authors like Gandal and the policy-makers they influence fail to (1) define a purpose for having standards that transcends content categories, and (2) distinguish between what the system is currently structured to deliver and what the system needs to deliver, this unresolved dilemma stands to imperil both the future of education and our society.
End Notes

1 See W. G. Spady, (1994), Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers, (Arlington, Va.: American Association of School Administrators).

William G. Spady has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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