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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

Not All Standards Are Created Equal

An emphasis on academic content is one of ten criteria that the American Federation of Teachers considers essential to high-quality standards for student achievement.

For more than a decade, the education community has taken a hard look at the quality of our schools. We've put energy and resources into reform ideas such as site-based management and model schools programs, but none of our efforts has paid off in terms of significant gains in student performance—at least not beyond a handful of successful schools. Over the last several years, a more promising idea has been making its way through statehouses and schools, an idea that has received national, bipartisan support: school reform based on rigorous academic standards for students.
Both Goals 2000 and the new Title I (formerly Chapter 1) require states to establish clear standards for student achievement and to refocus their educational efforts around these standards. They also require states to develop assessments to measure progress toward these standards and strategies to help students meet them. The basic premise here is that once these standards and monitoring practices are up and running, teachers and schools can be freed from traditionally burdensome rules and given the flexibility to determine the best ways to help their students achieve at higher levels.
Standards will serve as the critical foundation for a wide-ranging set of reforms, and the caliber of those standards will have a serious impact on the quality of the overall improvements. States that move ahead with changes in curriculum, assessment, professional development, and teacher education before they've developed—or refined—the standards that should drive these changes will be putting the cart before the horse. And if states rush through the process of setting standards in order to begin work in these other areas, chances are the quality of their standards will suffer.
How can states make sure that the standards they develop are of sufficiently high quality? By first adopting some sensible criteria that can guide their work. The following 10 criteria were developed by the Educational Issues Department of the American Federation of Teachers. We consider these to be essential characteristics of good standards.

1. Standards must focus on academics

Improving students' academic performance should be the central mission of all our educational arrangements, and forging agreement around the academic content of the curriculum and our expectations for our children is the essential first step.
But there are some who would rather have standards focus on social and behavioral issues than on academics. Across the country, we've watched debates and legislative battles unfold around proposed education standards or “outcomes” that stray from or avoid academics. These efforts, frequently referred to as “outcome-based education” or “OBE,” are being challenged and defeated, not only by religious fundamentalists but also by other concerned citizens.
In several states, the intense negative reaction to nonacademic standards resulted in the substantial revision or defeat of the entire reform package. For example, in 1992, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder abandoned the complete draft set of “Common Core of Learning” standards, and in Pennsylvania, strong opposition prompted the state to significantly amend its draft “Student Learning Outcomes”: All students demonstrate caregiving skills and evaluate, in all settings, appropriate child care practices necessary to nurture children based on child development theory. (Pennsylvania's Student Learning Outcomes, Draft 1991)[A] student who is becoming a fulfilled individual uses the fundamental skills of thinking, problem solving, communicating, quantifying, and collaborating ... to analyze personal strengths and limitations to improve behaviors, capabilities, and plans. (Virginia's Common Core of Learning, Draft 1992)
  • Comparing the arguments advanced by defenders and opponents of the new imperial policy on the traditional rights of English people and the legitimacy of asking the colonies to pay a share of the costs of empire....
  • Analyzing the connection between political ideas and economic interests and comparing the ideas and interests of different groups. Reconstructing the arguments among patriots and loyalists about independence and drawing conclusions about how the decision to declare independence was reached.
Although it makes sense to organize our education system around the results—or outcomes—we hope it will produce, OBE's treatment of academic knowledge as a low priority doesn't sit well with many teachers and parents. OBE proponents have served as key consultants to several state education departments, and in each case the so-called “reform” proposal that resulted was met with significant opposition largely because of the nonacademic and controversial nature of the standards. Now, in a number of states, those opposed to any kind of standards development are trying to pin the “OBE” label on whatever effort is under way in an attempt to taint it. Terminology, however, is not at the heart of the matter. In the end, it's the content of the standards that must be kept center stage.
One final note: Schools certainly have a role to play in helping students develop compassion, honesty, self-discipline, and other traits essential to good behavior and strong character. The standards-setting process can contribute to that mission by ensuring that all students have access to a solid academic curriculum, because moral education is a natural by-product of a good curriculum. Schools can also contribute to the moral education of the young in other ways—for example, through their discipline policies; through their decisions about what to award and recognize; and by the example they set as a community that both expects and honors those virtues. These matters, however, do not lend themselves well to the standards-setting mechanism but, rather, are best taken up as teachers, parents, and the local or school community come together to find common ground in their hopes for their children.

2. Standards must be grounded in the core disciplines

Some educators have thought it best to move away from traditional subject areas and create interdisciplinary expectations for students. “Human growth and development,” “environmental stewardship,” and “cultural and creative endeavors” are just some “subject areas” that have replaced math, science, history, and English. Proponents of this approach argue that solutions to real-world problems cannot be based on one or another discipline, so, therefore, neither should standards.
This argument belies the purpose of standards, which is to focus our educational systems on what is most essential for students to learn, not to prescribe how the material should be taught. At its best, interdisciplinary education can be an effective approach to teaching the knowledge and skills that arise from the disciplines. But its value depends on a firm grounding in the subjects themselves. Strong standards in each of the core disciplines will ensure that interdisciplinary approaches reflect the depth and integrity of the disciplines involved.
When standards-setters abandon the disciplines, content suffers. Standards become vaguely worded and loosely connected, making the job of curriculum designers, assessment developers, and teachers all but impossible.

3. Standards must be specific enough to assure the development of a common core curriculum

In addition to being academic and subject-based, a good set of standards should also outline the essential knowledge and skills that all students should learn in each subject area. Such standards would guarantee that all students, regardless of background or neighborhood, are exposed to a common core of learning.
A strong common core would help us put an end to the unequal, uninspiring curriculums that many disadvantaged kids get locked into from an early age. And it would make life much easier on students who move from one school to another and often find themselves either way ahead or behind the rest of the class. In addition, teachers would have a much clearer idea of what their students learned the year before, so they would not have to waste so much class time reteaching previously covered material.
Finally, a strong common core would enable us to continue to forge a strong common culture, to preserve what unites us without diminishing the unique strength that flows from our diversity.
Requiring a common core would not, of course, limit students who chose to pursue advanced-level high school courses in any of the academic subjects. Nor would it prevent a fruitful integration of the academic core with vocational or technical education at the upper secondary level. But to the extent that a common core was established through most of the high school years—which is the practice abroad—we would ensure that all students are given a more equal chance to become well-educated citizens.
If standards are to set forth the content of a common core, and if they are to be used by teachers, curriculum and assessment developers, textbook publishers, and others, they must be specific enough to guide these people in their activities. With a common core in hand, we could—as other industrialized countries have done—end the need for every teacher to reinvent the wheel. Like other professions, we could begin to accrue a more focused body of knowledge, a portfolio of good practice, of materials and options that teachers and teacher educators could adapt, add to, and refine. But this is possible only if there is broad agreement on what is most essential to learn.
Unfortunately, many states' standards offer the barest guidance as to what should be covered. Some fit entire subjects on a single page. Others don't distinguish between what elementary and secondary students should learn. Though it has received a lot of attention for its many recent reform efforts, Kentucky is an example of a state whose standards are not specific enough to guide local districts toward a core curriculum and matching content-based assessments. Each subject area contains only 5–10 standards, and many are vague and vacuous. Here, for example, are three of seven statements that compose Kentucky's entire list of social studies standards: Students understand the democratic principles of justice, equality, responsibility, and freedom and apply them to real-life situations.Students can accurately describe various forms of government and analyze issues that relate to the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.Students understand, analyze, and interpret historical events, conditions, trends, and issues to develop historical perspective.
In contrast, California provides its standards in terms of grade-by-grade curriculum frameworks, thus offering substantial, clear guidance to all players in the educational system. Here is an excerpt from the History/Social Science Framework describing what 11th graders should understand about the Great Depression: Students should assess the likely causes of the Depression and examine its effects on ordinary people in different parts of the nation through use of historical materials. They should recognize the way in which natural drought combined with unwise agricultural practices to cause the Dust Bowl, a major factor in the economic and cultural chaos of the 1930s. They should see the linkage between severe economic distress and social turmoil. Photographs, films, newspaper accounts, interviews with persons who lived in the period, as well as paintings and novels (such as John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath) will help students understand this critical era.The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal should be studied as an example of the government's response to economic crisis. The efforts of the Roosevelt Administration to alleviate the crisis through the creation of social welfare programs, regulatory agencies, and economic planning bureaus should be carefully assessed.
  • Are the standards organized by grade levels or age bands, or do they in some way clearly delineate the differences in expectations for students at different levels?
  • Are the standards clear and specific enough to guide the development of curriculum frameworks that would describe the core units to be covered in every grade?
  • If a state were to adopt these standards but give districts the responsibility for fleshing them out into a curriculum, what are the chances that students across the state would be learning the same core curriculum?
  • If a student moved from one district to another or from school to school within a district, would these standards ease the move to a new grade in a new school without putting him or her too far ahead or behind the other students?
  • If a textbook publisher and an assessment developer were to use the standards in their work, is it likely that the text and the test would be well aligned?

4. Standards must be manageable given the constraints of time

Neither standards nor the resulting common core curriculum should try to cover everything. A core curriculum should probably constitute somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the academic curriculum; the rest can be filled in by local districts, schools, and teachers.
It's important not to draw the wrong conclusion here. There is nothing sacred about the ways schools apportion their time at present. According to Prisoners of Time, the 1994 report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, American schools spend about half as much time on academics as their counterparts overseas. There is no reason why this figure should be so low, and standards are the first necessary step toward initiating some changes in school schedules.
As states begin to adopt standards, standards-setters will need to exhibit restraint in the face of competing demands for time in the curriculum—both within and among the disciplines. Their job is to determine what is essential for students to learn. A laundry list that satisfies everyone will leave teachers right where they are now—facing the impossible task of trying to rush through overstuffed textbooks and ridiculously long sets of curriculum objectives.

5. Standards must be rigorous and world-class

The national education goals call for American students to be first in the world in math and science by the turn of the century. States and professional associations that are setting standards often repeat the mantras “world-class,” “rigorous,” and “challenging” to describe what they are doing. But what do these words really mean?
  • Do they reflect various levels of knowledge and skills comparable to what students in high-achieving countries are expected to master?
  • Which countries did the standards-setters use as a basis for comparison, and what documents did they look at to determine their standards?
  • Will the standards lead to a core curriculum for all students—those headed for college and those headed for work—as demanding as in France or Japan?
  • Will they result in assessments for the college-bound as rigorous as the German Abitur, the French baccalauréat exams, the British A-levels, or the Japanese university entrance exams?
  • Did the standards-setters refer to internationally benchmarked curriculums and exams such as those of the International Baccalaureate program?
  • Did the standards-setters refer to the best programs and resources available in the United States, such as the College Board's Advanced Placement exams and Achievement tests, or the curriculum frameworks used in California?
Information on other countries is not easy to get hold of. One thing is certain, though: nothing will be accomplished by setting standards that are too low. Without honest international benchmarking, we will be captives of our own parochial notions of what students can accomplish, and low standards will be the result.

6. Standards must evaluate performance

In any profession, specific standards are developed in order to motivate and measure performance. Whether you look at the medical boards that prospective doctors must pass or the time trials for drivers to qualify for the Indianapolis 500—performance is never dealt with in the abstract. Indy racers, for example, are not simply told that “very fast driving” will qualify them for the big race. They know exactly what times they need to beat, and they plan their strategies accordingly.
It should be the same for education standards. An influential report recently commissioned by the National Education Goals Panel asserted that a complete set of standards should describe both what students should know and be able to do and how well they must know and do it. The report separated these functions into two distinct categories. Content standards define the knowledge (the most important and enduring ideas, concepts, issues, dilemmas, and information) and skills (the ways of thinking, working, communicating, reasoning, and investigating) essential to each discipline. Performance standards indicate how competent a student demonstration must be to indicate attainment of the content standards—or “how good is good enough?”
It is safe to say that none of the standards documents we've seen—whether from the national standards groups, states, or other professional associations—fully incorporates performance standards as defined in the Goals Panel report. States will find this a particular problem when they try to develop assessments, because performance standards are essential to gauging whether the content standards are met.
A few states may be on the right track. Colorado, for example, has created a good set of content standards and will soon develop performance levels and assessments for each of those standards. So, not only will Colorado have a history standard that requires 4th graders to “understand the difference between a democracy and an autocracy,” but the state will follow that with a performance standard that establishes how well students must understand that difference and how they can demonstrate that understanding. It will be interesting to watch this work develop.

7. Standards must include multiple performance levels

When we speak of students being held to world-class standards, does that mean we should expect them all to achieve at the levels reached by the top students in other countries? Of course not. France and Germany have high standards for all their students, but they don't expect all to meet the same standard. It's just not realistic to expect the same from everyone.
There is nothing wrong with admitting this, and students know it very well. We need multiple standards that set expectations to match different aspirations and achievements. A single standard would either have to be set low enough for most to pass, which does nothing to raise student achievement, or too high for many to reach, which only turns students off to the idea of hard work. The trick is to set standards that are within reach, but still require dedication and hard work—to stretch all kids to their potential.
We can establish challenging standards without sacrificing rigor by developing multiple levels of achievement for each content standard. For example, students could work to reach “proficient,” “advanced,” or “expert” levels. This is how the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports its findings, and how California's Golden State Exams are scored.
Another approach could be to require all students to meet a common standard for graduation from high school, but also to create higher standards for students who attain that initial level earlier or who wish to qualify for more selective higher education. This is similar to the way that education systems in some foreign countries operate.

8. Standards must combine knowledge and skills

There is a terrible myth in education that has a tendency to confuse important decisions affecting curriculum and which is threatening to strangle the standards movement. The theory goes something like this: Knowledge is dynamic, always changing, whereas the need to apply knowledge is constant. What is most important for students to learn are skills such as problem solving, decision making, and higher-order thinking, so that they can react to any situation, gain and use whatever knowledge they need, and not waste their time learning facts and theories that may turn out to be irrelevant in their lives. Who can be sure of how much specific knowledge each person will need in the real world anyway?
An overstatement, of course—but not by much. At the root of this myth is a false dichotomy between knowledge and skills. And what it is leading to are standards that neglect the subject matter (the facts, ideas, concepts, issues, and information) of the traditional academic disciplines that is needed to develop the skills in the first place. Consider the following very general “skills” standard from Oregon: A student will demonstrate the ability to think critically, creatively, and reflectively in making decisions and solving problems. (Oregon's Certificate of Initial Mastery, 1991)
Standards such as this one leave unanswered just what students are to solve, decide, or think about. What kind of guidance do such skills examples give to teachers and others in education? “Critical thinking” cannot be taught in the abstract. It can be developed, however, by having students analyze the contradiction, for example, between the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the existence of slavery at the time. But a skill that is cut free from content and context is meaningless—and impossible to teach or assess.
An overemphasis on generic skills and processes seems to be a particular trend in states that allow local control of the entire curriculum. In essence, this is a way for states to avoid making judgments about the core content of the curriculum. But as discussed earlier, vague standards do not ensure that all kids are given a challenging curriculum, nor can they lead to assessments that reveal the depth and breadth of student knowledge.

9. Standards must not dictate how the material should be taught

Good standards are designed to guide, not limit, instruction. If, for example, a set of standards includes teaching activities, they should be there for illustrative purposes only. Standards must not be allowed to infringe on teachers' professional responsibilities, their ability to choose particular methods and to design lessons and courses in ways that reflect the best available research and which are best suited to their students' needs and to their own strengths and teaching styles.

10. Standards must be written clearly

  • Are the standards clear enough for teachers to understand what is required of them and their students?
  • Are they clear enough for parents to understand what is expected of their children and to monitor their progress?
  • Do the standards send a coherent message to employers and colleges as to what students will know and be able to do when they leave high school?
  • Will the students themselves be able to read the standards and get a clear idea of what is expected of them?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” your work is not done.

The Threshold of a Great Opportunity

Subject matter standards and a common core to the curriculum are new concepts in American education, and people—including many educators—are automatically skeptical of new ideas in the field. Considering the fads and failures of the past, this skepticism is healthy. But the American Federation of Teachers and others believe that if we develop rigorous and usable standards and shape intelligent Goals 2000 plans, we have a real opportunity to turn things around in our schools. Such an effort is certainly a more palatable and responsible strategy than turning the schools over to the whim of the market.
End Notes

1 Promises to Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students, a report to the National Education Goals Panel by the Technical Planning Group on the Review of Education Standards, November 15, 1993.

Matthew Gandal has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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