October 9, 2009
This and next week I am raising objections to the idea that new standards — particularly new national standards — are worth the attention they get. It is ridiculous to think that they can be a meaningful lever of broad educational improvement. In fact, I do not think that they can have any significant impact at all.
Problem #1: Which Bar to Raise?
New standards and new standards initiatives are always about raising the bar. They are always about improving education, educational outcomes and sometimes even — shockingly — improving test scores. Standards efforts are never aimed at merely documenting what is actually done.
But this goal is actually impossible to accomplish with a single bar or single standard because we know that there are all kinds of achievement gaps in this country. Yes, there are racial/ethnic gaps and income gaps. But there are also geographic gaps. The NAEP has show us that some states simply do much much better than others. Caroline Hoxby’s latest report talks about the Harlem-Scarsdale gap. Regardless of the cause of these geographic gaps, they exist.
Given such gaps between states and within states, for whom should we raise the bar? Those who call for excellence are looking to improve the top half or quarter. Those who call for equity aim to improve the bottom half or quarter. Perhaps we can do both at the same time, but wouldn’t that call for multiple bars? States like Mississippi and California could show incredible improvement and still be behind states like Massachusetts and New Jersey. Set the bar high enough to push higher achieving states or districts, and the lower achieving area will see a demoralizing and impossible goal and be that much less likely to take it seriously. Set it at a level to be realistically inspiring for lower achieving states and higher achieving states could sit on their laurels for having already passed it. The exact same issues hold true for districts and even schools.
So, a single set of standards to raise the bar? Impossible.