October 12, 2009
Since last week, I have been 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 #2: An Unrealistic Bar
Even if we did not have the kinds of gaps that we see between schools, districts and even states, there is a common problem with where to set the bar. Standards are often set by content experts who have rarely worked with below average students in their field, and perhaps not even average students. They declare what they think students ought to know or be able to do by the time that they graduate from high school, for example. Imagine what college professors/instructors of mathematics would say that high school graduates should know. And historians. And scientists.
When these standards setting committees say, “To be proficient, a student should know…,” what do they actually mean by proficient? Are these bars set for the average student? For the honors student? For the student who truly excels in that subject and will major in it in college?
I don’t see a lot of pressure for these brilliant experts — and I am perfectly willing to concede that they are brilliant experts — to consider a bar any lower than what they think ought to be possible, what they would like to see happen. But they don’t do research or investigation to see how likely or practical their goals are, for whom they might be reasonable, or what it would require for schools to raise all of their students to that level of proficiency — presumably the goal, right?
This leads to aspirational goals and standards, rather than realistically achievable standards.