October 13, 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 #3: Fear of Failure Rates
I am not a fan of most of what appears on The Quick and the Ed, but last month Chad Adelman made a great point about setting high standards. He explained that when they are taken seriously and the inevitable high failure rates occur, people find or create loopholes or backdoors.
Frankly, people do not have the stomach for high failure rates. It is easy to say that we want to raise standards; that is the good news. But it is hard to endorse high failure rates; that is public bad news.
In a 2001 episode of The West Wing, two characters discussed the impact of making the standard for poverty more rigorous and realistic. The good news was that they had a better sense of the problem and would be better able to address it.
Toby: Let’s get back to the bad news. Four million people became poor on the President’s watch?
Sam: They didn’t become poor. They were poor already. And now we’re calling them poor.
Toby: What was wrong with the old formula?
Sam: I don’t know.
Toby: Find out.
Sam: It is possible that this is a statistical reality and not a political finding.
But public failure is always a political finding, too. And people subject to politics, be they elected, appointed or just in high visible positions, have great incentive to undermine bad news or prevent the news from coming out. So, the more rigorous the standards, the less seriously others will take them, knowing that they will likely be blamed for the bad news. The idealized senior staff of The West Wing could accept “the bad news” because it was really just a more accurate description of reality. But would our real flesh & blood leaders, with all of the pressures they face today, be as well able to accept “the bad news” — and potentially the blame for it? When new more rigorous standards lead to reports of fewer expert or even proficient students, those in positions of responsibility will be blamed. Will they allow that to happen?