How High Are the Standards?
Raise standards. High standards. Deciding whether Core standards are higher or lower than the old standards, or the newer standards.
And nobody has any idea what any of it means.
I mean, I'm not an idiot. I understand what it means to say that I hold my students to a high standard, or that my classroom is based on having high standards, or that I hold the donuts I eat to a high standard. As a general principle, we all know what high standards are.
But as a matter of policy, "high standards" is really meaningless. In fact, it's worse than meaningless because it's a metaphor that obscures an important truth.
"High standards" suggests a two-dimensional model of education. It suggests a model in which all students are trying to climb exactly the same ladder in exactly the same direction. It's a single one-directional arrow, with all students progressing steadily, dutifully along the single path toward the single point.
It's a model that doesn't correspond to anything in human experience or behavior. Instead of the blind men and the elephant, we can tell the modern fable of thousand blind administrators and the feds.
The blind administrators were called before the Department of Education. Looking down at them from his throne made of 95% excellent mahogany, the Secretary said, "Have you all led your schools to higher standards?"
"Yes," they all roared in reply. "We are all running schools where high standards rule."
"Excellent," said the Secretary. "You must each tell me, one at a time, and in greater detail, if your school has set high standards." And so the thousand blind administrators lined up to answer his question.
"Yes," said the first blind administrator. "We require our students to get the very highest scores on a standardized English test."
"Yes," said the second blind administrator. "Our students must get the very highest scores on a standardized math test."
"Yes," said the third blind administrator. "We insist that every one of our students leave our school with a positive, happy attitude about themselves."
"Yes," said the fourth blind administrator. "Every single one of our students must be physically fit."
"Yes," said the fifth blind administrator. "We demand that every student achieve competence on a musical instrument."
"Yes," said the sixth blind administrators. ""Every one of our students must graduate with the tools to be an excellent scientist."
Okay, it's a very long fable, because each one of the thousand administrators had set their school to a higher standard, and not one of them was like the other. Because when you try to fill the grand hollow platitude of "we must have high standards" with anything specific, you quickly realize that all the blather in the world can't fill that gaping cavern in a useful way.
Should we have high expectations for each of our students, demanding and encouraging that they become the best they can be? Absolutely — that is fundamental to good classroom practice. But using "high standards" as a policy is useless, a thick slice of baloney that may make bureaucrats and politicians feel as if they're really Doing Something. You can't further a conversation with words that don't actually mean anything.
Originally posted at Curmudgucation.
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