Why have I--and so many others who have similarly spent their careers fighting for higher standards in education--struggled so adamantly against the current standards movement in California and the nation? And why are we now beginning to smile again?

We’ve dreamed of reasonable standards, measuring student achievement with authentic assessment. We’ve confronted, instead, ludicrous standards tied to high-stakes fill-in-the-bubble testing.

Ludicrous? When the elite oligarchy in Sacramento wrote the California standards, for example, convinced that every high school graduate ought to go on to a prestigious four-year university, they were afraid of leaving anything out, and so too often threw everything in but the kitchen sink. In most grades and subjects, there are simply too many standards: more than 160 in my 4th grade curriculum; more than 70 in just one high school Chemistry course. It would not only be impossible to teach them all well, but educational malpractice to attempt to do so.

Oh, some of my colleagues have “covered” the standards: “It’s the end of the first semester, so we have to be halfway through the textbook.” They rush through the standards and the text with no pause to study anything in depth, no attempt to adequately instill real comprehension, much less a love of the subject, even less the academic skills necessary to truly succeed in school and life.

Nonetheless, they pat themselves on the back each June for having gotten though everything--a job supposedly well-done, even though the students, bored out of their minds, remember little. (Not that the students complain. After all, memorizing a list of facts only to regurgitate them on the next test is much less challenging than actually learning to think.)

Yes, systematically covering standards is quite alluring. For teachers, it is so much easier than responding to students’ needs and interests, planning captivating simulations/experiments, conducting poignant classroom discussions, guiding kids through demanding research projects, teaching kids how to read a textbook, how to take notes, how to consult a broad array of sources in addition to the text before drawing any conclusions…. (The bread and butter of real teaching, its greatest challenge, providing its greatest reward.)

Covering standards, you see, is the last and best sanctuary for uninspired or lazy educators and students.

Their sanctuary’s days are numbered, however.

Recent research is finally uncovering how cursorily rushing through standards--implementing a curriculum that is a mile in breadth, but an inch in depth--inadequately prepares students for college.

A study published in the December issue of the online journal Science Education indicates “Breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses, although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests.”

More specifically, the report documents how students who had spent at least a month on one particular topic in their high school science classes earned higher grades in college science courses than students who had not.

The difference is actually so profound as to astound: The former perform, the researchers estimate, as if they’d received as much as two thirds more instruction than the latter.

Clearly, mastering big ideas trumps “unrelated bits of scientific knowledge,” the hallmark of most standardized exams.

US science standards, upon which such tests are based, typically include vastly more topics than those of other countries whose children routinely outperform ours.

Nonetheless, each time such international test comparisons appear, pundits decry them anew, typically arguing for even more rigorous US standards and testing. (Just as physicians of old prescribed yet more blood-letting whenever the first round had proven ineffective.)

With the Obama Administration, however, we may be entering into a new era, when research (and, one can always hope, common sense) will prevail over elitist ideology. Thus, even during such dire times as ours, many of my colleagues and I find reason to hope.


Last week I wrote that the current standards movement is ludicrous. Far from improving student performance, standards have become the last, best sanctuary for uninspired or lazy educators and students. In fact, standards have hindered achievement later in college, as emerging research has revealed.

This is not news to anyone in the profession. We educators have long murmured as much among ourselves.

Publicly, however, we’ve adopted an Emperor’s-New-Clothes approach, grudgingly feigning a faith in standards we didn’t possess lest we incur the wrath of the powerful true-believers mandating them: “Of course I teach to standards,” we’ve chorused. Or, “Yes, this is a standards-based lesson.” Few dared to utter the naked truth that the standards movement was destroying education.

And so, because of our craven code of silence, the madness only escalated.

Over-zealous administrators, for example, especially those preferring a bureaucratic approach to children, demanded that teachers include numbered standards--as in “Language Arts 7.4.3”--in daily lesson plans and on class-board lists. Some even insisted that kids write the standards at the top of every assignment. (As if teaching and learning could be reduced to a numbered list of standards!)

Former New Haven Superintendent Ruth Ann Mckenna claimed a standards checklist was absolutely necessary to protect ourselves from lawsuits. If some of our students failed the high school exit exam, we could smugly claim, “We’re not to blame. After all, we covered all the standards. Here, look at our checklist.”

It was not one of public education’s finer moments.

The next (il)logical step was a standards-based report card. For example, I no longer give my students grades such as an “A” in math or a “B” in reading. No, I’m supposed to constantly evaluate each and every child on an array of more than 75 different criteria, using the indicators of 5 for “advanced,” 4 for “proficient,” 3 for “basic,” 2 for “below basic,” and 1 for “far below basic.”

It’s a report card only a desk-bound administrator could like. Any teacher who did it right, though, would have to spend as much time testing as teaching. And, oh the hapless parents! I recall more than a few humorous (After all, you have to laugh or you’ll go crazy.) moments during conferences last fall when, after failing to decipher the two-page list of numbers on the standards-based report card, some parents blinked back up at me, exasperated. “So, how’s my kid doing?” they begged.

Even most administrators eventually acknowledged--at least tacitly--that it was impossible to teach, much less evaluate every single standard. They introduced the notion of “Power Standards.” Not all standards are created equal, you see. So, although we still needed to teach every one of them (Wink! Wink!), some deserved more emphasis than others.

One might have pointed out that, if every district and school similarly identified its own particular power standards, the whole concept of standards was now defunct. However, it wouldn’t have been nice (or prudent) to mention that the emperor had no clothes.

Now there are whispers of “Gateway Standards,” crucial ones, the mastery of which would be required for passing on to the next course or grade. These would be non-negotiable standards, the ones the teachers absolutely positively had to teach, the ones students simply had to learn.

I hope such Gateway Standards come to be. Since they’d be few, simple, clear, indisputably important, reasonable for every teacher to instruct, and possible for every regular-education student to master, they’d be the kind of standards my colleagues and I could whole-heartedly embrace, without having to wink or dissemble. Gateway Standards are what we ought to have implemented in the first place.

Perhaps someday.

In the meantime, it behooves us to ask why we teachers--supposedly highly trained and uncommonly passionate professionals, the adults closest to children and the classroom--why have we been excluded from the most important decisions regarding education?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we’ve too often behaved like sheep, remaining silent, acquiescent, even in the face of what we knew to be wrong.