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ANOTHER VOICE: Whose education standards? Back to the drawing board

By MARK REYNOLDS

The current push in public education reform is content standards. Students must show proficiency in reading, writing and math to gain an Oregon high school diploma. Under federal and state rules, student data will be linked to teacher evaluations and school funding. Students, teachers and schools will be judged, ranked and funded based on meeting these standards.

Unfortunately, there is a great fallacy in the imposition of standards for America’s students, although the idea of standards seems reasonable on the surface. The major fallacy lies in the belief in standards for student performance.

Usually, we require standards for professionals: teachers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, CPAs, real estate agents, psychologists, airline pilots and others who must demonstrate competence and professional judgment. However, in the education reform model, students are the ones held to standards of performance. That is because testing students is the basis of the standards ideology. Standards for students do not ensure minimal competence. Instead, standards structure teaching and learning through multiple-choice tests (and newer “performance task” measures currently in development).

This closed circle of assessment leaves out the most important actors: the student, the parent and the teacher. The standards themselves may be good or bad, but the effect is to define learning in a very limited way. Inventiveness, spontaneity, play, humor, intellectual freedom, fairness, confusion, error, realization, empathy, encouragement, experience and moral judgment are all scrubbed neatly away. Every student is represented by a data stroke on a spreadsheet of data strokes. Mistakes are viewed as failures, not steps toward understanding.

Our policymakers love this kind of certainty because unlike democracy, education and most of real life, standards are neat, tidy and blame can (and will) be assigned. There are other problems with the standards model.

First, people are not standardized. Children are individuals who vary widely in background, culture, ability, resources and language.

Second, reformers don’t really know what the future holds and what skills will be required.

Third, the motives of reformers are conflicted by the money that funds them. Large corporate or philanthropic donors like the Walton Foundation, Eli Broad and the Gates Foundation decide what gets studied. Their free-market perspective, together with our ability to gather data and crunch numbers, has neatly removed children from the center of the educational process. Our current obsession with measurement and data has an adverse effect on the quality and content of education.

As teachers, we have become more concerned with punctuation than critical thinking. We are more concerned with the form and organization of writing than with the ideas and questions that students bring to their education. Punctuation and organization are important, but it’s much more difficult and demanding to wrestle with the ideas and content of students’ real lives.

If we are concerned about the quality of public education, we should also be concerned about how the Common Core Standards and the required testing heavily impacts the funding and the direction of public schools. If the overall goal is improving public education, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to teaching what can be tested and subject students to continual testing. There are other, better ways to find out how schools are doing and make positive adjustments without repeatedly testing every student.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is one measure that can tell us how U.S. students are doing compared to students in other countries. We can improve teacher quality and effectiveness through a more effective screening process for teacher candidates, peer coaching, additional observations by administrators, and improved evaluation of school administrators. We can provide a varied and challenging curriculum that is designed, assessed and evaluated by teachers, not by corporations.

We can and should improve and stabilize funding for education, and reduce class size. In my view, the job of educators is to be independent and responsible thinkers, developing significant content and using inventive teaching strategies. Teachers can use the standards to guide practice, but the idea that students must be tested repeatedly to progress is unproven. And the effectiveness of standards for students is also unproven. The current national law called No Child Left Behind, implemented 2001 and requiring high-stakes testing and the ranking of schools, has failed to improve student achievement.

The conditions that plague the nation’s children — food insecurity, lack of health care and endemic poverty — are not mentioned in the standards. We simply can’t pretend that requiring students to meet abstract standards is the solution to their educational and basic needs.

Learning is a complex process that is not suited to simple measures. We need to go back to the drawing board, and make sure that children are at the center of a humane effort to improve public education.

And leave the standards for professionals.

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Mark Reynolds of Hood River teaches English at Hood River Valley High School.

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