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The Case Against "Tougher Standards"

By: Alfie Kohn
The call for higher standards is a common but problematic one that disregards students, according to this author. The author points out five fatal flaws of the standards movement, in terms of motivation, pedagogy, evaluation, school reform, and improvement.

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People who talk about educational "standards" use the term in different ways. Sometimes they're referring to guidelines for teaching, the implication being that we should change the nature of instruction – a horizontal shift, if you will. (In the case of the standards drafted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM] in 1989, for example, the idea was to shift away from isolated facts and memorized procedures and toward conceptual understanding and problem solving.)

By contrast, when you hear someone say that we need to "raise standards," that represents a vertical shift, a claim that students ought to know more, do more, perform better. This can get confusing because discussions about standards sometimes are limited to only one of these meanings, sometimes flip-flop between them, and sometimes involve an implicit appeal to one in order to press for the other. Our concern here is primarily with the second category; we're not proposing that there shouldn't be any guidelines for what goes on in classrooms or that our current approaches shouldn't be changed. (One look at the "bunch o' facts" model of instruction in a traditional classroom and the need for new standards – horizontal movement – becomes painfully clear.)

Even the idea of vertical movement seems hard to argue with, at least in the abstract. Don't we want schools to be of high quality, and students to be able to do many things well? Of course. But the current demand for Tougher Standards carries with it a bundle of assumptions about the proper role of schools, the nature and causes of failure, and the way students learn. That's why a number of people (mostly educators) have come to view with growing alarm what is now the dominant model of school reform.

People from parents to Presidents have begun to sound like a cranky, ill-informed radio talk-show host, with the result that almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of "raising standards" or "accountability." One is reminded of how a number of politicians, faced with the perception of high crime rates, resort to a get-tough, lock-`em-up, law-and-order mentality. This response plays well with the public, but is based on an exaggeration of the problem, a misanalysis of its causes, and a simplistic prescription that frequently ends up doing more harm than good.

So too with demanding Tougher Standards in education. Back in 1959, John Holt wrote that the main effect "of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think." Today, it is almost impossible to distinguish Democrats from Republicans on this set of issues – only those with some understanding of how children learn from those who haven't a clue. The disagreement that plays itself out in boards of education and state legislatures is pretty much limited to a clash between, on one side, the champions of Tougher Standards (a constituency that includes virtually all corporate groups, the President and the Governors, the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, and most reporters who write about education); and, on the other side, those on the extreme right wing whose suspicion of anything involving the federal government leads them to oppose national standards or testing. (They, too, tend to endorse the idea of Tougher Standards, but insist on local control.) That's pretty much the extent of the public debate on the subject. Left out almost entirely is the point of view of the students themselves, and the impact on their learning.

The result is that, from California to New York, from Michigan to Texas, from Virginia to Colorado, the kind of teaching that helps students understand ideas from the inside out – and that sustains their interest in understanding – is under siege. One story can stand in for thousands:

Not long ago, a widely respected middle-school teacher in Wisconsin, famous for helping students design their own innovative learning projects, stood up at a community meeting and announced that he "used to be" a good teacher. The auditorium fell silent at his use of the past tense. These days, he explained, he just handed out textbooks and quizzed his students on what they had memorized. The reason was very simple. He and his colleagues were increasingly being held accountable for raising test scores. The kind of wide-ranging and enthusiastic exploration of ideas that once characterized his classroom could no longer survive when the emphasis was on preparing students to take a standardized examination.

The purveyors of Tougher Standards had won, and therefore the students had lost.

Five Fatal Flaws

The Tougher Standards movement is fatally flawed in five separate ways.

  1. It gets motivation wrong.

    Most talk of standards assumes that students ought to be thinking constantly about improving their performance. This single-minded concern with results turns out to be remarkably simplistic. The assumption that achievement is all that counts overlooks a substantial body of psychological research suggesting that a focus on how well one is doing is very different from a focus on WHAT one is doing. Moreover, a preoccupation with performance often undermines interest in learning, quality of learning, and a desire to be challenged.

  2. It gets pedagogy wrong.

    The Tougher Standards contingent is big on back-to-basics, and, more generally, the sort of instruction that treats kids as though they were inert objects, that prepares a concoction called "basic skills" or "core knowledge" and then tries to pour it down their throats. This is a model that might be described as outdated were it not for the fact that, frankly, there never was a time when it worked all that well. (Modern cognitive science just explains more systematically why it has always come up short.)

  3. It gets evaluation wrong.

    In practice, "excellence," "higher standards," and "raising the bar" all refer to scores on standardized tests, many of them multiple-choice, norm-referenced, and otherwise flawed. Indeed, much of the discussion about education today is arrested at the level of "Test scores are low; make them go up." All the limits of, and problems with, such testing amount to a serious indictment of the version of school reform that relies on these tests.

  4. It gets school reform wrong.

    Proponents of Tougher Standards have a proclivity for trying to coerce improvement by specifying exactly what must be taught and learned – that is, by mandating a particular kind of education. There is good reason to doubt that the way one changes schooling is simply by demanding that teachers and students do things differently. "Accountability" usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms – and it has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing.

  5. It gets improvement wrong.

    Weaving its way through all these ideas is an implicit assumption about "rigor" and "challenge" – namely, that harder is always better. The reductive (and really rather silly) idea that tests, texts, and teachers can all be judged on the single criterion of difficulty level lurks behind complaints about "dumbing down" education and strident calls to "raise the bar." Its first cousin is the idea that if something isn't working very well – say, requiring students to do homework of dubious value – then insisting on more of the same will surely solve the problem. As Harvey Daniels puts it, the dominant philosophy of fixing schools today consists of saying, in effect, that "what we're doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we'll have a better country."

Each of these five problems is discussed at greater length in a new book entitled The Schools Our Children Deserve. Any one of them would be enough to raise serious questions about the call for Tougher Standards. Together, they suggest a threat to education of such dimensions that the only reasonable question for conscientious educators and parents is how we can most effectively change directions.

Kohn, A. (1999). The Case Against "Tougher" Standards. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1999 by Alfie Kohn.

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