Do standards make any difference?

I attended a dinner party this past Monday with some individuals who are fighting in the legislative and school board trenches to halt state adoption of the common core standards. Opponents of federal control of education, they argued that the common core – and accompanying, as yet undeveloped assessments – will inevitably be hijacked by ideologues.

Since  that’s pretty clearly what happened with the history standards back in the 1990s, I sympathized with this argument. But I also noted, a little sheepishly, that I rather liked the current common standards for English and Language Arts, which put more emphasis on skills such as argumentation and document analysis. My own experience teaching AP history classes has convinced me that students lack these critical skills. And yes, it would make my life a whole lot easier if they entered a demanding AP class better able to understand a document author’s perspective and purpose, and present and defend a coherent argument. (It would help if they could read and interpret graphs as well.)

Whether it is the job of ENGLISH teachers to teach this skills is another matter. One of my pet peeves as social studies department chair was that history teachers were all too eager to palm off essay writing (and grading!) on our hapless colleagues in the English department. ‘Tain’t fair. And ’tain’t best for students, either.

I finished by saying that I’m not persuaded that standards make much difference anyway.

My interlocutors, who support strong state standards, responded, again persuasively, that at least standards give parents some ammunition when schools fall short. Why isn’t Johnny learning fractions, when the state standards say they should be part of the curriculum this year? I conceded this argument, but remained skeptical that standards really drive improvement.

The same folks, to their credit, sent me a link to an article in today’s Washington Post, written by longtime (and usually very sensible) education reporter and blogger Jay Mathews.


Explaining  “Why Common Core Standards Will Fail,” Mathews notes that:

Common Core standards are the educational fashion of the moment, but your child’s teacher can name many similar plans that went awry. I was impressed at first with the brain power and good intentions behind the Common Core standards, launched by nongovernmental groups with the support of the Obama administration and governors of both parties. I thought the change would elevate instruction and end the distressing difference between what defined student proficiency in Massachusetts (pretty high) compared with Mississippi (quite low.)


But I have been talking to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, a national expert on this topic, and read his latest research paper: “Predicting the Effect of Common Core Standards on Student Achievement.” He reviewed the research. He assessed the chances of the Common Core standards making a difference. It turns out this is another big disappointment we should have figured out long ago.

The same research casts doubt on strong state standards as well:

The idea that common standards might create efficiencies and motivations that raise achievement is disproved by what has happened in the many states that created their own standards. Those states still have some schools scoring very well and others scoring miserably. That variation has not declined, defying happy talk from Common Core advocates.

Mathews ends his article by noting:

I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters.

So here’s a thought. Why not develop rigorous assessments of the skills the common core standards hope to foster. In the case of history, this would probably mean a test not unlike the AP exam, combining content knowledge, data and document interpretation, and argumentative essays. Then require teachers to pass these exams. It would be a start.

You can follow the links to the studies themselves, but here’s the link to the Jay Mathews article:


One comment

  1. ThoughtfulTeen

    Not particularly on-topic, but I was wondering if you would be able to cover some issues that were brought up in my orchestra class the other day. I know you’ve sort of discussed this before, but not specifically about arts programs and other little “side” programs, which does have a different situation than the core classes. We were discussing how our school, which has a relatively small orchestra program (maybe 100 students in all the music classes), may be forced to combine the lower and upper orchestras into one class because of the class-size to teacher ratio that the budget may have to demand. I know there are other music programs that have similar problems, (it’s a rare music program that doesn’t have to beg money out of the administration) and I’d like to see you look at that.
    Thanks for listening!

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.