About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Reflections on Standards, Teaching, and Learning

This is a speech I gave on March 22, 2014 at the UCLA Conference "Critical Teaching and the Common Core." It is adapted and abridged from a chapter in the new edition of Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.

Standards are criteria used to judge competence, and we rely on them every day, all the time: in sports or cooking, in raising children or voting, in forming relationships or teaching school. Another basic truth about standards is that we argue about them. This is surely true in education, where standards have a contentious history.

When I was working in programs for underprepared high school and college students back in the 1980s, a national debate emerged over standards, expressed as a conflict between equity—which was defined as increasing access to higher education—and excellence, holding firm on rigor and achievement. The nation then saw the rise of the standards movement, an attempt to articulate precisely what students should know K–12, grade by grade, about history or mathematics or social studies—and to align instruction to these standards. And this movement led to another set of debates about district or state control versus local autonomy and teacher independence. An emphasis on accountability then became part of standards talk, and it all intensified considerably with the advent of high-stakes testing, most notably the federal No Child Left Behind Act. These days, all eyes are on Common Core State Standards, which I’ll address momentarily.

Regardless of what one thinks about the merits of any of these concerns about standards, the discourse and debates around them have narrowed and polarized our understanding of standards, the way we define standards and conceive of them in instruction.

I think we need additional ways to talk about standards if we are to help students develop what educator Mina Shaughnessy calls their “incipient excellence.”

Let’s start from the specifics of the classroom. Although I hope that what I say applies to other domains, I’m going to ground my discussion on the teaching of remedial writing at the college level and begin with two classroom stories—stories that extend back into high school.

Vince received a PhD from a prestigious psychology department, so he tells his story from the enviable position of one who has succeeded in the academy. Coming from a working-class, Mexican immigrant background, Vince learned his first English from a television set, but with his parents’ encouragement, he worked hard at his second language, and by high school, he was taking college-preparatory English classes. These classes were designed to help students do well on achievement tests and the SAT. The classes consisted primarily of workbook grammar exercises, although students also read some literature and wrote a few book reports. After completing high school, Vince figured he was ready for college, so he was stunned when he sat for his university English placement exam: “We were supposed to answer a question on a reading passage, something on the use of grain—and we were supposed to argue for one position or another. ‘What the hell am I supposed to write?’ I thought. They wanted an argumentative paper, though I didn’t know that then.... I knew my grammar, but applying it to that kind of writing was another story.”

Vince’s poor performance landed him in remedial English. As he recalls, “The teacher seemed very distant and cold. I’d get my papers back graded with a C or lower and with red marks about my style all over them.” Vince couldn’t figure out what the teacher wanted: “I kept trying, but I kept getting the same grades. I went through this routine for four or five weeks, becoming more withdrawn. Finally I said, ‘Forget this,’ and stopped going to class.”

Vince took the class again two quarters later and got a teacher who gave feedback in a more useful way and was more encouraging. He started going to the campus tutoring center and asked for help from teaching assistants in other courses in which the instructors had assigned papers. He learned to write good academic prose and in graduate school was frequently complimented for his writing.

Vince’s story illuminates several problems with how standards are used and misused in the teaching of English. Often, they are reduced to so-called objective measures, like multiple-choice tests of grammar and usage, and although the instruction geared toward such measures can be specific and targeted, it is also pretty limited. Vince’s high-school English classes had been labeled “college preparatory,” so he believed they would prepare him to write in college, but they had not even prepared him for his first university writing assignment, the English placement exam. This discontinuity in requirements and the standards used to assess performance—in this case the shift from grammatical analysis to the development of an effective argument—is common.

In his first college class, Vince faced another problem associated with standards: they often are applied to students’ work in ways that shut down rather than foster learning. In Vince’s case, the teacher seemed to value a literary style and rejected as inadequate Vince’s more straightforward prose. Such teachers match student work against an internalized model of excellence and find the work lacking, rather than using their knowledge of genre, rhetorical strategy, and style to assess the ways a paper could be improved, given what the writer seems to be trying to do. This kind of teacher functions more like a gatekeeper than an educator. Standards used this way become a barrier to development.

Here’s a second story, a briefer one, and it comes from a remedial English class at an inner-city community college in Los Angeles. About thirty students are enrolled, most of them from working-class backgrounds and a variety of ethnic origins, ranging from Armenian to Salvadoran. The students have been writing educational autobiographies. And one of the interesting issues they raise involves standards. Some express anger at past teachers who didn’t hold high expectations for them, who didn’t explain the criteria for competence and hold students to them, who didn’t help their students master the conventions of written English that they’re struggling with now. Some of these teachers sound as though they were burned out, but others seemed reluctant to impose their standards for philosophical or political reasons or because they thought a less rigorous pedagogy was better suited to these students. One teacher, for example, is described as “hang loose,” a man who created a pleasant classroom atmosphere but played down the evaluation of students’ work.

This episode highlights the important role that standards and high expectations play in good teaching. It also clarifies why so many educators and parents from poor or nondominant communities—though mindful of the injustices that can occur in the name of standards—are calling for classrooms in which standards are clearly articulated and maintained. Standards that are employed fairly facilitate learning and show students that their teachers believe in their ability to meet academic expectations.

People leery about calls for standards need to remember their benefits and reclaim them for democratic ends, despite the fact that standards and assessments can be used to limit access and stratify students, or can lead to an overly prescriptive and narrow curriculum. At the same time, the champions of standards need to take a closer look at how standards and our means of measuring student mastery of them can limit, rather than advance, the intellectual development they desire.

To develop our fuller discussion about standards, we must hold Vince’s story about the misapplication of standards and the community college students’ tale of low expectations—we need to hold these two stories simultaneously in mind, in productive tension. As we do so, some questions emerge.

1.     The current drive to enact and enforce standards by statistical measures dominates schooling. But what effects do such measures have on instruction? Standardized measures can limit the development of competence by driving curricula toward the narrow demands of test preparation instead of allowing teachers to immerse students in complex problem solving and rich use of language.

2.     How good are we at explaining our standards to students? Too much teaching is like the instruction Vince encountered in his first remedial course: teachers match a response or product against an inadequately explained criterion of excellence. To avoid such stifling imposition of standards and to encourage student expression, some teachers refrain from applying their criteria of effective performance. But this can be problematic as well, for many students report that they feel cheated, and sometimes baffled, by such instruction.

3.     How can we reconceive standards so that they function not just as final measures of competence but also as guides to improving performance? Many discussions of standards stay at the level of test scores or curricular end goals. Instead of these static measures of attainment, our focus should shift to the dynamics of development. Such a shift would have led Vince’s first teacher to make explicit the distinctions he saw between his criteria and Vince’s performance. He also would have tried to understand the possibilities of Vince’s own style and helped his student enhance it with some stylistic options drawn from the teacher’s more elaborate repertoire.

4.     What about the transitions students face as they move from one level of the educational system to another? Are the standards we use coherent—that is, is there some level of agreement between secondary and postsecondary institutions about what constitutes competence in a given discipline? What opportunities exist—for example, through college-school alliances—that would help us articulate areas of agreement and disagreement so that students like Vince don’t find themselves baffled by very different kinds of curricula and sets of expectations?

5.     How reflective are we about the attitudes and assumptions that underlie our standards? How open are we to considering the provisional nature of these standards and modifying them?


With these thoughts on standards as backdrop, let me consider the newest incarnation of standards, Common Core State Standards, and begin by revisiting Vince and those community college students.

Vince’s high school English classes didn’t prepare him for his freshman composition placement exam, which required him to write an argument using a nonfiction text. It is exactly this disconnect between segments of the educational system that Common Core hopes to address. Also, under Common Core, Vince would have had more experience writing from specific texts, both fiction and nonfiction. Whether you like or loathe the kind of writing exam Vince encountered, at least it would not have been unfamiliar to him. Then there were those students we met in the community college classroom, the ones who regretted not having a more rigorous high school English curriculum, the kind Common Core could yield—perhaps leading to fewer of them being held for remedial English.

So hypothetically both Vince and the community college students would have benefitted from Common Core. Well and good.

Yet, there is a broader question underlying Common Core: what kind of education benefits a democracy brimming with a diversity of backgrounds, interests, motivations, abilities? Common Core Standards reflect a traditional liberal studies approach to the school curriculum: a close attention to written texts, an emphasis on the reasoning behind a claim or an answer in mathematics, an attention to precision in writing and speaking, and so on. The advocates of Common Core see it as an egalitarian curriculum, a kind of college prep curriculum for all. I am sympathetic to this position, having worked with so many students who lack these skills. But this position is not without its pitfalls. Students who will experience Common Core from the primary grades on will arguably benefit the most from it. But a number of those who move into Common Core in middle and high school will need additional support to meet the standards’ level of expectation. And those who teach these students might well need high-quality professional development not only to get into the Common Core groove but also to adapt and adjust the curriculum and the way it’s taught for the students struggling with it.

To complicate matters, there is another, very different, way to respond to this issue of diversity of motivations and interests, and it is the other side in an American debate that is more than a century old. While it may seem democratic to give a similar curriculum to everyone, it is democratic as well to respond to the varied needs and interests of the students who fill our classrooms, some of whom simply are not the least bit taken by the traditional liberal arts, no matter how well taught. So an academic curriculum meant to increase retention and achievement in school could have the opposite effect. As Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, quipped about efforts like Common Core, maybe what we need is not only “Math for Harvard” but also “Math for Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning.” Carnevale’s perspective can lead to curricular tracking—a real danger—but it can also lead us to think more carefully about the mathematical (or literate or scientific) possibilities in occupations.

Debates about the content of curriculum standards are to be expected, and, in fact, can be generative, leading to a richer course of study and to creative teaching. But the other piece of the current standards enterprise, the machine at the core of implementation, is assessment, and many who differ in their opinion of Common Core agree that the thing that will make or break Common Core is the quality of assessment.

There are good reasons to worry, given recent history. Many of the early supporters of Common Core saw it as an antidote to the reductive tendencies of NCLB, but some are now worried that those tendencies are being repeated. How soon will policy makers expect positive outcomes? We are a country that wants quick results, and in the contentious, high-pressure world of school reform, that expectation will not be easy to temper. Furthermore, will the demands of policy makers for precise metrics force a reductive assessment of bits and pieces of the curriculum rather than the “core knowledge and skills” advocated by the architects of Common Core? Sadly, this is already happening.

There is a lot of faith being put into the development of assessments for Common Core, but the fact is that we don’t have the testing technology that can validly measure many of the kinds of rich, complex thinking that is at the heart of Common Core. It is very much an open question as to whether or not we can develop such tests—at least in the ways that would mesh with high-stakes, broad-scale accountability. One illustration of my concern is the brief writing sample that is part of the current assessment plan. The sample will be scored by a computer, based on certain semantic and syntactic features in the writing. It’s doubtful that this approach gets to “deep learning” rather than simply providing a count of the features a computer can detect.

Then there is the issue of funding. The initial money for Common Core came from philanthropies and in various ways through Race to the Top. It will not last, so where will the resources come from to maintain Common Core? Policy makers hope that the market will take over as publishing and testing companies assume the expense and risk of full-scale implementation. But markets easily put profits over educational interests, and that basic truth has generated some of the deepest suspicions about Common Core. There is big money to be made if you have most states adopting one accountability system rather than state-by-state systems. We live in a capitalist economy, so the publishing and testing industries are simply a part of mass education, and have been for some time. But critics point to the scale of the Common Core enterprise; the monopoly that a few megacorporations will have on curricular materials and assessment; the fact that some of the philanthropies that contributed to Common Core are connected to high-tech companies that could also profit; and the recent appointment of the chief architect of Common Core, David Coleman, to the head of the College Board with plans of revising the SAT to reflect the standards he created. If Occupy Wall Street activists set out to write a screenplay about all this, they couldn’t be handed better material.

So the big question as we move forward with Common Core is whether the political demands and the technical limitations of assessment, combined with the profit motive, will end up driving the curriculum, thereby repeating the troubling pattern we saw develop under other high-stakes accountability programs, particularly NCLB.

Curriculum standards provide guidance on what students need to know and be able to do, but also, at their best, offer a vision of education. The liberal studies orientation of Common Core is certainly not new, but because of the considerable consensus that developed around it, Common Core promised a significant change in an NCLB-dominated landscape. It is the vision of Common Core that excited those teachers who have been working to bring it to a full range of students, not only those who are the most poised to receive it.

John Dewey makes this observation about subject matter: “[T]he various studies represent working resources, available capital...[yet] the teacher should be occupied not with subject matter in itself but in its interaction with the pupils’ present needs and capabilities.” Dewey reminds us of the intimate and powerful relationship between a subject (literature, or biology, or geography) and human development—with teaching as the mediating force. Standards and expectations are a crucial part of the dynamic, though that dynamic can become distorted if we hold to a rigid conceptualization of standards or get consumed in the technical development and assessment of them. It is finally our philosophy of education, our fundamental justification for schooling, that gives standards—any definition of standards—their meaning.

The fatal flaw in the development of our thinking about standards is the belief that they need to be both put into practice and measured through high-stakes standardized tests, that the tests will ensure proper implementation—“incentivize” it. But these kinds of tests run the risk of undermining the very spirit of Common Core: a clash of a technocratic and a humanistic conception of learning.

The ultimate test of Common Core—and an object lesson for standards-based accountability in general—will be which conception of learning carries the day.

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