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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Reply / Why We Need Academic Standards

Last fall, the American Federation of Teachers developed a set of criteria for thinking about standards for student achievement. It was our way of trying to help bring clarity to conversations and activities taking place across the country.
In “Not All Standards Are Created Equal” (March 1995), we elaborated on our criteria. We emphasized that standards need to be based in the core academic disciplines and that they need to be clear and specific enough to lead to a core curriculum for all students. We also emphasized the value in looking seriously into what other countries expect of their kids. We talked about the importance of “performance standards” to indicate how good is good enough, and we warned against standards that focus too heavily on either skills or content knowledge at the expense of the other.
The response to our criteria has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers, administrators, policymakers, business leaders, and parents across the country have told us that they need more information like this to make sense of what's going on in their state, district, or school. And many of the people at the center of efforts to develop standards have reacted favorably as well. Some states and communities are now looking to adopt these or similar criteria before actually developing their standards.
Does this mean that everyone agrees with everything we say? Of course not. Some people just flat out reject the idea of standards-based reform. In other cases, our criteria have touched off productive debates on the purposes of standards, which is exactly what we had hoped to encourage. The more people think about and discuss the functions standards are meant to serve, the easier it becomes to determine what good standards should look like.

The Purpose of Standards

Why is the AFT so supportive of the standards movement? We want all kids to have access to a rich and challenging curriculum, and we want to support and motivate them all to achieve at high levels.
This isn't what's going on in schools today. Some children get exposed to rigorous courses; others don't. Some students only get good grades if they master challenging material; others get good grades and promotions no matter what they do. That's unfair, particularly to those kids who coast through the system only to find out later how little they learned and how much it hurt them. We think common, rigorous standards can help us turn that around. But only if those standards are clear and specific enough to lead to a common core curriculum for all students.
We also think clear standards would help alleviate the frustrations associated with student mobility. Every year, one-fifth of students change schools. In low-income neighborhoods, the rates are much higher. According to one study, 25 percent of inner-city 3rd graders have attended three or more schools since 1st grade. With no common standards in place, mobile students usually arrive in their new classrooms way behind or ahead of the other students, which places a considerable strain on the teacher, the student, and the entire class. With clear, common standards in place, teachers ought to know what their incoming students have learned, regardless of where they are coming from.
We hear the term “systemic reform” a lot. To us, this means using a strong set of standards to align everything we do in our schools. With a system of strong standards, we should no longer have assessments that aren't tied to the curriculum. And professional development and teacher education should be guided by what we want students to learn. Right now, these elements are disconnected.
To all those who counsel that standards is just another fad, we say it is the one thing that may help us avoid fads in the future. Clear, measurable standards will finally give us a way to tell whether or not the various programs people are touting actually work. Without standards, or with weak standards, we have no reliable way to measure success.
With this in mind, some of the particular criticisms of our criteria that have appeared in this journal deserve attention. Here I am referring to articles by Kenneth Howe (“Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution”) and by Arthur Costa and Rosemarie Liebmann (“Process Is as Important as Content”) in the March issue, and the piece by William Spady in this issue.

Facing the Problem

We don't imagine that too many people will be persuaded by Howe's argument that our criteria don't speak to the important issues because student achievement isn't a problem in our schools. Unfortunately, there is more than enough hard data to suggest that it is. And anyone who has followed public opinion polls knows how important this issue is to parents. Just read the recent Public Agenda Foundation report, which ranks student achievement and student discipline as the two greatest problems facing the public schools. Or ask teachers and other school staff if this is a problem where they work. It's not the only problem, to be sure, but the poor academic preparation of our students is real, and it's time we all face it.

Content Matters

While each of the respondents has attacked our criteria from slightly different angles, they all come together on one front: academic content shouldn't be the focus of standards. For one reason or another, these critics would prefer not to talk about what students should learn in English, social studies, math, or science. In fact, Costa and Liebmann go as far as to say that the traditional academic disciplines have outlived their usefulness and should be discarded. Their reasoning, however, isn't always easy to follow: “When students learn individual parts of content [separate disciplines], they inevitably lose sight of the beauty, interconnectedness, and spirituality in the world.”
If the point these researchers are making is that learning content in a vacuum is not good education, we couldn't agree more. And done well, interdisciplinary teaching can be effective. But we flatly reject the view that the disciplines are not important. Each discipline represents a body of knowledge and a “disciplined” way of thinking that have evolved over centuries. Students who have been exposed to the learnings of these disciplines, and to the ways of knowing that are intrinsic to them, will have a rich foundation of knowledge and flexible, creative minds when they leave school. Whatever they do in subsequent years, whatever their future roles and challenges, their ability to think critically and creatively, and to build on prior knowledge, will be much enhanced by a strong liberal arts education.
There's also a practical issue. We've seen standards that focus on such skills as “critical thinking” and “problem solving” in the absence of any subject matter. It's impossible to figure out what students are supposed to learn or teachers should teach. In fact, the lack of academic content leaves such standards open to infinite interpretations. In our view, these are not standards at all.

Blowing Smoke

Spady's claim that our call for rigorous academic standards is simply an effort to keep things as they are in the schools is preposterous. Right now, we don't have clear, rigorous standards that are common across classrooms, schools, and districts; hence the negative consequences of student mobility described earlier. Typically, students get passed from grade to grade regardless of how much they learn, and they graduate not even realizing how unprepared they are. If teachers try to uphold high academic standards—with tough grading and promotion policies and heavy homework loads, they are pressured by administrators, parents, and students to ease up. Without a clear set of external standards, they are powerless.
So to Spady we say it's the lack of clear, rigorous standards that's the problem, not their existence. We need to get tougher about academic content, not back away from it. In high-achieving countries whose students consistently outperform ours, there are clear expectations based solidly in the academic disciplines. The standards are embodied in the curriculum and measured by exams that “count.” Their students learn more than ours not because they're smarter, but because they are exposed to rigorous content, and they are expected to master it.
What exactly does Spady want kids to learn anyway? We'd like to see what “transdisciplinary” content looks like and how it will enable students to face “challenging contexts” and engage in “authentic” performances. Where is a concrete representation of what this all means?

Thorns in Our Side

In their zeal to devalue academic content, Spady and the other respondents have become thorns in the side of the standards movement. By promoting content-free and, in some cases, nonacademic education under the “standards” label, they are largely to blame for the anxiety many people feel about standards-based reform. Just look at the damage “outcome-based education” has done, and how long it is taking to repair those wounds. States and districts that took the advice of people like Spady and developed “outcomes” dealing with students' “life roles” and attitudes instead of core academic content have been overwhelmed with public opposition. Now, a lot of people are wondering if efforts like Goals 2000 are designed to set standards for what students should be like, rather than what they should know and be able to do in the core subjects.
Given the public outcry in places where OBE has been tried, it's ironic that Spady claims to stand for what the people want. The public has rejected fluffy, nonacademic outcomes in community after community. And though he's skillful at distancing himself from these episodes, Spady should take these events to heart. As “educentric” as it may sound, “well-educated” for most Americans means being proficient in the core academic subjects and being able to apply that knowledge in their careers and everyday lives.

Matthew Gandal has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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