The Siren Song of Standards

Race Track
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iStock 000009633780XSmall 150x150 The Siren Song of StandardsSo here we go again. Once more we are presented with yet another savior, the answer to all that ails the educational system in the United States: curriculum standards, or to be more exact the new Common Core Standards.

Well, you ask, haven’t we been down this road before? This stuff sounds so familiar. Don’t individual states already have quite extensive and detailed educational standards that guide student learning and enhance achievement. What has changed?

To be sure, the new curricular standards do somewhat shift the focus of learning. Rick Hess, reviewing a recent study by UPenn Ed School dean Andy Porter, observes that:

The stark differences between state standards and the Common Core are partly due to… the fact that the Common Core emphasizes somewhat different cognitive skills devoting less time to memorization and performing procedures, and more to demonstrating understanding and analyzing written material.

I will leave the debate as to whether the above changes are for the better or misguided to others. I can almost guarantee that in a decade or so, when the value of the Common Core Standards is evaluated, we will find that some of the changes were indeed for the better and some were indeed misguided. I do, however, wish to comment on a different issue that must underscore the debate.

Many school leaders heed the siren call of standards. They see in the structure and design of educational standards the solution to their institution’s general failure to succeed. They reason that once standards are put into place, student achievement will soar. This is a serious mistake. No study has ever convincingly proven a strong correlation between standards and achievement. In fact, many prove no correlation whatsoever. Thinking that the Common Core Standards will be any different is simply foolish.

Standards, whether in the current or previous form, are a means not an end. To illustrate, let us consider the writing of curriculum to the construction of a race track.1 There are those who design the track and paint the lines in which the race will be run, while others prepare the surface of the track to optimize the speed of the runners. The work of the first group will ensure that the race is run correctly, but only the work of the second group can enhance the times of the runners. Curriculum standards simply set the course, they do not prepare the surface, and they most certainly do not train the runners nor run the race.

Using the above illustration, we should not be surprised if early implementation of new standards leads to an initial drop in student achievement. As new courses are set, fresh training is essential. Only those who fully commit the necessary resources towards teacher education and site-specific curricular alignment will realize the success that the new standards might offer. Schools that think that adopting a new standard will in itself lead to positive change will be bitterly disappointed. Listening to the siren song of standards without understanding its message will result in the same disaster experienced by many a sailor of old.


1 I use this illustration as the word curriculum, according to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, actually means a race course or a place for running.

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