kitchen table math, the sequel: Robert P & Paul B on national standards

Friday, February 20, 2009

Robert P & Paul B on national standards

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it's possible to eat our cake and have it too. Here's how: national standards (content standards, please) ought to represent a statement of what we expect our kids to learn and know in school. What if we married those standards to national assessments, with reading comprehension tests tied to those content standards. In other words, the selections on the tests would be culled from the content standards, thus making it a test worth teaching to. Finally, tie federal funding to states adopting the standards and tests with NO SANCTIONS WHATSOEVER based on performance. Thus the federal role is limited to spreading sunshine--a pure apples-to-apples comparison among states, districts and schools. If everyone is taking the same test, it'll be pretty clear who is performing well and not, and up to states and districts to improve their performance. If you're serious about "decentralizing down to a few million Darwinian enclaves" as you put it, then the only way to credibly gauge performance and unlock what works is if everyone is shooting for the same target.

Paul H:
Standards don't stand in isolation to the rest of the Gordian knot. The way they're written can drive whether or not your curriculum spirals. They can drive pedagogy, phonics vs. sight words, for example. They can drive calculator usage, or not. Whosoever shall write the standards, shall tie the rest of the knot.

These things drive text book selection, which is driven by the ed schools and professional organizations with skin in the game. Don't forget the publishers and consultant community. Lots and lots of players converge on standards.

I would pose another question, perhaps more thought provoking... Why should the feds give a rats patootie (is patootie a word?)how a school performs? OK, it's rhetorical! They care because they've got their $$$ nose in the tent.

Why is their nose in the tent? It's not a constitutional mandate is it? I think the only people that should care at all are the parents. The objective measure (over time) is; are the graduates successful in their post graduate pursuits? This is far more important than a contrived test.

Until parents own the measurement, and take responsibility for the cost by paying for and having the freedom to not pay if the measurement flops, the camel wins every time.

By advocating for, and accepting federal or state money, schools and parents are making a pact with the devil. They are allowing a convergence of interests (not necessarily aligned with their own) to drive their children's future.

I guess I'm just not convinced that we're collectively smart enough to write a 'standard' that fits millions of kids to a tee.

Point taken. Bad standards are worse than none. But parental interest is a strong reason to support nationalized standards and assessments. As a parent, it's impossible to know whether your child's school is terrific, atrocious or somewhere in the middle unless it's measured by the same yardstick as all the others.

My favorite statement re: parents comes from Joe Williams, who points out that parents have the best odds of making the right educational decisions for their own children.

I agree with Joe, and I believe that you could demonstrate historically that parents as a group have systematically been right where everyone else was wrong.


Anonymous said...

I had a student once who came to me in the 1st percentile on our standardized math testing. This, on a very respected national exam that is administered in our district three times a year.

When I had him, he tested in the 95th percentile on his second test of the year. Great teaching? Not!

This was a great (but very challenged) kid. He could not read so he was read to for the test (by his ELA teacher). We had him retested and read to by another and his score retreated to where it had been historically.

I'm not trying to diss' the ELA teacher here. Kids that are challenged get very good at picking up on all sorts of clues and my strong suspicion is that he got lots of clues from someone who liked him and wanted very much for him to succeed.

My point is that; tests aren't perfect; administering them isn't perfect; standards never align with textboooks; tests don't align with standards; etc.

I don't believe it's possible to isolate one part of a system as complex as education and tweak it to perfection as a cure for the whole.

I have a rocking chair that I made in 8th grade shop. Really, it's more like a Charlie Brown chair. The rockers are in the wrong place so if you sit in it the damn thing throws you to the floor. The seat is hard rock maple and perfectly flat. No amount of cushion can make your behind comfortable on it. The two arms are different.

No amount of sanding will ever make that chair a chair. I only keep it around to keep me humble. It's kind of a visual memory jog for the seventh sin.

Perfect standards (if you can get them) and perfect testing (if you can pull it off) will not fix the chair!

RPondiscio said...

I agree that perfect standards and perfect standards will not "fix the chair." But if you want to build chairs, you need to start somewhere. Lots of people don't want to build chairs, period.

Your statement that it's not possible to isolate one part of the system as tweak it to perfection as a cure for the whole is correct. But who said national standards and tests would do such a thing? It's simply a way to lend clarity and transparency to what schools are doing. It's prescriptive, not curative.

SteveH said...

"I don't believe it's possible to isolate one part of a system as complex as education and tweak it to perfection as a cure for the whole."

I also never liked arguments that try to claim that all you need to do is one thing... e.g. get better teachers, more money, or national standards to fix the big knot. This approach assumes that there is a unified way to meet everyone's needs or that their goal is low (NCLB).

We need to break the Gordian Knot into smaller knots; a divide and conquer approach. This can be done on an individual basis if a school is given the power and independence to do so. The knot can also be broken if parents are given real choices. We won't solve the big knot, but we can give schools and parents the opportunity to get out of the big knot. Knots won't go away, but they will be much smaller. Control, money, and ideology bind the big knot. You have to siphon those things away.

Once schools have their own independence and parents have their own control, various optional national standards could fit quite nicely. Some schools use the SSAT test and some use the ISEE test. Most colleges use the SAT and/or the ACT tests. Some colleges require neither. The students and their parents are the best ones to make those decisions.

Anonymous said...


Agreed! If your goal is transparency then national standards/testing is a good thing.

The trick is to pull that off without the rest of it!

Here's one more story. I'm old so I have lots of 'em.

My grandfather was a master craftsman (cabinet maker). He could do things with hand tools and wood that today's hackers (with power tools) can't come close to. He was also one of the most pig headed men I have ever known.

He would often get a commission for a piece of furniture and then 'see' something in the wood as the piece took form. I remember a tall boy chest that turned into a gun cabinet under his skilled hand and bull headed standards. When the customer came to accept delivery of this beautiful piece of work, the commission was not forthcoming. The gun cabinet is now our family heirloom (and favorite tale).

Sometimes, even the best skills are driven to imperfection because they are misdirected. The tall boy customer could have (and probably did) go to the shop any number of times and not know what was taking place under their watchful eye. Not until the very end of the process would they have seen the 'monster' they were about to pay for.

The solution to his malfeasance was correct. He didn't get paid and who knows how many future customers heard of his standard, thereby avoiding his shop? The customer was burned, true, but in the big picture the system worked.

Over time, freedom to choose and careful examination of the end product (the educated child's future performance) will produce the best results. I know this is no solace for the parents of the children who are grandpa's first experiments. But a close look every few years gives ample time for course corrections if you're free to make them.

Our problem is that you can look all you want and standardize all you want but you will still have an obdurate system, doing what it wants. You will still have no choice but to pay your taxes and keep your mouth shut. You can't keep your commission for another go with a more pliable craftsman.

Catherine Johnson said...

Control, money, and ideology bind the big knot.

you can say that again

really, if you want to see the enormity of our dilemma, look no further than Irvington

here we have a parent population with extremely high SES & very high levels of education; these are parents who are deeply supportive of their children's education in particular and of parent education in general

and yet the ELA curriculum continues to be so bad that the PTSA has actually put forth its own proposal for improvement

in response, the district has printed a story in the newsletter saying parents & district are "on the same page"

meanwhile the high school principal has published a long message from the principal explaining that from now on students in all high school classes will be able to choose assignments according to their "learning preferences"

if a student's learning preference is "visual," the student can make a collage in English class instead of writing a paper

no instruction in graphic design will be provided

meanwhile, parents will have virtually no ability to combat this one-on-one because the high school warns parents against "helicoptering" etc.

this is a tiny little town: 6500 people. School funding $25K per pupil.

and even the PTSA can't get what it wants

Catherine Johnson said...

on the bright side, if I had to bet, I would wager we'll see Singapore Math brought in. (I wouldn't bet the ranch, but I'd bet 'yes,' not 'no.)

whether or not the district will hire constructivist consultants to help them turn Singapore Math into Trailblazers remains to be seen

Anonymous said...

Imagine the possibilities...

At 25K each, if 28 of you could get hold of that money you'd have 700K. Dangle that in front of the best 5 teachers in the land. You could mortgage a million dollar, marble school house for about 60K per year, spend another 5K per child on supplies, and still have a100k per teacher compensation pkg.

You would have nearly a 6:1 student:teacher ratio and you could fire the lot if they didn't do what you wanted.

I don't know why parents don't revolt! Most wouldn't accept this kind of ripoff if they were buying a cheeseburger. Yet, when it comes to government varmints we let them bamboozle us. I suppose we get the governemt we deserve, sighhhh.

LynnG said...

It is not possible to design a structure less efficient than a regulated monopoly.

Whatever you try within the regulated monopoly structure will never produce a result that couldn't be better if competition were allowed to exist.

The bizarre thing is that educating students can not be considered a "natural monopoly" no matter how you look at it.

We could improve schools overnight if we permitted competition. Of course, with competition will also come the possibility of failure. There is a possibility that a child might attend a school even worse than he/she already does in a competitive system.

Plus, all the money and control are in the hands of people that have little or nothing to gain in a world of education competition.

Anonymous said...

Re Failure:

True, there is the possibility of failures in a competitive system. Is this, then, more concerning than the certainty of failure that pervades many systems today?

And isn't it true that failure is the place where learning takes place? We should encourage failures as the one true way to know what not to do next. We should only fear failure when it is disguised as it is today.

If you look around you'll see all sorts of failures being discussed today in terms of how to prevent the very thing that would let us learn not to duplicate it; mortgage crisis, GM, monster banks, Chrysler. All the effort is being placed on the disguise, how to prevent the collapse. Have we had an honest national dialogue on why these things are happening?

I think failure, in an ecosystem equipped with avenues for equally probable successes, is a good thing, provided parents have the ability to learn from and correct at their direction.

Anonymous said...

"Plus, all the money and control are in the hands of people that have little or nothing to gain in a world of education competition."

Isn't this a perfect description of what we have today?

Was this paragraph a concern about the realities of a competitive system or an example of a possible impediment to competition?