kitchen table math, the sequel: What are standards for? What do they have to do with curriculum?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What are standards for? What do they have to do with curriculum?

Q: Why do schools need standards? What are standards for? What do they have to do with curriculum?

A: A set of standards is a *minimum set of requirements* that a product must meet. Let's imagine a house; the building codes are standards. An individual standard says something like "a wall must withstand straight line winds of up to 75 mph" or "studs must be places at least every 24 inches." Standards tell *what* you need to do, but don't tell you how to do it. They are used so that in the event of a serious risk, the whole structure stays standing. The building code for homes applies whether building a tiny townhouse or a 5 bedroom multi-story rambler. They are meant to force people not to cut too many corners. Standards here in math education are similar: they tell you what must be taught to a student, when, year over year. They are still *minimum set of requirements*, the ones that need to apply to every classroom, every school, every student.

A set of building codes aren't plans for a building. They are not a complete design.

A design tells you what *this building* going to look like. It answers the question of what purpose this house serves. It shows you how the floors and rooms fit together, how space is utilized. Architectural plans are a design for a home. They explain what the floor plan is, what the foundation is shaped like, where the plumbing goes, where the electricity goes, how the building will maintain even temperatures, etc. It's a map for everything that needs to be built.  A solid design takes into account the what the end result should be like and plans the structure accordingly. A good design is also relatively easy to build, because it anticipates what elements of the design depend on the other elements.

In math education, this design is the curriculum. The curriculum is the plan for each year of math education, starting with a foundation, then the walls, the plumbing, the electrical, the floors, the roof, the interior. Like a good design for a building, a good curriculum is easy to implement, anticipating not just the end product, but how to ease the building of the elements as they are put in place.

A design is necessary for a home, but we don't live in an architectural drawing. The home must still be built So there are builders. Clearly the builders need to know the standards, and build according to them, so the structure is safe. But they build according to the standards while the build up the plan, starting with the foundation, and then moving on through the structure. They complete the plan.

Teachers are the builders. They are building the house of mathematics that students will live in. Some teachers are like builders who just doing the efficient thing, putting the pieces up in order. Others are like exquisite craftsmen. The most experienced teachers are like the most experienced builders who are able to look at the plans and figure out what won't quite work in this context, and where changes should be made. They know how long the job will take, and where the hard parts are before they start. They make very few mistakes, and correct them before they cause more problems. A great math teacher is building above and beyond the minimum standards where and when she can; she is on the lookout for the pitfalls in the curriculum, ready to point them out and rework them; she is improving her own skills, employing new innovations, and producing beautiful results.

Bad standards mean the structure is unsafe. Unfortunately, this isn't always visible to the eye. The owner may not find this out until a minor tremor comes and the whole house collapses. Likewise, a bad plan means the house is not a comfortable or useful place to live, or worse, could be dangerous. If the house was designed incorrectly, then the second story may not be able to hold up the third story, and it could collapse. A truly terrible design usually can't be rebuilt, but needs to be torn down. And a bad builder means things go wrong and break in your home, and again, if bad enough, the errors could mean that the house collapses. 

Likewise, in math education, bad standards means the whole structure of math that a student is building up is faulty, and sooner or later, it is going to collapse. But good standards aren't the same as a good design. Students themselves don't need to learn the standards, any more than a homeowner needs to know the building code. Schools need to have a design, a curriculum, for their teachers, the builders to work from. A bad design won't support another story being built on top, year after year after year. And a bad builder on a floor means nothing can be built on top of it until a great builder comes in and rips out the bad work and rebuilds.

Every part of the process matters. Good standards, good curriculum, good teachers.

Cross-posted at


Robert Gilvey said...

Standards are appropriate for English also. Many well known folks in the Anti-Test movement are, in their hearts, against standards.

People have been predicting the end of standardized tests for ages. But most people would agree that high school graduates should show proficiency in reading, math, writing, and argument analysis. Don't you? Here's just one of my thoughts about the Anti-Test people and why they're misguided:
Both sides in this debate have legitimate views, but the anti-test folks are becoming increasingly rabid, especially against The SAT. I think that some of these folks have never given The SAT a real study as to what the test actually tests. For example, is it possible that the skills necessary to perform well on SAT reading are more important than those that many teachers are teaching in our schools? That learning how to do SAT reading is an important skill, one necessary for success in college and afterward? I have always thought that many students find SAT Critical Reading so difficult because SAT reading requires a kind of reading that students simply don't do in school. SAT Critical Reading is not reading in the sense that students have come to understand in school. We all know that many teachers are adamant about not “Teaching to the Test”. However, SAT designers test for the lack of important skills in reading comprehension, and they do this quite well. (Don't the colleges want to know whether their incoming students have these skills?) There is no easy fix for this lack of reading skill. Most students neither read nor study reading in school in the manner required for SAT reading. Most students talk and write about how they “feel” about a passage. Unfortunately, the SAT doesn't give a darn about what a student feels about a passage. The SAT cares only for the “argument” in the passage.

Understanding the argument is a universally important skill.

There's a lively conversation on this topic over on Linkedin:


SteveH said...


A minimum building code withstands extreme weather conditions, whereas a PARCC "strong" standard in math means having a 75 percent chance of passing a college algebra course - and that's after taking four years of who knows what math in high school.

Of course, the CCSS standard is nothing like a building code. The CCSS standard is vague and fuzzy and open to a wide range of expectations and pedagogy. Besides, you don't have builders telling us that the building failed because it just has a low IQ or that it just didn't have enough engagement and motivation. Perhaps it didn't live up to the standards because all of the surrounding houses enticed it to smoke dope and drink beer.

However, part of me is still a little optimistic about the CCSS standards. We are past the level where people can argue that standards and testing are not necessary. We are also at the level where standards are common between many more states. The question is whether these standards (defined by the actual tests) will ever amount to anything more than "minimum" and fuzzy.

I now see the big battleground between tests like PARCC and whatever tests that ACT and the College Board can offer. Will states care about things more than the minimum? The ACT and College Board seem to offer more, but that's not the case for PARCC, where the top "distinguished" level in math means not much more than no remediation at most colleges.

It's a question of whether states will take any responsibility for high expectations, not just minimum, no STEM, expectations. The promise is that maybe a few states will show what can be done. Maybe the can drive higher expectations into the lower grades.

study medicine abroad said...

Hi writer, we need standards in education that give quality students. But the general public would agree that prime faculty graduates ought to show proficiency in reading, math, writing, and argument analysis. do not you? Here's only one of my thoughts regarding the Anti-Test folks and why they are misguided:

concerned said...

We have had "minimum" standards since I began teaching 22 yrs ago. Our local curriculum teams have worked within that system to ensure that we meet those minimum standards, but also prepare students for ACT/SAT etc. Common Core makes up 85% of standards, and my opinion is that college prep math to be added would exceed 15%. I'm not against all testing, an "anti-test" person, but increasing test time while decreasing instructional time is a reality that does not serve students... There has to be a better way.

And the changes to FERPA along with increased data collection via these tests has no academic purpose in serving students imho.

See => Common Core: The 'State-led' Myth