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We Need Education Standards, Not Standardized Learning

We don't mind emissions standards for cars, so why do we view education standards with skepticism?

In our Transforming Schools Together series, teachers affiliated with the Center for Teaching Quality invite us to re-imagine the very concept of school, and suggest small actions we can take to improve existing schools.

Standards are a constant in our lives. There are emission standards for our cars, nutrition standards for our food, and breed standards (adopt a mutt!) for our dogs. For the most part, we accept these guidelines to ensure safety and quality.

Yet, when it comes to education, we view standards with skepticism. We question whether they encourage teaching to the test. We worry about the crowding out of the arts. And we theorize about who is behind the standards and what their hidden agenda may (or may not) be.

We are right to be thoughtful about all these things. But we can't look past the benefits that academic standards can have, when done right:

  • They create a vision. They establish a destination for learning; teachers and kids chart the course for how to get there.
  • They promote equity. The elements of a high-quality education are good enough for all, not just a fortunate few. Standards establish expectations that encourage schools, districts, and states to provide a high-quality education to every student.
  • They reinforce a common language. Like most professions, education is full of acronyms. Standards help teachers can speak the same language.
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You may have heard about the Common Core State Standards (AKA the "Common Core"). They're intended to provide "a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

The standards aren't federal—states can choose whether to adopt them. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have. And districts, schools, and teachers retain control of the curriculum and how to teach kids to master the standards.

They're also focused on the kinds of 21st century skills and knowledge that kids need to master in order to be successful. Remember those quizzes on state capitals and counties? With the Common Core, gone are the days of regurgitation. With information at our fingertips, it is no longer enough to simply know and understand. It's time to shift our energy from memorizing to evaluating. We have to apply, synthesize, and create.

So what does this mean for the classroom? You can teach the same standard in many ways. For example, sixth grade students should be able to "compare and contrast one author's presentation of events with that of another."

As a teacher, I could…

  • Collaborate with a science colleague to compare and contrast Apollo 11 astronauts’ accounts of the first moon landing;
  • Examine autobiographies and biographies of contemporary young adult authors, such as Lois Lowry, Walter Dean Myers, and Jerry Spinelli, to analyze differences in perspective; or
  • Pull excerpts from two different accounts of the fall of Rome.
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No matter the approach… students should be able to articulate how the accounts vary and speculate as to why.

How can you help teachers and kids with this transition? Since standards cannot transform learning by themselves, teachers have a lot to do. Administrators and policymakers need to look to us for guidance about what it will take to help our kids meet these standards, and how their progress should be measured—multiple-choice tests just won't cut it.

So, is the Common Core "bad" for kids? It depends on what we do with it. But chances are, you're not in the education field. So what can you do?

Volunteer your time and expertise: Buddy up with a colleague, call a school, and offer to have a conversation with students about how what they’re learning will help them in "the real world." A teacher will thank you for it!

Speak out: When you hear someone questioning the value of standards, encourage a conversation. Share this piece. Draw in the voices of teachers and listen to their experiences.

Click here to add volunteering at your local school to your GOOD "to-do" list.

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