Too many standards, too little time

Steven Weinberg, a recently retired Oakland middle school teacher, critiques California’s content standards.

Having written previously about ways education has improved in the 40 years since I began teaching, I would like to address one change that I do not believe has been beneficial: the attempt to make “content standards” the basis for everything in education.

The standards movement, which began about 20 years ago, is an effort to improve K-12 education by creating a list of content standards for each course and grade level, telling teachers exactly what needs to be taught and measuring what students have learned using tests built around those standards. California started generating these standards about 12 years ago, and now has content standards and tests for English, Math, Science, and History. These standards list between 40 and 70 things that need to be taught in each subject, each year. With 180 days in a school year, it is clear that this allows only two to four days per standard.

These standards are based on a misconception of what education is. They assume that education is like building a brick wall. If you place every brick in just the right place — that is, if you teach each standard –you end up with the finished product you desire. However, education is not just a matter of teaching 70 bits of information or skills each year. It’s about exciting students. It’s about inspiring them. It’s about awakening their individual talents and ways of looking at things that are never exactly like anyone else’s. Excellent teachers know this, and that is why many of us resist the effort to “standardized” what we do.

In English classes, the most important outcomes are that students read well and write clearly, that they enjoy reading, and that they take pride in their ability to capture their own thoughts and feelings on paper. Those goals are not enhanced by having 70 numbered standards ranging from “1.5 Use correct punctuation and capitalization” to “2.6 Write technical documents: a. identify the sequence of activities needed to design a system, operate a tool, or explain the bylaws of an organization. b. include all the factors and variables that need to be considered. c. use formatting techniques (e.g., headings, differing fonts) to aid comprehension” (Eighth Grade California English Standards).

In math, the one subject that most of us were taught based on the building-a-brick-wall method, the leaders in the field are rejecting this approach in favor of one based on developing thinking skills. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Henry S. Kepner, Jr. says “Reasoning and sense-making are at the heart of mathematics from early childhood through adulthood,” and W. Gary Martin, professor of mathematics education at Auburn University adds “We keep teaching that learning to carry out complicated procedures is what math’s about; to me the real question is, can [students] do anything with it?” (Both quotes from Education Week, Oct. 7, 2009.)

In history and science the standards also now favor breadth over depth, and teachers are pushed to cover more topics, even if it means doing so superficially. Excellent teachers do just the reverse.

Look back at your own education. I doubt if the teachers who influenced you most were those that preferred covering many topics over going into depth. The teachers who had the greatest impact on me stressed a few important concepts and stayed with them until students had time to fully internalize them. My tenth grade English teacher, Ms. Gilbert, didn’t jump from one writing type to another as the standards now require (nine types are listed in the tenth grade California standards). She stuck with critical book reviews until we could write clearly about a book’s theme and style and make reasoned evaluations with adequate supporting citations. That didn’t happen on our first or second attempts. Mr. Sheilds, my eighth grade history teacher, didn’t cover every one of the 69 topics now listed in the eighth grade standards, much less the 109 sixth and seventh grade standards eighth grade teachers are now expected to review, but he did take enough time on the topics he taught to allow us to do individual research and explore the controversies of the periods, letting American history come alive for us.

I am not claiming that content standards have made good teaching impossible; that isn’t true. Teachers are adaptable and resourceful, and some can make lemonade out of even the sourest of lemons; but the standards, as they currently exist, have hurt education. They have led some excellent teachers to retire earlier than they might have because they have found the new demands irreconcilable with their deepest held beliefs. These standards have caused many bright new teachers, who might have developed into a new generation of excellent educators, to quit after two or three years because they found the “brick-laying” method of teaching joyless and non-productive. And these standards hurt student learning because, even though many teachers do a valiant job to minimize their negative effects, the standards demand too much coverage and too little meaningful instruction.

As the Obama Administration begins to focus on changes in national educational policy, I hope parents and teachers will join together in calling for an end to the type of standards which stifle creativity and encourage superficiality. We must set higher standards for our standards.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Debora

    I wonder if the standards came out of the need for standards in schools where students were doing project work without firmly grasping the content. I have witnessed a lot of teachers recently doing project learning without a clear assessment of the content standards. So while the students are having a great time taking on the role of George Washington, they cannot begin to relate that to the Constituion.

    I had once argued on this blog for the need of all teachers to meet all content standards. I still believe that, however with so many written standards that overlap many teachers often do not pay attention to the standards. If the standards were more streamlined and teachers held responsible for making sure that all students in their class met the standards. Of course, this must begin with kindergarten – it is hardly possible to hold a sixth grade math teacher responsible for prealgebra when students do not know multiplication and division of single digit numbers.

  • Jonathon

    I believe that standards are an important lever in ensuring that all students receive a quality education. Without standards, I fear that many students in places like Oakland would not be held to even a fraction of the standard that students more affluent areas are held to. At the same time, I agree whole-heartedly with Steve that our current notion of standards needs to be changed – I believe depth is indeed better than breadth.

  • http://yahoo.com teacherspet

    Mr. Weinberg knows what he is talking about. He is an absolutely phenomenal teacher. As my eighth grade U.S. history teacher, he presented me with interesting, nuanced, and challenging assignments, and instilled in me an interest in history that I still pursue to this day.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Wow, Teacherspet, thank you so much for your comment. It made my day. If you would like, drop me a note at Frick Middle School, where I am still helping out, and let me know who you are.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I COMPLETELY agree with Mr. Weinberg.

    I have a feeling that the standards were written with a “kitchen sink” mentality, where a whole mess of college professors put in everything they would ever want students to know.

    They are all online. Go check out the middle school standards and see if you know half of the historical details they want eighth graders to memorize.

    Of course, there are folks who argue that memorization of facts, formulas and rules IS an important skill — if you are going to have to do it to pass the Bar exam, say, or the medical boards, shouldn’t we force kids to learn how to cram?

  • Donna

    Education especially seems to be subject to the pendulum approach. With so many *standards* to master, the most a student (and teacher) can accomplish is to be able to parrot them back and possibly to be able to manipulate them a bit (*contrast and compare*). True understanding? Critical thinking and actual grappling with concepts and their implications? Hah! Not a chance if the teacher has to march on to the the next thing.

    I would not go so far as to say all or most of the standards are not worthwhile. But with a short school day and short school year (compared to many countries) and overcrowded classrooms, they are indeed impossible. Moreover, I question whether mastery of ALL standards at the only level possible — parroting — really produces an educated populace. But perhaps that isn’t the point?

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    Listen to yesterday’s radio documentary “Early Lessons,” an American RadioWorks production: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/preschool/index.html.

    Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman talks about how schools today are too focused on cognitive skill testing, to the detriment of children. He is currently studying how active exploration during the pre-school years helps develop internal motivation. Heckman proposes that children who have not had an opportunity to engage in active exploration when young don’t develop the motivation to try to do well on tests later on.

    More of Oakland’s parents need to be told that it’s perfectly okay for their three-year olds to poke their fingers in the mud.

  • Amy

    This is so true. I know the standards. I pay attention to the standards. I can tell you every single day what standards I am teaching. Do I think my students are being well served by this? No. It has taken me years to come to this conclusion. I still think the idea of standards is a good thing. But we need fewer, better standards. We also need to recognize that deep understanding, the kind that stays with you, is not measured by multiple choice tests that students have no stake in doing well on.

  • localed

    Great essay, Steven Weinberg! I know you’re retired from OUSD, but the district could sure use your help and vision. We want all students to learn, and perhaps it makes more sense to design backward. Think about the products of OUSD, and let’s talk about those which do not meet standards, rather than analyze those who exceed benchmarks (we’ll acknowledge them, and continue to build on what works well). If we backward map, determining what we don’t want, would that offer a new perspective? Has anyone had the experience of hiring and OUSD HS Grad that can’t write a letter to save their life, on has no social skills whatsoever? I believe a grassroots effort to exact standards that make sense, and go deep when it is logical would improve the educational environment, so teachers aren’t bound by guidelines that curtail any real creativity or depth of instruction. The wraparound services that OUSD could offer include a strong Parenting Ed program, family outreach, inclusive and equitable PTAs, et al. As our new Superintendent espouses, “Community Schools” could build a real effort to improve equity and outcomes for all students. We can’t expect the schools to do everything, and we know that 50% of student learning is dependent on what happens at home.

  • Karen

    I have a question for Steven. I was trying to make up some lesson plans for 8th grade US history and wonder if it is better to just teach what is required in the standards or follow the textbook. The book is huge and has a lot of information the standards don’t ask for. If one teaches everything in the book they will get a lot of info but probably forget a lot of it too. An example is this standard:
    8.5 Students analyze U.S. foreign policy in the early Republic.
    1. Understand the political and economic causes and consequences of the War of 1812 and know the major battles, leaders, and events that led to a final peace.
    2. Know the changing boundaries of the United States and describe the relationships the country had with its neighbors (current Mexico and Canada) and Europe, including the influence of the Monroe Doctrine, and how those relationships influenced westward expansion and the Mexican-American War.
    3. Outline the major treaties with American Indian nations during the administrations of the first four presidents and the varying outcomes of those treaties.
    Well, the textbook doesn’t have much about those Indian treaties but does have info on the Barbary Pirates. So which do you teach them?

  • Steven Weinberg

    Hi Karen, My instinctive answer was that of the standards you listed, 8.2 was by far the most important. Before I replied, I looked at the Blueprint for the 8th grade test on the CDE website http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/documents/histgrade8.doc and it says the same thing. That document lists all the standards and gives an A to the most important (Monroe Doctrine, Mexican War, westward expansion), a B to those of medium importantce, and a * to the ones that are least important (the treaties with the Native Americans during the Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison Administrations). The document also says that there will be two questions on the state test on the 8.5 section, which translates into 1 or 2 on 8.5.2, maybe one on 8.5.1, and probably none on 8.5.3.
    There is no way to cover everything in most textbooks. Publishers stuff in everything that they think anyone involved with textbook selection in any state would want. In 40 years I never spent much time, if any, on the Barbary Pirates.
    In general, I would follow the standards, except in cases where you think the information in the textbook is particularly important or meaningful to your students.

  • Karen

    Thank you Steve. I will look at the CDE website for more guidance.

  • Lara

    Hi Steve,
    I really enjoyed your essay. A quick question: How do you feel about the common core standards now proposed? Given that states are due to adopt them by July and the Gov. has not yet appointed a committee, is there any chance we could get on board.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Hi Lara,
    The common core standards are pretty much as I expected them to be. There are still far too many, although fewer than California presently has. They might do some marginal good if they slow California’s wrong-headed pursuit of Algebra for all at 8th grade (which is not a national standard), but I wouldn’t count on it. I’m not even sure the common standards will lead to any revision of the CA standards. I expect a committee of bureaucrats will announce that the CA standards match the common standards well enough (include 80% of the common standards) and the state will proceed with business as usual.
    In the April 21, 2010 issue of “Education Week” Robert Lerman and Arnold Packer, two experts on what is really required for success after high school, have written an article entitled “Will We Ever Learn?: What’s Wrong With the Common-Standard Project.” They point out that Algebra II standards are required even though only 9% of the workforce ever uses anything covered in those standards. Some quotes from their excellent article:
    “All students should master a verifiable set of skills, but not necessarily the same skills.”
    “States are piling on academic courses, removing the arts, and downplaying career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math.”
    “Every study of employer needs made over the past 20 years…has come up with the same answers. Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simmple math to real-world problems.”
    “All the recent work in cognitive science and adult success…stress the importance of having pride and interest in what you do.”
    It’s never too late to stop moving in the wrong direction, but trends in state and national policies will have to be significantly altered before we get a set of standards we can all get on board with.