January 29, 2007

Standards, Standards, Everywhere

Brett of Dehavilland Blog has a good post up on academic standards and why moving them from the state to the federal level isn't going to get us where we want. Brett points out that the problem isn't where the standards are enacted, but rather the contents of the standards themselves.

I'd call this the E.D. Hirsh fallacy. Just because the student should know x by grade y, doesn't mean that it's possible to teach him all of x or that he necessarily needs to know all of x in the first place.


Anonymous said...

As I see it there are three big problems with standards as they are currently implemented. First, standards are an "average" level instead of a bare minimum. Surely we can agree that a child who does not know, to use Zig's example, how to read by the end of 4th grade have no business being promoted to 5th grade (where they will fail at a higher level). Not every kid is ever going to do average work. But every kid who is not severely developmentally disabled can learn to read given the proper instruction.

The second and more serious problem with standards as implemented is that they are -- no offense intended -- written by a bunch of experts instead of by the community. If you were to ask a middle manager at Microsoft what a high school graduate should know, it would be a different and more practical list than if you asked a school district superintendent.

And finally, we have the problem of how we measure whether or not a standard has been achieved. What kind of test do we give? How should it be constructed? What should be on it? What should we do with the results?

Anonymous said...

Ken, would you please clarify what you mean by the "E.D. Hirsch fallacy"? I'm familiar with Hirsch's call for background knowledge/cultural literacy, but less so with the details of his Core Knowledge curriculum.

Anonymous said...

"First, standards are an "average" level instead of a bare minimum."

I disagree very strongly. I consider the tests to be a bare minimum, especially when you look at the cutoff points.

"...written by a bunch of experts instead of by the community."

This isn't true. In our state, the education community works with two other states to define the tests. The questions are written and the grading calibrated by teachers.

"And finally, we have the problem of how we measure whether or not a standard has been achieved. What kind of test do we give? How should it be constructed? What should be on it? What should we do with the results?"

If you don't have a clue, then many others do. If you are talking about some sort of perfect or "authentic" evaluation, then you are defining a strawman that can't be met. However, the tests cover very basic knowledge and skills. I can't imagine what other knowledge or skills a student might have that would make flunking the most simple of tests understandable.

If there are fundamental differences of opinion over what constitutes a proper K-8 education, then the money should follow the child based on the choice of the parents. The affluent get this choice now. The poor get low expectations.

Anonymous said...

"I'd call this the E.D. Hirsh fallacy. Just because the student should know x by grade y, doesn't mean that it's possible to teach him all of x or that he necessarily needs to know all of x in the first place."

I want to quibble by saying that these are two (maybe three) different issues.

1. Is it possible to teach a student the Core Knowledge material for those grades.

2. Does the student need to know the material in the Core Knowledge Series.

For number one, I believe that you are saying that there is no research that shows they can do this for ? percent of kids? That's the key, isn't it? What percent of kids can master that knowledge and skills by those grades. Unfortunately, when you start to define minimum standards that are more inclusive, those minimums become maximum targets for schools. That's why our schools are so happy to be labeled "High Performing" even though it's only about getting a very high percent of students over a very, very low cutoff. Perhaps Core Knowledge is geared for better(?) students, but that doesn't make it wrong. Then again, most of the implementation and grading details are left up to the individual schools.

For number 2, there are two issues. The first has to do with differences of opinion over exactly what knowledge and skills are included in the series, and what I consider to be more important, do you even agree with the educational philosophy of the Core Knowledge Series.

I agree with it on a philosophical basis. I find, however, that many in the education profession who complain about the topics covered in the series really mean that they just don't like the focus on mastery of basic knowledge and skills. They would not be happier if the content or level were changed.

I once told our school committee that they should hand out the books ("What your first (second, third) grader needs to know") and tell parents that this is NOT the education your child will receive. It has nothing to do with which specific grade-level content and skills required, but that it requires ANY specific grade-level knowledge and skills.

I don't think you can talk about one set of standards. If you set the standards too low, then the minimum becomes the maximum. Then again, you can't set high standards and expect schools to meet those standards. They would have to be optional.

At KTM, there was a discussion over (optional) national (AP-like) tests for 8th graders. It's not clear if this would catch on, but high-expectation tests that were nationally calibrated and the results published by school on the web might make a lot of difference on the high end. Parents would take notice and schools would have to care.

In some ways, people expect too much from standards. Standards can't force schools to do things right. Standards cannot make all parents agree on what is best for their kids. NCLB is fine as a minimum cutoff level of expectations. Schools have to expect some level of accountability. They can't put all of the educational onus on kids and parents. But NCLB makes a lot of schools (like in our town) complacent. It takes very little effort on their part to meet the NCLB minimums. This means that the school really has no incentive to do more. It doesn't.

Then again, I'm all in favor of full school choice and only minimum standards. There are no guarantees no matter which way you approach the problems of education, but setting minimal standards won't do the job.

Anonymous said...

I guess I want to make another comment. When people talk about standards, they usually refer to tests that are given in certain grades. The question is whether the kids in that grade are there because they met specific knowledge and skills criteria from the previous grade, or whether they are there because that is how old they are.

If you implement full-inclusion, one could argue that standards are meaningless. The cutoff level has to be extremely low and there is no way to tell whether poor results are due to bad teaching, developmentally-appropriate issues, or external causes. Even if you meet the low standards, you will never know how much student potential has been lost.

KDeRosa said...

My main problem with Core Knowledge is that Hirsch himself can't answer the two questions Steve has raised. That's the problem. Hirsch assembled a bunch of "experts" who gave him everything and the kitchen sink, which he then put into Core Knowledge.

Is it teachable? Who knows? I do know that learning facts and vocabulary is highly dependent on verbal IQ and is not amenable to acceleration. Hirsch and his experts haven't even determined whether high performers can learn it all, let alone if low performers can. There will be a large variation between the performance of high and low performers when it comes to learning all the facts in Core Knowledge. So, as Steve correctly points out, Core Knwledge is all but useless for setting standards because the standard for low performes will be much different than the standard for high performers.

Core Knowledge in its present state is designed for an ideal world with infinite instructional time and where opportunity costs don't exist.

Hirsch needs to find himself a good curricula designer who can pare down Core Knowledge into what is actually teachable. Then he can reconvene his expert panels and they can make the hard decisions needs to pare down Core Knowledge into threes separate books for each grade: What your low performer needs to know, what your average performer needs to know, and what your high performer needs to know. Then we'll be in a position to set some standards.

So to answer Steve's question, I do agree with the philosophy behind Core Knowledge, I just think that it is half baked in its present form. Content cannot be developed without reference to instructional realities.

TurbineGuy said...

Steve Sailor made a simular point in his latest Vdare article.

Yes I know its a politically incorrect source.

He pointed out that soon the mimimum graduation requirements for HS in LA will be the same as the mimimum requirements to get into the UC system.

There seems to be a disconnect when we set ridiculously low standards for our K-8 and them set impossibly high (for some students) standards for High School Students.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ken.

Question: because it is difficult to agree on minimum requirements (or standards), should we charge ahead and try to forge agreement, or wave our hands in frustration and abandon the effort?

Related questions:

Are national standards desirable? If no, hold everything. If yes, move to next question.

Are national standards possible? If no, then give it up. If so, then keep working on them.

My take: national standards (or minimum requirements) are both necessary and possible.

KDeRosa said...

Hi Mark, where've you been/

If national standards are merely a codification of what has worked in some successful state, then I'm on board. But, if National standards are merely an attempt to impose standards in a top-down fashion at the federal level, then I don't expect they will be any better that the typical state standards. Federalizing bad standards isn't the answer.