Illinois Loop
Your guide to education in Illinois
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"All questions of the grading of the child and his promotion
should be determined by reference to the same standard."
-- John Dewey

Illinois, 1936

Whose Standards?

    "I looked up 'standard' in the dictionary.
    There were eleven different definitions."
    -- Dave Winer
    You would think that when schools talk about standards, as in adopting "standards-based" math, or observing "high academic standards", it would be clear what they are talking about.

    In general, schools talking about their "rigorous" "high standards" are as believable as Microsoft talking about "easy-to-use" software. These schools need to cite exactly which supposedly "rigorous" standard they are observing.

    A widespread deception is to adopt a so-called "standard" drawn up by such progressivist, constructivist groups as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) or the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). These are no more the agreed-upon "standard" for schools than the platform of one of the national political parties. But when your school talks about "standards-based" programs what they really mean is that they observe the fuzzy theories in vogue with outfits like the NCTM.

    We hasten to add that truly rigorous standards really do exist. Among the better known are the Core Knowledge Sequence, the curriculum of the National Heritage Academies, or the Hillsdale Academy Reference Guide.

The Making of "Weak" Standards

    When you see the beautifully printed schools standards of many states including Illinois, it's hard to fathom how they can be considered "weak." Chock-full of grids, tables and elaborate enumerations of bullet points, tallying dozens of pages, and festooned with colorful headings and encodings, they certainly don't look wimpy.

    Prof. E. D. Hirsch helps to explain what is wrong, in this excerpt (p. 115) from his book, The Knowledge Deficit:

    ... the thick documents that purport to be "state standards" and "district curricula" are so generalized that they provide no real guidance to teachers. ... Typically in the United States, state and district guidelines offer schools no definite information about grade-by-grade content. ...

    Let's look at one state's guidelines for language arts. ... This state's curriculum guide is quite typical. It is a 103-page document organized into a dozen broad categories, all of which apply to all the grades from Kindergarten through grade twelve. The general categories have process rubrics like "Students shall demonstrate knowledge and understanding of media as a mode of communication," "Students shall employ a wide variety of strategies as they write, using the writing process appropriately," and "Students shall apply a wide range of strategies to read and comprehend written materials." Then, in the more "detailed" amplifications of these categories for the early grades, we find directives like, "Distinguish the purpose of various types of media presentations, using informational or entertainment presentations," "Use a variety of planning strategies/organizers," and "Draft information collected during reading and/or research into writing." For later grades, the detailed amplifications are directives like, "Write research reports that include a thesis and use a variety of sources" and "Read a variety of literature, including historical fiction, autobiography, and realistic fiction." The whole document is composed of similarly empty admonitions.

    This illustrated the main shortcoming of these process-oriented, formalistic guidelines -- they offer no real guidance. ... [They] guarantee an incoherent education with huge gaps and boring repetitions. ...

    Gaps and repetitions are the reality of American students' school experience ... These gaps and repetitions occur unwittingly, not through the fecklessness of guideline makers nor the incompetence of teachers, but under the influence of very inadequate process theories. ... For students, the vagueness of the local guidelines produces an educational experience that is sparse, repetitious, incoherent, and fragmented. For teachers, the incoherence produces an intensely unsatisfactory professional experience, which induces a large percentage of them to leave the profession each year.

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