on November 17, 2000
"The Case Against Higher Standards"
We are entering our last week of this discussion. A few of you have written
asking to extend it one additional week because people were busy with the
annual report. If there is interest we will keep the discussion open an
extra week. So reply to this message and let me know.
Thanks go to Paula Gustafson for her most recent viewpoint from Texas
suggesting that while teachers may be teaching math to Texas test, the
narrow focus on test-like items may result in gaps in mathematical thinking.
We have heard several interesting perspectives on high stakes testing, from
California, North Carolina, Arizona, and Texas. A common thread is that that
which is tested is taught. It seems that sometimes this can be leveraged to
one's advantage and often times not.
While I invite people to continue addressing the effects of high stakes
exams, I thought I would introduce a short article from Alfie Kohn "The
Case Against Tougher Standards" for us to respond to. All of the LSCs are
caught in a political storm of tougher standards, and higher accountability,
and perhaps the idea that higher standards are achievable THROUGH tougher
I understand that some of you may find the article provocative, or the case
one-sided but I am hoping that it will serve as a jumping off place for us
to express our opinions. I look forward to hearing from you!!! If you have
not gotten a chance to post yet please do so.
The URL for this article is
For your convenience, I copy it below --Joni
The Case Against "Tougher Standards" by Alfie Kohn
People who talk about educational "standards" use the term in
different ways. Sometimes they're referring to guidelines for teaching, the
implication being that we should change the nature of instruction -- a
horizontal shift, if you will. (In the case of the standards drafted by the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM] in 1989, for example, the
idea was to shift away from isolated facts and memorized procedures and
toward conceptual understanding and problem solving.)
By contrast, when you hear someone say that we need to "raise
standards," that represents a vertical shift, a claim that students ought to
know more, do more, perform better. This can get confusing because
discussions about standards sometimes are limited to only one of these
meanings, sometimes flip-flop between them, and sometimes involve an
implicit appeal to one in order to press for the other. Our concern here is
primarily with the second category; we're not proposing that there shouldn't
be any guidelines for what goes on in classrooms or that our current
approaches shouldn't be changed. (One look at the "bunch o' facts" model of
instruction in a traditional classroom and the need for new standards --
horizontal movement -- becomes painfully clear.)
Even the idea of vertical movement seems hard to argue with, at
least in the abstract. Don't we want schools to be of high quality, and
students to be able to do many things well? Of course. But the current
demand for Tougher Standards carries with it a bundle of assumptions about
the proper role of schools, the nature and causes of failure, and the way
students learn. That's why a number of people (mostly educators) have come
to view with growing alarm what is now the dominant model of school
People from parents to Presidents have begun to sound like a
cranky, ill-informed radio talk-show host, with the result that almost
anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how
ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of "raising standards" or
"accountability." One is reminded of how a number of politicians, faced with
the perception of high crime rates, resort to a get-tough, lock-'em-up,
law-and-order mentality. This response plays well with the public, but is
based on an exaggeration of the problem, a misanalysis of its causes, and a
simplistic prescription that frequently ends up doing more harm than good.
So too with demanding Tougher Standards in education. Back in
1959, John Holt wrote that the main effect "of the drive for so-called
higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think."
Today, it is almost impossible to distinguish Democrats from Republicans on
this set of issues -- only those with some understanding of how children
learn from those who haven't a clue. The disagreement that plays itself out
in boards of education and state legislatures is pretty much limited to a
clash between, on one side, the champions of Tougher Standards (a
constituency that includes virtually all corporate groups, the President and
the Governors, the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, and
most reporters who write about education); and, on the other side, those on
the extreme right wing whose suspicion of anything involving the federal
government leads them to oppose national standards or testing. (They, too,
tend to endorse the idea of Tougher Standards, but insist on local control.)
That's pretty much the extent of the public debate on the subject. Left out
almost entirely is the point of view of the students themselves, and the
impact on their learning.
The result is that, from California to New York, from Michigan
to Texas, from Virginia to Colorado, the kind of teaching that helps
students understand ideas from the inside out -- and that sustains their
interest in understanding -- is under siege. One story can stand in for
Not long ago, a widely respected middle-school teacher in
Wisconsin, famous for helping students design their own innovative learning
projects, stood up at a community meeting and announced that he "used to be"
a good teacher. The auditorium fell silent at his use of the past tense.
These days, he explained, he just handed out textbooks and quizzed his
students on what they had memorized. The reason was very simple. He and his
colleagues were increasingly being held accountable for raising test scores.
The kind of wide-ranging and enthusiastic exploration of ideas that once
characterized his classroom could no longer survive when the emphasis was on
preparing students to take a standardized examination.
The purveyors of Tougher Standards had won, and therefore the
students had lost.
Five Fatal Flaws
The Tougher Standards movement is fatally flawed in five
1. It gets motivation wrong. Most talk of standards assumes that
students ought to be thinking constantly about improving their performance.
This single -minded concern with results turns out to be remarkably
simplistic. The assumption that achievement is all that counts overlooks a
substantial body of psychological research suggesting that a focus on how
well one is doing is very different from a focus on WHAT one is doing.
Moreover, a preoccupation with performance often undermines interest in
learning, quality of learning, and a desire to be challenged.
2. It gets pedagogy wrong. The Tougher Standards contingent is
big on back-to-basics, and, more generally, the sort of instruction that
treats kids as though they were inert objects, that prepares a concoction
called "basic skills" or "core knowledge" and then tries to pour it down
their throats. This is a model that might be described as outdated were it
not for the fact that, frankly, there never was a time when it worked all
that well. (Modern cognitive science just explains more systematically why
it has always come up short.)
3. It gets evaluation wrong. In practice, "excellence," "higher
standards," and "raising the bar" all refer to scores on standardized tests,
many of them -choice, norm-referenced, and otherwise flawed. Indeed, much
of the discussion about education today is arrested at the level of "Test
scores are low; make them go up." All the limits of, and problems with,
such testing amount to a serious indictment of the version of school reform
that relies on these tests.
4. It gets school reform wrong. Proponents of Tougher Standards
have a proclivity for trying to coerce improvement by specifying exactly
what must be taught and learned - that is, by mandating a particular kind of
education. There is good reason to doubt that the way one changes schooling
is simply by demanding that teachers and students do things differently.
"Accountability" usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over
what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms - and it has
approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing.
5. It gets improvement wrong. Weaving its way through all these
ideas is an implicit assumption about "rigor" and "challenge" - namely, that
harder is always better. The reductive (and really rather silly) idea that
tests, texts, and teachers can all be judged on the single criterion of
difficulty level lurks behind complaints about "dumbing down" education and
strident calls to "raise the bar." Its first cousin is the idea that if
something isn't working very well -- say, requiring students to do homework
of dubious value -- then insisting on more of the same will surely solve the
problem. As Harvey Daniels puts it, the dominant philosophy of fixing
schools today consists of saying, in effect, that "what we're doing is OK,
we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we'll
have a better country."
Each of these five problems is discussed at greater length in a
new book entitled The Schools Our Children Deserve. Any one of them would be
enough to raise serious questions about the call for Tougher Standards.
Together, they suggest a threat to education of such dimensions that the
only reasonable question for conscientious educators and parents is how we
can most effectively change directions.