What’s wrong with standards-based education? Let me count the ways.


What are standards?

The word “standards” in and of itself is not a dirty word. People have standards every day– for how they will negotiate work, personal relationships, and ethical decisions. However, it seems that when we use the words “standards” associated with education too many people assume that implies something rather broad based and benign as in the description I just offered. Additionally, standards suggest that we are staving chaos off at the gate … that without some sort of standards steering our educational system, schools and educators will operate like some Wild West show with no rules or order, resulting in national unmanageability. So when we hear the word “standards” based education, the phrase alone lulls many people into a false sense of stability and security that our children are being taken care of because these standards are the gate keeper at the door between success in learning and abject chaos.

This is indeed a false and dangerous sense of security. What we need is to ask some serious and complicated questions about standards-based education.

What are “standards”?

Standards are a pre determined list of expectations for skills, or standards for content that will be practiced, met, or achieved by students (and/or educators). They are the framework for curricular and instructional decisions, usually both.  In broad terms, standards are what we want every child to be able know and do.

But who decides what knowledge is of most worth?

Who defines them?

In decades past education standards have been set with all sorts of hidden agenda such as “civilizing immigrants into an American (read: white middle class) set of behaviors and beliefs, or preparation for factory work during the booming industrial revolution. For the last few decades they have been determined by the business community, Business Round Table and corporate executives.

Rarely, if ever, have we had a national effort in which students themselves determined the standards for an education that prepares them to create the world they wish to see, but instead are predicated on expectations of the wealthy and powerful elite to mold students into a world crafted in their own image.

As Bill Ayers suggests, “A curriculum of questioning is much more important than a curriculum of knowing the answer.” Adding further, “Students should feel that their experience in the classroom is one of enlightenment. For enlightenment to occur, however, there needs to be liberation. Students have to be free to explore and grow for themselves, and that requires alternatives.”

What purpose do they serve?

The Common Core standards we have now are not like what Ayers was describing (above) as a  student-centered education. Rather they are a way to harness schools to suit the needs of industry. The language du jour is “college and career readiness.” This is a very telling phrase, since corporations (Bill Gates and Co) and colleges (College Board led by David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core standards) are writing the standards to serve their needs, which is to prepare students for a college degree they can longer afford, or a job that won’t even be there for them given the high rates of joblessness.

This is different than standards that would be set by a different philosophy of education—what is education for? Where are the interests, abilities and desires of students and their communities in the standards? Who sets them? And who is forced to achieve them? And to what end?

If the standards are too high (and scores indicate that students are performing far more poorly on CCSS tests than on previous state tests-see Burris cited by Strauss)… they winnow out a sector of the student population as “below standard” and therefore not ready for career or college. This narrows the funnel of students passing into the workforce which works for an economy with high rates of unemployment-reduce the number who are defined as employable and limits number of students who can attend college

As Anthony Cody points out:

“It may well be that corporate employers need fewer, not more, college graduates. And fewer workers of any sort, as technological advances eliminate jobs. In this context of shrinking opportunity, is it a coincidence that corporate education ‘reform’ results in a shrinking number of students considered ‘ready’ for such opportunities?”

If we use standards as a rhetoric to say we are providing for students, we can be relieved of the responsibility of providing other needed resources or conduct a re examination of social structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality.

With standards it is assumed (wrongly) that students either achieve them or they don’t. And if they don’t, it must be their own fault or that of the teachers-

However, standards are not a concern of wealthy kids and schools—why is this? By claiming one set of standards, we create the illusion of equal opportunity without the community development needed to create affluence which has been documented more than any other factor to determine school success. The truth is that standards are for poor kids. Wealthy kids don’t need them. Accountability measures strangle schooling in poor communities-wealthy schools can take them or leave them because they have the infrastructure of family, income, education and community that enables those students to do well, standards or not.

Further, standardized curriculum and testing now (and historically) reflect the learning styles and knowledges of upper middle class White communities. While kids from lower socio economic neighborhoods and students of color have a wealth of knowledges, experiences, and values worthy of our attention, they are never included in a standards-driven world. Why is that?

A so-called failure of our students to achieve high standards has been called a “threat to national security.” Since success with standards correlate highly with one’s zip code more than innate intelligence, we can see this language as code for “poor people are a threat to national security,” and they must be managed in order to contain the threat.

How are they measured?

By standardized measurements like tests.  Corporations and testing companies create one cut score or set measurement for all children. This practice of measuring success on these terms assumes there is one right answer for any question, that learning is done in one way, or that tests by their “nature” are inherently reliable or valid since they make claim to being “scientifically” created. Both science and statistics have been manufactured to cater toward the bias of humans throughout modern history. We have in the past used “science” to justify any range of absurd and inhuman sexist and racist intuitional practices, and even a statistician will tell you that they can make the numbers say anything they want.  Blind unquestioning faith in anything “scientifically” standardized with numbers attached is a fool’s errand.

Who benefits?

  • Testing companies that can save money on one set of standards for streamlining tests, less costly tests. According to a paper written by the Fordham Institute (2010) called How Will Common Core Initiative Impact the Testing Industry, the demands of NCLB cut testing profit margins for testing companies. The creation of the PARCC and SBAC consortia eliminate the need for every state to “create its own tests and thus cut down on the production costs” that are aligned to the Common Core.
  • Curriculum related companies that sell pre-packaged tool kits for parents students and teachers to help them achieve the standards. As Piette states:

“Only the corporations that financed the development of this new technology and lobbied for its implementation stand to gain. These corporations are also counting on students’ widespread failing of the Common Core tests as an excuse to push districts to purchase even more training technology, fire teachers in low-ranked schools and turn schools over to private management. The CCSS is the latest in the grand corporate scheme to profit from privatized public education.

  • The textbook/publishing companies that deliver the standards via their test books and curricular materials.

Given the push for college and career standards, the problems with both that I outlined earlier, it might seem as if these standards are a way of winnowing the pool of successful candidates. Furthermore, if as evidence and research proves again and again, that socio economic status and cultural capital are the biggest determining factors for success in achieving the standards (as defined by standardized tests and on their own elitist terms) then it is the students from high income communities of privilege that will “rise” to the top, leaving low income students behind. The vicious cycle of blaming teachers and students themselves for the failure to achieve high standards set forward by a mentality of expectations crafted by those with privilege.

According to Woodard:

(W)hen advocates of this system of “profit education” talk about the growing poverty that exists in schools and the need to be able to provide for the well being of the total child, poverty is obfuscated by an insistent claim that it is an excuse, not a cause of poor performance. The facts say otherwise. Overall 20 percent of students in the U.S. live in poverty. Based on the 2009 PISA results, U.S. students in schools with a poverty level of less than 10 percent performed best in the world in math, reading and science. However, as the poverty rate increased, the results showed, student achievement decreased, and students in schools with poverty rates greater that 50 percent ranked in the bottom of all students internationally.

This cycle creates a sick public narrative that distracts us from the responsibilities of colleges and corporations to bear any of the blame for exacerbating inequality or access to opportunity, foisting such outcomes upon the shoulders of those forced to bear the burden of playing a corrupt game rigged against them.

To quote Anthony Cody in a recent article:

“The problem with NCLB was that it was based on a false premise, that somehow tests can be used to pressure schools into delivering equitable outcomes for students. This approach did not work, and as we are seeing with Common Core, will not work, no matter how many ways you tinker with the tests. The idea that our education system holds the key to our economic future is a seductive one for educators. It makes us seem so important, and can be used to argue for investments in our schools. But this idea carries a price, because if we accept that our economic future depends on our schools, real action to address fundamental economic problems can be deferred. We can pretend that somehow we are securing the future of the middle class by sending everyone to preschool – meanwhile the actual middle class is in a shambles, and college students are graduating in debt and insecure. The entire exercise is a monumental distraction, and anyone who engages in this sort of tinkering has bought into a shell game, a manipulation of public attention away from real sources of inequity”.



Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

10 thoughts on “What’s wrong with standards-based education? Let me count the ways.

  1. I grew up below the poverty level, had parents that got divorced when I was 10, no child support, and a mom who went to work as a secretary because she didn’t have a college education. My two older sisters and I worked tooth and nail to put ourselves through college (one sister even attended The University of Michigan) and live on our own even before we graduated. One sister went on to get her teaching certificate, and I went on to complete my Master’s degree. What was our motivation? We wanted something better for our lives and we knew that hard work would eventually pay off. It did. We’re all married, own homes and two of us were able to stay home to raise our children. A strong work ethic can carry people a long way from the deplorable conditions from which they begin.

    1. i applaud your hard work and achievements! of course we must bear in mind that willingess is only half the battle…somewhere along the line someone was WILLING to give you those jobs, someone was WILLING to let you buy a house in those neighborhoods. For many people the desire and willingess to work one’s ass off doesnt mean anything if other are not WILLING to hire you (because of how you look) or ALLOW you to buy houses in a neighborhood (because of the color of your skin). decades of studies have proven this time and again. Willingness and determination do matter! But it’s not the entire story that creates our success. Without it we’re dead indeed!! But many have desire and hard working attitude and that are kept from their ability to show and achieve it–or are at least far less likely to be offered the same opportunities to embrace it as you and i did.

      1. YES!! My daughter has a mild LD (but does not get any services) and now goes to a magnet school in a not so great neighborhood. We have money and can afford tutoring services when needed, so she will be fine. I could also pull her out and homeschool her and I know she would get a better education as I am a former teacher. However, we stay…..we stay because I fight for the kids whose parents don’t have the money or the resources to help their kids.

      2. You hypothesize a world in which one’s success is jeopardized because it is dependent upon someone to “ALLOW you to by a house in a neighborhood (because of the color of your skin).” Was this comment written before December 31, 1968, because that was the date by which every provision of of the National Fair Housing Act had gone into effect. § 3604 of the Act explicitly prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based upon race. § 3605 prohibits racial discrimination in real estate-related transactions. § 3606 prohibits denying anyone access to, or services from any brokerage services because of his race. Was that quote a singular anachronism, or is this entire post relevant only to the the Jim Crow-era?

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