A professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, he is the
national research coordinator and executive director of the U.S. National
Research Center, which oversees the United States' participation in the
Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
We read that 49 out of 50 states have standards, and that Iowa did them [at
the local level]. You're saying that statement doesn't mean a whole lot?
Since we've been working on trying to develop a national vision of where to go
in math and science, one of the things that I've learned is, as you talk to
states, states have this notion that if they have standards, they're there. And
that's not the issue. It's not whether they have them or not; it's what's in
them. And that second question is a much more difficult one to deal with, and
yet we find states somewhat unwilling to really confront that reality. What is
the actual mathematics, what is the science that is in those standards? ...
Those standards can range all over the place, and when we look internationally
and compare those standards, we find that ... they're not anywhere nearly as
rigorous as what you'd find in other countries. ...
"Rigorous" and "demanding" are the adjectives you use. I have heard that
American standards are too broad.
That's part of it. They're not very focused. There's two parts to that,
actually, in my mind. One is we have so many standards at each grade level,
compared to other countries. We're, for example, at eighth-grade telling
teachers to teach 35 topics. Other countries are telling their teachers to
teach 10 to 15. So there's one aspect of it. But secondly, the standards
themselves are often times not very clear or focused, so that a teacher could
say, "Of course, I cover that." And in some sense, they do. But they're over on
this corner of it, versus the real depth of the standard, which is over here.
[Do] you think we should have one test -- a national test?
I believe we should have a national vision, a national set of standards. And if
we ever did that, then of course it would make the absolute most sense to have
a test which would measure those national standards. When you look across the
rest of the world, that's one of their secrets. It's well defined, it's well
articulated. Children, no matter where they live, all have the same
expectations. It's not a matter of which part of the country you live in, or
which side of the tracks you live on. It's there for everybody.
In this country, that's not true. And therefore we have such unevenness across
the country, and across the proverbial tracks, that this creates huge
differences in opportunities for students to learn. Then when we test, we get
different results, and then we say "Aha!" But of course it's not "Aha!" It's
like, what would you expect if you don't have a comparable curriculum for all
kids? Likely, you will get large differences between different groups of
Is your overall sense that this is a good thing we're doing? Are we doing
some damage to ourselves, because we're testing, high-stakes testing, and we
say we have standards, when we don't?
Yes, I think there's a real danger in all of this. Because it just seems to me
so often when we try to reform education, instead of really dealing and
grappling with the real issues, we tend to go with the surface issues. So when
you talk about standards, the issue is whether you have them or not. When you
talk about testing, the issue is whether you have them or not, are you holding
kids and teachers accountable or not. But those are the surface aspects of
The real issues have to do with what it is -- the substance, the discipline.
What are we expecting children to learn at those grade levels? Is it the kind
of things that give them a chance in life to compete internationally? And I'm
not talking about just on a test. I mean for their jobs, for their futures.
This is what's important. And this means we have to have a dialogue about what
mathematics? What science? What literature? What history is important for kids
to know at sixth, seventh, eighth grade? And then test those accordingly. We
don't go there.
Because it's hard work?
That's right. ... But other countries do it. Why can't we do it? Other
countries that have a lot of heterogeneity in their populations, other
countries which grapple with local, regional sorts of issues of control. But
they still do it, because it's important for the future of their students. We
get hung up in the politics. And then we leave our kids out of the equation,
and it's for them that we should be having this kind of serious dialogue.
She is a principal partner at The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to
reform in K-12 education.
So the first step is telling the teachers exactly what it is they're
supposed to teach?
That's what standards provide; they provide clear expectations for everybody.
They provide clear expectations for the kids: this is what you're supposed to
learn. They provide clear expectations for the teachers: this is what you're
supposed to teach. They provide clear expectations for the public: this is what
our schools are doing with your tax dollars. So, yes, the first step is being
public about what the expectations are.
Every state, basically, has said, "OK, we'll embrace standards." Are these
standards good? How are we doing?
Oh, it's a mixed bag. Most states now have standards in reading, or language
arts, and mathematics. And it's a very mixed bag. In some states, you have
rigorous standards, and some states have standards that are embarrassingly low.
... The kids really can perform at much higher levels. I think the standards
movement is really still in its infancy. Those of us who support standards need
to be critical, and need to say, "It's not good enough. We can do better." It's
true about the standards -- we need to be critical of the standards; we need to
be critical of the assessments. We need to make this a rigorous system, so that
all kids have the opportunity to achieve at very high levels. ...
But I think that one of the things we have to do in the standards movement is
not throw the baby out with the bath water. ... I don't think the state should
throw the standards away because [it] didn't get it right on the first try,
they didn't set their standards high enough, or the standards were too
detailed. I think we need to go back, and refine and improve the standards. But
we shouldn't say, "Oh, this didn't work, and it's time to go on to the next
So [the standards] need thinning?
Some standards need thinning; they need prioritizing. But we also need to help
teachers bring the standards into the classroom. I think the real failure in
lots of states is that ... in general, there were very open processes, with
lots of people, mathematicians, parents, all sorts of people deciding what kids
should know and be able to do. And they produced these very thick documents,
and sort of threw them at teachers and said, "Here, do this," and didn't
provide the teachers with the sort of support that they needed to change -- in
very fundamental ways -- the way they taught. And so I think that as the
standards movement matures, the next big important step that needs to happen is
providing teachers with the support they need to get the kids to those
He is the president of Achieve Inc., a
nonprofit organization created by business leaders and the nation's governors
to promote standards-based education reform.
This is supposed to be a movement about ... "standards-based" reform, and in
some places, unfortunately, it's becoming "test-based" reform, or
[We're] trying to help people get back to the centrality of the standards
themselves, that is, asking some pretty tough questions: Do we have the
standards right? Are they clear? Are they measurable? Are they reasonably
economical? Are the standards focused only on what really are the most
essential things that kids need to know? ...
We watched some people in Virginia
working on standards, actually rewriting the history standards, and arguing,
"Well, do we need Frederick Douglass to Robert E. Lee?" And other people
arguing, "Well, we didn't have to study the Armenian genocide," or "We need to
study Mali." ... Is it always so ... incredibly complicated?
Yes, if you involve more than one or two people in doing it. By definition, it
is contentious. And in my view, appropriately so, particularly when you get
into these contested areas like history. As we're finding out, even mathematics
-- which some of us thought would be relatively easy -- [has] turned out to be
not so easy. I view that as healthy, with one big caveat. And that is that
somebody in the standards process, at the state level, needs to impose some
really tight constraints on the amount of time that any particular piece, a
subject area, can occupy in a curriculum.
What I'm driving at is that, all too often, what happens in these debates is
they get resolved by including both your pet ideas and my pet ideas. ... [They]
solve the argument by adding everything. And you then have standards documents
that begin to look rather like our textbooks. They're fat. They're voluminous.
They include everybody's pet ideas, and they encourage teachers to kind of skim
superficially over [material]. The name of the game becomes coverage, not
focusing on a few things and really going at them in some depth. ...
We saw one teacher in Virginia talk about how he was racing to get through
everything. And he likened it to cramming food down someone's mouth: No matter
how good the food is, they're not going to enjoy it.
This is where some of the more thoughtful critics of the standards movement, I
think, have a really important point to make. ... In some ways, the most
important criterion [to consider when creating standards] is being able to
answer the question, Are these concepts really the most essential concepts,
ideas, pieces of knowledge that kids really need? And as I said, in a lot of
standard-setting processes, people have not been disciplined enough to say, "We
really are going to pare down and pare down and pare down and really try to
focus on what's most essential." ...
So you get a laundry list. ...
Who gets hurt if you end up with a laundry list?
... If the standards documents aren't useful for teachers in guiding curricular
choices, in guiding instructional strategies, and useful to system people in
guiding professional development programs for teachers, then the tests become
in effect the de facto standards. And particularly, if you start attaching
consequences to the test, people will say, "Look, I can't get through these
standards documents. They're too voluminous. ... They may be nice statements of
what we want kids to know and be able to do, but ... what do I do tomorrow in
my classroom?" ...
A big missing piece is curriculum. One of the theories here was that the states
would set the standards, would define the goals here, and would set the
mechanism for measurement. But they would then leave it to districts and
schools to figure out, "OK, what do we do day by day, week by week?" ... And in
some districts, which have ... a long tradition of building their own
curriculum, that strategy has worked fine.
But we've got 15,000 school districts in the country; a lot of them small,
relatively isolated, without much of a tradition of curriculum building other
than simply making choices about texts. And to me, one of the most interesting
things that's happening in this movement is the increasing cry from teachers,
including from the teacher organizations, for more help on the curriculum side.
He is a professor emeritus at UCLA and a nationally recognized authority on
You've got 49 states that have adopted academic standards, and many of them
in core subjects. I'm wondering how helpful are these standards in terms of
directing test writers, helping them know what kinds of questions to
Content standards describe the knowledge and the skills you want kids to learn.
And that's very sensible, to lay out in advance what it is you want children to
learn. Unfortunately, the standards movement in this country is not working as
well as it should, because the people who put together the content standards
are usually curriculum specialists who want children to learn all sorts of
great things. And so the content standards become wishlists of the many things
that you would like children to master. So when you present the content
standards to teachers in that state, there's way too much to cover, there's way
too much to test. And, as a consequence, the standards movement is not having [the]
positive impact we hoped it would.
On the other hand, you have standards that are incredibly vague. I read one,
"Students will understand historical events in the 20th century." What do
you do with that one?
There are many standards that are far more vague than they ought to be. My
favorite was that "the student will relish literature." ... But those are of no
utility to educators; they have no utility to item writers. They are simply
pie-in-the-sky kinds of aspirations. And so, although it is helpful to identify
in advance what you want children to be able to do after instruction is over,
if you describe this with a litany of vague, ambiguous statements, you haven't
benefited anyone. So in some states, the standards movement is more pretense
But if the standards were very detailed, I would think that might help the
test writers. They would know exactly what they could be asking about. Is that
possible, or am I wrong there?
The virtue of detail is that it would help item writers and it would help
teachers, because they would have a more specific notion about what is to be
accomplished. The downside of that kind of specificity is that it usually ends
up with so many instructional targets the teachers have to cover, they're
simply overwhelmed, as are the test writers. So the trick is to isolate a small
number of really high-powered standards, standards that embrace lesser
sub-skills and focus your instructional energy on that modest number. In
general, the content standards we see in states across the land have not been
isolated in that fashion. ...
How do you suggest they go about writing standards? How do you do it
If I were standards czar, here's exactly what I'd do. I'd go to a specialist
and I'd say, "Isolate the things that you want children to be able to do and
put them in three piles: the absolutely essential, the highly desirable, and the
desirable." And having done that, then I get those two piles away and just go
with the absolutely essential. And then I would say, "Now rank them from top to
bottom; the most important, the next most important," and so on.
And then I would have the assessment people come in and say, "These four can be
assessed in the time we have available, and can be assessed in such a way that
teachers will know how to promote children's mastery of them." And then we'd
have a reasonable standards-based assessment system.
You might have to bring in some outsiders; business people or lawyers,
doctors, people in the community.
It's perfectly reasonable to involve people other than educators in the
isolation of what ought to be taught in our schools. Citizens have a stake in
this game, business people, moms and dads. I'd get everyone involved in the
enterprise, just as long as they weren't cowed by the subject matter. I would
not have it decided only by subject-matter specialists, but I would most
assuredly rank in order of import what should be promoted, and then only assess
that which can legitimately be assessed in the time available. ...
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