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Deborah Meier has definitely hit a raw nerve. It is teachers, after all, who must implement the new state-mandated standards. But these standards are typically imposed by politicians and education policy experts in state capitals, far away from the realities of our classrooms. To teachers, the standards movement increasingly looks like an exercise in political grandstanding, perpetrated by people who haven’t been in a real classroom for years, rather than a serious effort to improve the quality of education.
Is it any wonder that teachers are enormously frustrated? I agree with much of what Deborah Meier advocates, and always have. We absolutely must decrease the size and bureaucratic complexity of schools. We must empower teachers. We must truly connect with children, especially those on the brink of adulthood. These youngsters need more than peer-only subcultures and the instant gratification of the market–they need responsible adults, with solid values, involved in their lives. But I do not accept Deborah Meier’s premise that any standards created outside of an individual school by a state or school district will necessarily make matters worse.
I believe standards can work–they can lead to improved student learning–if a number of conditions can be met. First of all, the standards must reflect the wisdom of parents and classroom teachers. Secondly, the curricula we teach must be aligned with the new standards. Thirdly, teachers must be provided the professional development we need to incorporate the new standards into our teaching practice. Fourthly, we all must insist that no single high-stakes test can measure the academic progress of any student–that multiple indicators must be employed.
Finally, and most importantly, we must pursue higher academic standards with our eyes wide open. The objective of the standards movement–to successfully educate all children, rich and poor, to the same high level–is truly revolutionary. We must match our revolutionary intentions with commensurably revolutionary interventions to ensure that all students, especially underprivileged students, succeed. It is intellectually and morally dishonest to raise the bar for all students to a level that is currently being reached by only a relative few, unless governments at all levels are willing to undertake an unprecedented effort to reduce class sizes, put a qualified teacher in every classroom, and upgrade school facilities.
Unfortunately, the prevailing mind-set among too many politicians and policy-makers is something right out of Field of Dreams: "If we set high standards, students will magically achieve." They are deluding themselves. That fact is that poor and minority students are far more likely to attend schools with non-certified teachers, large class sizes, and substandard learning resources due to the "savage inequalities" (to use Jonathan Kozol’s apt term for the disparities between inner-city and suburban schools) of today’s schools. Yet the politicians who want to "get tough" on schools seem to expect disadvantaged students to achieve, by fiat, at the same ambitious levels as privileged students. If the standards movement does not provide ample means for all students to meet higher academic expectations, it will prove to be one of the cruelest hoaxes in American history, right up there with Horatio Alger.
In her book, Other People’s Children, educator Lisa Delpit argues that "the upper and middle classes send their children to schools with all the accouterments of the culture of power; children from other kinds of families operate within perfectly wonderful and viable cultures, but not cultures that carry the codes or rules of power." And she takes today’s educators to task for watering down curricula and academic expectations when teaching children who come from outside this "culture of power." What’s more, Delpit reports that educators often fail to teach these children–the urban and rural working-class and poor–the skills, including spoken and written language codes, that they need to succeed in the larger society. I see the standards movement as perhaps a once-in-lifetime opportunity to rectify this situation across many school districts.
Public school is–or should be–the place where hope becomes capacity. A student with a high school diploma should be able to go directly into the world of work, and participate fully in his or her job and community. And the high school graduate who goes on to college, as a majority now do, should be capable of doing college-level work without any remedial education. These two goals should be the foundation of any effort to formulate new standards.
Our schools should be making it possible for students to exceed the income and educational limitations of their class and family. That has always been one of the highest and noblest ambitions of public education in our democracy. And that’s certainly what public education did for me. Now the great challenge is for the schools to make a real difference in every child’s life.
The intellectual demands of the 21st century, as well as the demands of democratic life, are best met by preserving plural definitions of a good education.
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