Thursday, March 5, 2009

Checker Finn's Seven Worries about National Standards

Checker Finn, one of the nation's leading proponents of national standards, writes in Gadfly today (Mar. 5) that he has accumulated seven worries.

First -- National standards may well (because of the involvement of unions and other special interests) focus on resources, instead of focusing on mastery of academic content:

...I cannot be the only person whose heart sank when Dennis Van Roekel announced that the National Education Association [NEA] was also joining the "partnership."...What really formed icicles on my toes was his declaration that this move is perfectly compatible with the NEA's adoration of "21st Century skills" and "comprehensive" standards that include "accountability for child well-being, facilities and supplies." (Who else remembers the brouhaha over "opportunity to learn standards" in the early '90s?)

Second -- National standards may well be heavily influenced by the wooly "21-Century Skills" movement:

...Speaking of 21st Century skills, the more I learn about this woolly notion, the clearer it becomes that this infatuation is bad for liberal learning; a ploy to sidestep results-based accountability; somewhere between disingenuous and naive regarding its impact on serious academic content; and both psychologically questionable and pedagogically unsound. (For a terrific exposition of these problems, see here.)

Third -- National standards may well be heavily influenced by the unsound and ideologically-freighted PISA test:

...[S]ome [in the current national-standards effort] are...overly fond of PISA--that's the Paris-based OECD's international math/science/literacy testing program for fifteen year olds--and view it as the surest path to "international benchmarking" and multi-national comparisons. Yet Tom Loveless of the Brown Center at Brookings has recently unmasked PISA's ideological bias and misguided notions about what young people should know and be able to do.

Fourth -- National standards may well not include the great works of literature:

...[A]s revisions are made in Achieve's respected " American Diploma Project" (ADP) benchmarks--these are at the core of the common standards project--one hears reports of a major tussle over whether English should continue to include literature and list important literary works.

Fifth -- National standards may well narrow the curriculum:

...[I]f the common standards enterprise remains confined, like NCLB (and ADP), to English and math, it may further narrow what's seriously taught in school--with a malign effect on states that have a decently rounded curriculum that gives due weight to science, history, even art. (Picture what happens to history education in a state that joins a national project that wants no part of history.)

Sixth -- National standards may well be ignored, because they are not tested:

...[S]uppose that the emerging standards are sound. Yet nobody is talking about common assessments to accompany them, at least not in this lifetime. But without an agreed-upon test and "cut points" for passing it (or, if you prefer, demonstrating "proficiency") these standards will have no traction in the real world of NCLB and discrepant state accountability systems.

Seventh -- Given the existing American political landscape, national standards may well change at any (unpredictable) time:

...[M]ost institutional instability. The United States of America in 2009 lacks a suitable place to house national standards and tests over the long haul.

Who will "own" them? Who will be responsible for revising them? Correcting their errors? Ensuring that assessment results are reported in timely fashion? Nobody wants the Education Department to do this. There's reason to keep it separate from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and its governing board.

Yet the awkward ad hoc "partnership" now assembling to pursue this process could fall apart tomorrow if key individuals retire, die, or defect; if election results change the makeup of participating organizations; if the money runs out; or if their working draft runs into political headwinds like the "voluntary national standards" of the early 90s.

Finn remains cautiously optimistic about national standards, at the same time, he has given us all a list of what to watch out for.

I would add that No Child Left Behind has not led to significant narrowing of the curriculum. Schools have added a few minutes more a day for reading and subtracted a few minutes from other subjects. For National Center for Education Statistics data on this, please see:

1 comment:

  1. The word "mastery" is an oxymoron.