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The Standards Movement: Quality Control or Decoy?

A Speech by Asa Hilliard

There are several things to deconstruct here, because they're all tied together. When we say standards, you can talk about setting standards. You can also talk about the instruments to measure the standards, whether they're valid, invalid, biased, or unbiased. And you can talk about the quality of instruction to enable people to meet the standards. All of that is tied together. But we generally break these apart. As a result, we usually make mistakes in our analysis. If you're talking about using standards to get the achievement level of Americans up to snuff, then you're going to have to talk more broadly and deeply than we've been talking so far.

I'm a little bit tired of people getting credit for improving education by doing the cheapest thing they can do, which is to call for the manipulation of test scores or to create new standards. These new standards are not going to be any better than the ones the College Board developed in the College Board's Green Book: What Students Need to Know and Do in Order to Graduate from College. They're not going to be any higher or better than the standards of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, [Hilliard and Sizemore, et al, Saving the African American Child. Washington, DC: National Alliance of Black School Educators, 1984]. In fact, I'll take any standards that you come up with as long as they're high enough. If you get a consensus of a group of thinking people, I don't think you can write a set of standards that won't make sense.

Are you going to say "no" to calculus as a standard for the high school level? I think calculus is a reasonable standard. All children are brilliant enough to learn calculus, if you want to offer it to them. But if you want to teach calculus, you have to know calculus. And most teachers don't. So why blame the child for the inability to achieve when the deficiency is in the other place? Obviously, if you want the child to achieve in calculus and teachers don't know calculus, then now you've got to prepare the teachers. Now you're talking about staff development. See how it's all connected?

If someone really wants to raise the achievement of children, you've got to recognize reality in the classroom. Once you do so, you'll know that we'll have to do what we did in the 1960s. When this country thought that the Russians were ahead in the space race, when they put up Sputnik, the next thing that happened was that the U.S. massively mobilized for science education. It was science, science everywhere. We had a National Defense Education Act. Look at the language: education became a matter of national defense. When the rubber met the road, they knew they had to do something and they funded the process of doing it.

What's happening now? The budget is bankrupt on social welfare issues and nobody wants to do anything about it. So you manipulate the standards to make it look as if you're doing something. But you cannot fix the problems that are wrong in the public sector without providing resources.

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