Educational Standards: To Standardize or to Customize Learning?

By Reigeluth, Charles M. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Educational Standards: To Standardize or to Customize Learning?


Reigeluth, Charles M., Phi Delta Kappan


Standards, properly conceived, are just one necessary, but not sufficient, part of a comprehensive redesign of a very complex education system, Mr. Reigeluth notes. If not properly conceived, standards can do far more harm than good.

The educational standards movement has gained much public visibility. The topic has been extensively covered in the Kappan (June 1995), in Educational Researcher (November 1996), and in Educational Leadership (March 1995). Rigorous educational standards have been strongly advocated by many people, both within and outside the education establishment, including the participants at the recent National Education Summit, who were primarily U.S. governors and business leaders. And many states have passed or are considering legislation establishing educational standards. Clearly, this is an important issue that is likely to affect all who have a stake in public education.

Partly for this reason, there are also many cautionary voices about educational standards. Some voices ask us to consider whether standards should be mandatory or voluntary. Some raise the questions of who should define the standards (e.g., the government or professional associations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and on what level (national, state, or local). Other voices express concern that the standards movement will lead to test-driven instruction(1) or will impede the move toward thematic or interdisciplinary instruction. And still others caution that higher academic standards are necessary but not sufficient for improving public education.(2)

Differing Conceptions Of Standards

The picture grows even more complicated because different people have different conceptions of standards. For example, Darrell Sabers and Donna Sabers identify "hire" standards (those set by business leaders to ensure that students are employable), "higher" standards (government leaders' more rigorous standards to maintain world-class status for the U.S.), and "high" standards (educators' expectations for high levels of student achievement).(3) Anne Lewis identifies content standards, performance standards, opportunity-to-learn standards, and world-class standards.(4) And the variety of conceptions goes on.

These differing conceptions of standards stem from the differing reasons that people want standards. Business leaders with whom I have spoken in Indiana seem most interested in ensuring that the high school graduates they hire are able to read, write, and compute. They expect to provide job training but not basic skills education. "Hire" standards seem to be conceptualized as minimum standards to ensure competence in basic skills for all students, and they are regarded more as mandatory than as voluntary.

In contrast, government leaders seem more interested in improving U.S. students' world rankings, which requires far more than ensuring the attainment of basic skills. For example, the New Standards (a joint effort of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center) seem intended as a tool for education reform to help schools "work as systems whose parts are focused on coherent, consistent, publicly articulated goals" because "a centrally articulated set of goals, even if vaguely stated, plays important roles: It organizes the development of exams and curriculums, informs textbook writing, and determines the direction of teacher training."(5)

On the other hand, many educators seem more interested in standards as a vehicle for professionalizing teaching. As Matthew Gandal of the American Federation of Teachers put it, "The basic premise here is that once these standards and monitoring practices are up and running, teachers and schools can be freed from traditionally burdensome rules and given the flexibility to determine the best ways to help their students achieve at higher levels."(6) Still other people have other purposes for advocating standards.

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Educational Standards: To Standardize or to Customize Learning?
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