The news about schools is grim, we are told. We are constantly reminded that schools are supposedly failing. Our children are not being prepared to meet the challenges of the present or the future. Our educational system is inefficient and ineffective, with poor test scores and even worse discipline. Our teachers are poorly trained academically and are more interested in pay than in meeting the needs of our students and our economy. The knowledge that is taught is “dumbed down,” or it fails to uphold traditional moral standards. These and other charges are constantly leveled at schools and teachers. The solutions that have been proposed are varied—and sometimes contradictory. But all agree that major reforms are needed.
In school systems throughout the nation, one of the major elements of reform has been the development of “standards.” Proponents of standards believed that these would ensure quality education, particularly since they would allow for testable results that would enable comparisons to be made between schools and across districts. At times, these standards take the form of broad goals intended to guide the work of students and teachers. Yet, increasingly, they are not broad at all, but extremely narrow and reductive. Given the immense amount of time and money we are spending on the development of local, state, and national standards and of tests to measure whether or not we have succeeded in reaching them, it is remarkable that very little is known about what their effects are, especially in those schools populated by students whose achievement historically has