From Nel Noddings, “Thinking About Standards”

in Phi Delta Kappan , November 1997  pp. 184-189

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. . . None of us would argue in favor of low standards or no standards, but some of us fear that the concept of standards has not been analyzed carefully enough to warrant establishing national standards, that proponents of such standards have not fully considered the possibility of undesirable consequences, and that many closely associated issues, consideration of which might counsel different role for government, have largely been ignored . . .

  1. Content Standards:  “what teachers are supposed to teach and students are expected to learn” [Ravitch]

Must students learn everything that teachers teach, or should the curriculum be rich in opportunities for the cooperative construction of learning objectives? . . Of course, there are some things that we think all students should know as a result of taking a particular course, but specifying exactly which things is a task requiring considerable thought, and the list we construct for all students will properly be much shorter than lists we create or eventually report for each student . . . a simple statement that equates what teachers should teach with what students are expected to learn cuts short what should be a rich and complex educational debate

  1. “Performance standards define degrees of mastery or levels of attainment” [Ravitch]

Advocates of performance standards for schoolchildren neglect the fact that the performance standards for athletes and professionals are established for those who choose to take part in competitions or to enter certain fields.  They require voluntary commitment . . .This is not to say that there are no skills that should be universally possessed at some level of proficiency, but it is not clear which ones should be specified, and whatever is specified for all is likely to be pathetically puny in contrast to what could be suggested if relevant differences in talent, plans, affiliations, and interests were taken into account.  Any set of standards rich enough for a particular student will contain items unnecessary for many, and any set designed realistically for all will, paradoxically, be inadequate for anyone considered individually.

  1. Opportunity to learn standards “define that availability of programs, staff, and other resources that schools, districts, and states provide so that students are able to meet challenging content and performance standards” [Ravitch].

If all high school students in a given district are required to take algebra, for example, do they thereby have an “opportunity to learn” algebra?  In particular, if students are not adequately prepared for algebra, if they see no reason to study it, if their teacher is not fully competent, if they are crowded into an unpleasant room, if they have to share out dated textbooks, can the requirement be regarded as an opportunity to learn?  And if poor districts and states are to be held to the same OTL standards as wealthier ones, who will provide the necessary resources? . . Perhaps the new slogan will be “Just do it!”

Who Will Benefit and Who Will Be Harmed?

Many of us fear that national standards may create the illusion that everyone now has a fair chance and that any resulting differences in outcomes – with regard to jobs or further education – are the fault of those who didn’t try hard enough.  Some people will be squeezed out in a system governed mainly b standards. . . Someone almost always bears a considerable cost when standards are raised or changed . . . we must ask who will benefit and who will be harmed, whether the foreseeable harms are outweighed by the long-term benefits, and whether the immediate harms can be reduced.  The benefits most often claimed are for the nation and its ability to compete in a world economy.  But there is little persuasive evidence that workers in the U.S. are less capable or productive than other workers.  If it is the nation that will benefit, we have to provide convincing evidence that the nation needs something that the schools could, but are now failing to accomplish.  WE have to show how this failing can be corrected by national standards.

Will children benefit?  But if everyone were to meet new high standards, some would still have to do work that is ill paid today . . . food grown, transported, packaged, and sold. . . maintenance people, servers, cleaners, bus drivers, animal groomers, retail salespersons, clerks, construction workers, plumbers, and a host of other workers.  Will we pay more for the same job simply because the workers are better educated?   . . The current emphasis on national standards is distracting us from larger social problems that must be addressed.  Education by itself is not the solution to poverty.  Thus it is not clear that national standards will serve all our children.

Is the standards movement aimed at producing better citizens, more loving and effective parents, persons with greater moral sensitivities, individuals with enhanced social graces and healthy psyches?  Wonderful!  But now we need an argument that explains jus how national standards will promote these benefits.

Neglected Problems

Why don’t children learn what we think they should learn?  Are our methods faulty?  Are we teaching the wrong things?  What are kids interested in?  How can those interests be steered toward the material we deem important?  Can schools impart knowledge without the cooperation of parents?  These and many other questions point us toward the identification of deep problems that will not yield to the quick fix of stating goals, objectives, competencies or standards.

The Role of Standards in Democratic Education

We have long believed that democratic government requires at least the consent, if not the vigorous participation, of the governed.  In consonance with this belief, John Dewey insisted on “the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process” If we a re serious about raising standards, we have to help students understand what standards are and how they are related to the students’ own purposes.  Talking about standards with both teachers and students is not a waste of time.  It is a prelude to establishing and meeting any meaningful standard.  

All forms of coercion should be at least questionable in a democracy, and the coercion even of children should be thoroughly examined and justified.  At the other extreme, abandoning children to their own ill-considered passions and whims is equally reprehensible.  Teaching, at its best, requires familiarity with individual students and their needs.  It requires conversation and the cooperative construction of standards. . . The discussion and ensuing standard setting is best done locally.  Professional groups at the national level, such as the national Council of Teachers of Mathematics, can certainly provide invaluable guidance, but local educators have to decide what the sequence of study will be and why.  Ideally, they should work closely with community colleges, local four-year institutions, trade schools, and businesses to establish standards that will enable students to make well-informed decisions.   . . .throughout this process, in every subject, teachers should continue to ask: Why am I requiring this?  Do students understand the mutual commitments we are making?  Are the standards defensible?   . . If standards are to have meaning, the people who must meet them should be involved in their construction.