Guest Column

Leave Me Alone and Let Me Teach!

by Douglas B. Reeves

The most frequent refrain from the critics of educational standards is "Just leave me alone and let me teach!" To the classroom teacher overburdened with documents about content standards and curriculum distinguished more by girth than substance, the demand for freedom is enticing.

 

Despite this siren call, those who argue for abandoning academic standards are ultimately neither constructive nor realistic. Standards, properly implemented, provide a substantial degree of freedom for the best teachers, while limiting the freedom of any teacher to engage in practices or omissions that damage the education of children.

The principal reason for my advocacy of standards has nothing to do with a sinister desire to ruin the lives of children. Nor am I patronizing those who claim we need to "get tough" with kids who left alone would be lazy and shiftless.

On the contrary, I have extraordinary optimism for today's generation of students and the teachers who serve in our schools. My advocacy of standards is not based on the desire to impugn either students or teachers, but on my conviction that our traditional method of comparative evaluation-the bell curve-is both morally and statistically wrong. The essence of standards-based education is the comparison of student performance to an immutable standard rather than to other students.

Danger to Students

The impact of the bell curve is not only pernicious for the students on the left-hand or "below average" side of the bell curve. The impact on students who are on the right side of that statistical distribution is equally awful. These are the students who are "above average" and for whom a life of higher education and professional opportunity should be certain.

Parents and teachers who have contrasted percentile scores with actual proficiency of students know better. They have observed the student in the 65th percentile in English who cannot write a coherent essay or the student in the 70th percentile in mathematics who cannot apply a formula from one problem to a different context. They take scant comfort from a norm-referenced test's assurance that a student is above average when, in fact, that student cannot meet a standard of academic proficiency.

The presumption of the bell curve is that only 49.9 percent of students are worthy because only such a proportion of students can be above average. The presumption of a standards-based system is that all capable students can achieve the standard, though not necessarily at the same rate, pace or method. Norm-referenced tests assume that the role of education is to sort and select, advancing to the next level only the good and the wise.

Standards-based educators have a different agenda, operating under the mandate they are to make a difference in the lives of children rather than separate the wheat from the chaff. Ironically, the most vociferous opponents of standards provide not a reform, but a retreat to the sorting and selecting of the norm-referenced system.

In the absence of reliable testing information from standards-based tests that give all students an opportunity for success, we will be left with a norm-referenced system that had its genesis in the eugenics movement of the early part of the 20th century. The names of reading groups of that era-bluebirds, robins and blackbirds-were hardly accidental metaphors.

Freedom and Constraints

Any constraint on the profession of teaching elicits emotional reactions, so let's change the scenario. Law enforcement is, after all, an honorable profession populated overwhelmingly by honorable people so why are constitutional constraints really necessary?

Imagine the stereotypical Southern sheriff with reflective sunglasses, fresh from abusing the passengers in a car that was inappropriately stopped and searched. Because of his 25-year career in law enforcement and his frustration with the meddlesome laws that allow some guilty people to go free, the deputy makes this argument: "Just leave me alone and let me enforce the law!"

If we reject this appeal by the most experienced and honorable law enforcement official, we must reject it from teachers. They are not independent agents, working their own will within their own empires. They are agents of the state with extraordinary power over the lives of children. Their absolute power can, in Lord Acton's words, "corrupt absolutely" and therefore must be checked.

While a system of academic standards may not be the perfect system to check the power of low expectations, fragmented curriculum and bell-curve testing, it is far better than the alternative of unchecked and destructive low expectations. The errors of standards-like the mistakes of any governmental action-can be acknowledged without sacrificing the fundamental need for the fairness and effectiveness that only a standards-based educational system can offer.

Reform, Don't Reject

Have some mistakes been made in the name of standards? Certainly. Are some state standards silly, broad, excessively specific and unhelpful? Without a doubt. Do any of these failings justify a retreat to either norm-based evaluations or unchecked power within classroom fiefdoms? No.

The errors of standards call for reform, not rejection. Thoughtful educators of different points of view must put aside their differences and consider what they have in common: commitment to students whose lives and futures depend on the professionalism, caring and love of great teachers. Opponents and defenders of academic standards best demonstrate their commitment through dialogue and cooperation rather than through another round of sabotage, destruction and vitriolic attacks.

Douglas Reeves is the chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment based in Denver. He can be reached at P.O. Box 541, Swampscott, MA 09107. E-mail: dreeves@makingstandardswork.com