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Should We Teach Standards or Children?

This may well be professional suicide. But, it’s time to come out of the closet. I say I teach the standards, but I really teach children.

As an educational publisher and author, I sell books that address state and national standards in English-language Arts and reading. The standards-based movement has clearly taken over the publishing and educational establishment. For example, in California, a district cannot purchase programs with state-allocated district monies unless these programs are on the approved list. How does the publisher get on the list? Standards and money. Every instructional component must be explicitly tied to state standards. The review process is time-consuming and expensive.

As a presenter and staff developer, I have taught hundreds of workshops and in-services on meeting the standards. No district or school will hire a consultant or presenter who does not promise to teach these standards.

As a teacher, I am reminded ad nauseam to “teach the standards.” Since I am a reading specialist, hiding inside the Trojan horse of English-language Arts in an underperforming middle school, I quietly administer reading and spelling assessments to my students. It won’t come as much of a surprise to most of you that the diagnostic data indicate that some students have severe reading and spelling deficits.

Here then is the crux of the issue. The underlying pre-suppositions, results, and practice of standards-based instruction can be diametrically opposed to differentiated instruction, according to the diagnostic needs of our children. This is especially true in the field of reading instruction.

The underlying pre-suppositions of the standards-based movement accept a priori that education is solely a behavioral science. We critics of this assumption would argue that much of teaching, learning, and parenting is culturally-bound and intuitive. In other words, some of effective teaching is truly an art form. We critics are not above using the scientific method and learning theory to debunk the behavioral purists. For example, the standards-based-movement begs the vital question regarding its linear scope and sequence of grade level standards: Do we really learn that way? Many teachers in my fields of English-language Arts and reading would argue the contrary. In fact, anyone who has taught the basic parts of speech to sophomores in high school won’t be surprised to learn that excellent teachers from elementary school-to middle school-to last year’s freshman class taught the same parts of speech. In other words, some learning may be recursive, not linear. Teachers, students, and parents are the critical variables here.

It’s time to take a hard look at the results of the standards-based movement. Yes, there was education before this movement took center stage. Since standards-based state assessments have taken precedence, the few nationally-normed tests that we still use nationwide, such as the NAEP and SAT 1, do not support the efficacy of the standards-based movement. Last I checked, we still underperform in reading and we still haven’t solved the “achievement gap.”

As is frequently the case in education, an idea takes on a life of its own in practice. A conversation a few years back with a fellow English teacher was instructive, but chilling. In discussing the results of our informal reading assessments, he looked over the clearly demonstrated reading deficits in his testing data and then said, “I teach the grade level standards. I’m not paid to go back and teach everything that the students don’t know.” He accepted a job as an administrator in our district the next year. Now, I am not over-critical of administrators… They are held accountable to implement standards-based instruction and to increase the all-important state and/or district standards-based test scores. However, administrators have got to do better than the principal who refused to implement reading intervention programs at her under-performing school because “The elementary teachers are supposed to teach reading; that’s their job, not ours. We teach middle school standards here.”

It’s easy to whine at the devolution of academic freedom and the sorry state of education that has been relegated to a series of standards-based grade level scope and sequence charts, with benchmarks or task analyses tacked on to provide the pretense of specificity. It’s harder to offer solutions, but here are a few thoughts.

True educators need to be subversive. Hasn’t rebellion always been part and parcel of our profession? Teachers have always been on the outside, looking in. However, good teachers know how to compromise in order to maintain sanity for the benefit of their students and themselves. Educators need to smile at the principal’s insistence that every assignment must have the state standard listed. We need to post our standards for the day on our whiteboards, Smartboards®, overhead projectors, or LCDs. We shouldn’t give it a second thought. We know what we need to teach and we need to save ourselves for that task. As one principal told me in my first year of teaching… “Choose your battles, Mark. Do you want to die on this hill?”

This is not to say that educators should not fight the good fight. Here are three tips to save your scalp from parroted dictums and standards mantras, while you carry on the battle to teach children, not just the standards:

1. Do teach the grade level standards. Really. After all, they are rather innocuous. Rarely have I heard a teacher say that we shouldn’t be teaching such and such a standard. However, control the time allotted to teaching these standards and insist on your academic freedom here. When challenged as to why you are teaching a lesson or skill that is not explicitly listed as a grade level standard, cite previous or advanced grade level standards that address your remedial or advanced grade level instruction.

2. Patiently argue that some students need to “catch up, to keep up.” Justify concurrent remediation or acceleration and grade level instruction by citing diagnostic data. Let data plead your case. For example, if instructed not to teach to diagnosed deficits, ask the principal/district supervisor to write a letter to the parents of students to alleviate you of this responsibility, against your informed judgment. They won’t, but they won’t bother you for awhile.

3. Explain that that any criticism is not about really about what you teach, but rather about how you teach. You are scaffolding instruction, according to the demonstrated diagnostic needs of your students in order to teach the grade level standards. You are making the standards comprehensible and in order to do so, you must differentiate instruction. How you teach is a matter of academic freedom.

The religious adherence to the standards-based movement? This too will pass. Until such time, teach the standards, but also teach your students.

The author, Mark Pennington, is an educational author, seventh grade teacher, staff developer, and blues harmonica player. His Teaching Reading Strategies is a comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, which includes multiple choice reading assessments and many others on two CDs, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, games, and more to differentiate reading instruction. Available on the Pennington Publishing website.

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  1. January 2nd, 2010 at 07:34 | #1

    The three tips you provided are helpful. Those alone will help teachers keep their sanity as they wade through mandates from above.

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