Can raising the standards help America race to the top?


\"\"There seems to be a sentiment today that America’s schools are losing the battle for our students. A cry often goes out to raise the standards. The Obama administration’s American Recover and Reinvestment Act echoes this opinion.

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan stated, “We want to create college- and career-ready standards. Right now, academic standards are too low. We’re lying to our students that they are being prepared to succeed in college or to compete in the competitive workplace.”[1]

Raise the Standards!

When I hear the phrase “raise the standards” it reminds me of one of the final scenes in the movie The Patriot. The ragtag American troops are about to face Cornwallace’s army. Officers for the American troops were reluctant to use the volunteer militia, who had broken ranks and run in previous battles. Mel Gibson’s character encourages them to trust one more time.

The battle gets underway, and at a critical moment the militia begins to falter. The flag bearer is shot and the stars and stripes fall to the ground. Mel watches the volunteer troops waver, grabs up the flag and holding the standard high, charges back up the hill right into the British army. The militia finds courage in his act of bravery and follows the standard to victory.

The cry to raise educational standards does not seem to be a desire to hold our current standards high and race forward to victory, but instead to create new standards, as if a new flag will give us educational victory. While Mr. Duncan was correct in saying our students are not being prepared for college or a competitive workplace, raising new standards is not the answer. Merely creating new criterion will not fix the problems endemic to our schools. We must rethink how we view our standards.

Are We Reaching Our Standards?

If standards are our guide in education, the flag or benchmarks that keep us moving toward victory, we must follow them unerringly. Unfortunately for our students we are not striving to chase after our standards. And, we are certainly not reaching them.

Before we dismantle what we have, let’s examine them. The standards represent what students should know, what they should have mastery of before moving on. By saying we need new standards we are in essence saying that kids need to know new material. In some cases that might be true. A country with the amount of social and personal debt that America has might want to worry less about whether all students take calculus and instead teach them to balance a checkbook.

What we teach is an argument for another time, but we need to assess the standards before we throw them out. By just defaulting to higher standards we make the assumption that students are mastering the current information and the information is insufficient. Our tests, however, show that students do not have mastery of the current standards.[2]

What Is Our Goal?

The reason for this is not because of the standards. Nor is it because of schools filled with “bad” teachers, which seems to be touted more and more in reform speak. The problem stems from giving much of the control of what our students learn and how we assess what they learn to a few select testing corporations. These testing companies do not test for mastery of the standards.

Standardized tests are assessments of minimum competency. If that is what as a system we are going to test, then that becomes our true goal. Over time this low-level objective has become the aim of students across our country, and permeates much of what goes on in our schools. America’s public education system has become a slave to minimum competency.

School districts hope their system ranks high on the minimum. Teachers strive to get all their students to the minimum. Unfortunately, many of our students don’t see the value in education and don’t even reach for the minimum.

Mr. Duncan went on to say that the administration’s goal was for America to be a world leader again by 2020. This will be a difficult goal to reach as long as we strive for the minimum. Instead of focusing on raising standards, let’s focus on pursuing mastery of the standards we have. If teaching and testing were truly based on mastery, then those students who fell short may still reach minimum competency, and America could race to the top – and to victory.

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[1] Duncan, Arne. “U.S. Education Reform: ‘This Truly Is a Moon Shot.’” Address delivered to the National Association of State Boards of Education, Cincinnati, OH, Oct. 16, 2009.

[2] See The Nations Report Card,