I want to focus on the regulation or regulatory function of the American academic standards movement. It is precisely the regulatory function of that movement that requires closure, the encapsulation of the model itself. In this short piece, I want to examine the connected concepts of standards-driven instruction and data-driven instruction in American public schools. In a nutshell, data-driven instruction derives its power from the larger concept of standards-driven instruction. Both, however, miss the essential point that instruction must be less about technical complicity and more about knowing and knowledge.
A current sub-discourse of the American standards movement calls for the implementation of standards-driven or standards-based instruction. What is really meant by this language? What standards is one speaking of? How shall one implement those standards in the classroom? What standards are really important and why? Marzano & Kendall (1998) asked the question, what if all national standards that have currently been adopted by discipline specific professional organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies or the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of English, were taught in public schools beginning in kindergarten and continued to be taught until a student graduated from high school—how much time would it take to complete one’s pre-college education? Using a quite liberal formula for teaching and reteaching every standard and assuring a reasonable degree of mastery of each standard, and using the typical formula of a 180 day school year and a 6.5 hour school day they found that a student entering kindergarten at age 5 would finally be ready to graduate high school at the end of grade 22—ten full years after the normal grade 12. Given this analysis, students would not be ready for college until they were 28 years old. Marzano and Kendall did not even consider state standards or locally adopted standards as a part of their analysis. What is clear to me is that the obsession with standards has led to an insistence on quantity rather than on quality in education. One must consider that there are many ways to address quality education, only one of which is to obsess over the quantity of what one learns.
When quantity is the issue one finds multiple stories of abuse of the system. Emphasis on quantity leads to erratic implementation of and/or assessment of educational progress. An example seems to be in order here. In around 2002 in Illinois, where I live and work, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) decided that they would no longer test writing in the state assessment, the ISAT. The resulting message schools received was to effectively eliminate writing from the curriculum in grades k-12. This action came because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements focused on the technocracy of reading and math. Writing was, therefore, legislated out of the literacy mix. In 2005 the ISBE announced that writing would return to the ISAT in 2006 and 2007 being phased back in over the two year period. The problem, however, became one of what would be tested rather than how to teach good writing. Teachers began asking, “What did they want on the test?” The clear implication was if what they (whoever ‘they’ might be) wanted was known then students could be drilled into compliance with the assessment and scores might actually rise.
My concern here is that when technocracy is substituted for learning the result is not education, rather the simulacrum of education. When it is more important to know what they want then writing does not re-present thinking, quite the contrary, in merely repeats a mindless formulaic approach to putting pencil to paper conforming to whatever is currently in vogue, whatever those in power determine, in this case, corresponds to appropriate writing. Instruction under these circumstances might be better classified as training, something we do to dogs, seals and dancing bears for purposes of human entertainment. Such instruction is not open to surprise, mystery, or wonder. It is not open to anticipation of something to come, of the absolute other. It is not open to ideas, thoughts, or innovation. It is efficient, predictable, and produces expected results. The technocrats behind the standards movement rely on regulation to insure the possible, to conserve what never was and to block everything that could be anticipated.
Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1998). Awash in a sea of standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.