Friday, November 1, 2013

Raising expectations

In a recent Ed Week editorial Marc Tucker at the National Center on Education and the Economy argues that the Common Core standards offer a way out of a twenty-year trend of declining expectations for students. He points to the notions of grade inflation and fewer hours of study per college course as evidence for these declining expectations, noting that students now receive credit for coursework that would have been deemed sub-standard twenty years ago.

I find those points entirely valid.

But in order for the Common Core—or any other set of statements regarding what students should know and be able to do as a result of schooling—to contribute to a solution we first need to examine the motivational system in which such a thing operates. By “motivational system” I mean the processes by which we attempt to induce behavior in teachers and students such that it moves us towards a better state.

The motivational system in schools is pretty straightforward: students take standardized tests designed to show where a school or student stands relative to others. Schools and students that rank towards the top are deemed to be doing well, while those that rank towards the bottom are doomed to be doing poorly. Schools at the bottom adjust instruction in the direction of the tested content. Repeat.

The selection of such an instrument as the yard stick to judge education risks making Tucker’s assertion that the Common Core stands a chance of fixing what he sees to be real problems moot. If indeed the Common Core standards offer a remedy regarding our expectations for students, the selection of a standardized test as the method for determining compliance renders the new expectation as unnecessary for success.

The real risk is this: if Tucker is right about the Common Core standards, and people fail to understand the limits of what even the best standardized test can tell us, we risk success on the test being misinterpreted as a positive step regarding our rising expectations. We risk looking back in five years and again wondering how we might actually, finally, raise expectations for our students.