As I have fielded inquiries and criticisms from people around the state for my explanations of the role the State Board of Education plays, it has become increasingly apparent to me that some of the strongest opponents of Utah’s core standards are people who don’t want any standards at all. Some of them have children that don’t even attend public schools, and therefore are not subject to the standards we are required to implement, anyway. But as I have dialogued with them I have come to realize part of the opposition to the standards the board adopted is exactly what I described above: it is an opposition to ANY standards – and the criticism of the new standards naturally follows. This, I believe, is the reason I repeatedly hear and read comments imploring us to reject a “one size fits all” approach to public education. Whether the standards are adopted by a teacher in a single classroom, by a district, by the State Board of Education (as is currently required by law), or at the federal level (which I certainly oppose) – any standards are a “one size fits all” approach. So what follows here is an explanation sent to me recently. I’m posting it to clarify some misconceptions, at least I hope it will…
The words “Standards” and “Standardization” do not mean the same thing! Utah’s core standards are not used to standardize and inhibit student progress. They are used as standard benchmarks used to help students gauge progress toward fulfilling their individual aspirations.
The purpose of Utah’s core standards is not to drive everyone to achieve the same specific goals for each student or for them to achieve at the same pace. It is not designed to promote sameness. Teachers are to use the standards much like a physician uses developmental standards to understand and plan for each child’s needs. The standards are used to help teachers understand in a broad manner what individual children should be able to know and do at each grade level. They are used to benchmark and not judge progress. Our goal is to optimize learning for each student. It is hard to know where an individual student needs assistance or advancement if there are no standards to measure their unique progress.
Goals without benchmarks, action steps or standards invite mediocrity, sameness, and failure. To reach a goal or destination you must know where you are, where you want to go and how you are going to get there. Without standards you cannot answer critical educational questions about each individual student. How do you become literate? What is mathematics literacy for a Utah student? Measuring individual student progress toward literacy proficiency and mathematics proficiency is impossible without standards.
Standards are tools for individual teachers and individual students. The Utah core standards are intended to help students become innovative, to excel and to compete with their peers. Students need effective communication, literacy, and numeracy skills if they want to be ready to compete in the emerging global marketplace, at a college or university, or in occupational certificate programs after high school. The standards help Utah students and parents understand and acquire the essential knowledge, concepts, and skills within critical content areas often chosen by parents and student. They are like a set of building codes. They help teachers build an individualized curriculum that is solid and designed according to the learning styles and needs of each student. They define what students should know and do to be college and career ready.
Utah’s core standards do not dictate the materials, teaching style, or curriculum to be used by the teacher. They do inform what should be taught, but in the context of determining what students know and then responding to their individual needs. If a school or district forces students to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way, they have a major instructional problem not a standards problem. A teacher who teaches page 65 on Monday and then page 66 to everyone on Tuesday, without thought or knowledge of what individuals or groups need, is a technician not a teacher. Differentiation of instruction that embraces diversity, creativity and personal excellence is an essential expectation of all educators. It is, in fact, an educator standard. Failure to teach what kids need to know is usually a preventable instructional tragedy that can be remedied if teachers understand the expected standard.
Utah has had core standards for decades. The Utah Core is to be taught with respect to differences in learning styles, rates, and individual capabilities. Locally-selected textbooks and teacher-produced materials are used as tools in implementing the core. Local school districts and charter schools control employing teachers and often set locally-determined curriculum, methods and pedagogy to be used in classrooms. State standards help us ensure students are measured against a stable target. They help districts and charter schools develop and provide high quality curriculum and courses. The new standards are based on rigorous post-secondary and career-ready expectations. Data shows that students need literacy and numeracy skills that will help them be ready to compete in the emerging global marketplace. This expectation is just as important for young people who enroll in occupational certificate programs after high school; success in these programs and in on-the-job training requires the skills and knowledge embedded in the core standards.
Local schools and teachers control the curriculum and instruction. The core standards do not dictate the curriculum or delivery of content. Utah’s core standards and the curricula are not the same. The curriculum includes content, instructional elements, methods, pedagogy, materials and resources that are used to teach the high standards Utah has adopted. The standards help teachers organize and prepare for instruction just like building codes help an architect prepare a blueprint. Homes built using building standards or codes are not identical. They are built based on the individual needs and values of the owner but still use the code. The curricula used to implement the core standards vary according to district or charter and the individual needs of students. Locally-selected textbooks are used as tools in implementing the core. At a state level, research-based strategies and materials are recommended, not mandated, leaving the final instructional decisions to districts, charter schools, and classroom teachers. Local stakeholders will continue to innovate and make improvements to their curriculum over time. Teachers are not restricted to a specific grade level or timeline of standards. If children need to review or move slower, the teacher is in command. If students need to go faster or further the same applies.