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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 07/26/2010

Willingham: What’s missing from national standards plan (Part 1)

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
A majority of states have adopted the common core standards for math and English. Is this development likely to improve schooling over the next decade?

Much of the talk has focused on whether or not the standards are superior to those they replace. We should remember that there is no correlation between the quality of state standards (as measured by any of three different organizations--Fordham Institute, the American Federation of Teachers and Education Week) and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That either means that standards are irrelevant to schooling or that academic outcomes are determined by many factors, and good standards contribute to, but are not sufficient for student learning.

I suspect (but can’t prove) that the latter is true. It seems self-evident that minimally one also needs a curriculum that implements the standards and lesson plans that teach the curriculum.

A third requirement has been little discussed but strikes me as essential to the success of new standards: assessment.

Student assessment is not what I’m talking about. In fact, I think an assessment other than one based on student achievement is important.

Obviously schooling is complex, with a number of interacting factors that contribute to student outcomes. The critical point is that a problem in one part of the system might mask positive change in another part of the system, just as repairs to the electrical system of a car might appear to have no effect if the fuel system also needs repair.

There seems to be no recognition of this possibility in education policy, which is evaluated on a system-wide basis. No Child Left Behind was a complex law with ramifications at every level of the educational system. Yet the autopsy is seldom more nuanced than “it didn't work.”

If our expectation for national standards is equally simple, we are certain to be disappointed.

If things rapidly get better after the adoption of national standards, great. If they don’t, then what? How will we know what to do next?

I can’t see why a state body would vote to adopt a change to standards if they did not have a clear answer to this question.

Ideally, we would have a plan to evaluate whether piecemeal changes (e.g., adoption of standards) are having a positive impact, and this evaluation would be independent of student outcomes. Students outcomes are a product of the education system as a whole, interacting with other factors, and therefore represent a weak metric of whether the piecemeal change is having a positive impact.

Devising such a measure is a tall order, and next week I’ll suggest an idea of how it might be done.

A tall order, but without such a measure, we can predict that in about five years NAEP scores will not have moved much, and the mutterings will begin. In another five years we’ll have bounced on to the next fix.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 26, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards  | Tags:  analysis and common core standareds, common core standards, criticism and common core standards, daniel willingham, national standards, no child left behind and legacy, what's missing from common core standards  
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A very good take on the value, or not, of academic state standards.

On that note, would you be willing to offer any rationale as to why Massachusetts (my state), with its history of academic success and superior state standards, would opt for the Common Core Standards?

Personally, I'm VERY disappointed they chose this path. I believe it could be a threat to our success, especially if you look at the accompanying teacher standards these groups have developed.

Posted by: phoss1 | July 26, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

This raises important issues that are not being addressed.

At I have asked another one that I have not seen anyone discussing. Is it the expectation of those urging the adoption of national standards that the same standards will be applied to all students -- privately schooled and home-schooled as well as those in public schools? Should they be?

Posted by: clarkd1 | July 26, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

paul: I don't feel well enough informed to take a guess at the MA issue. I know the MA standards were quite strong, but I can also see a lot of benefits to being on the same page as other states.
clarkd1: interesting point that I had not considered. I would guess that these students will be taking the same accountability tests and will therefore be influenced, at least to some degree, by the standards.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | July 27, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

there is no correlation between the quality of state standards . . . and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That either means that standards are irrelevant to schooling or that academic outcomes are determined by many factors.
Why? Maybe it means that the NAEP is flawed. When Ohio first adopted its standardized testing, the results were terrible. Then it was discovered that the ninth-grade tests included geometry, which most of the schools didn't teach until the tenth grade. There were a lot of other similar situations (I just happened to know a ninth-grader who pointed this out to me.) The tests had to be completely redone to reflect what was actually being taught in the majority of the schools.

As things are know, we have no agreement as to what the students should know, but people unconnected with the schools are creating tests to measure it anyway, and teachers and schools are being penalized if the students don't know it.

Does this make sense?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 27, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

@sideswithkids: the NAEP could be flawed, it's true. I would argue, however, it's a pretty good test. To me, one of the more compelling attributes is simply the face validity. . .that is, when I (and most people I know) look at sample questions from, say, the history test, they look like reasonable questions, like questions that someone who claimed to know history would be able to answer. That's not to say that the test covers *everything* but for certain types of knowledge I'd argue it does a good job.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | July 27, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

If "there is no correlation between the quality of state standards . . . and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress," why does that mean that "standards are irrelevant to schooling"? Couldn't it also mean that the NAEP test is irrelevant to schooling? At the very least, it means that the test does not cover the things being taught and one or the other needs to be adjusted.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 27, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

First, ignore my second post--the one at 6:04 p.m. My computer has been doing weird things and my first one didn't show up until after I have posted the second one.

Second, maybe the history questions would have been simple for "anyone who claims to know history," but what makes you sure history teachers claim to know history? As a substitute in several schools last year, I heard a lot of teachers--fairly young ones--reminiscing about a football coach who was assigned to teach history and always showed game films. Others lamented that because of budget cuts they had to choose between looking for a new job or teaching a subject they were unprepared in. (In Ohio, at least, there is no requirement that a high school teacher needs any college courswork in the subject he or she teaches.) And as someone who once worked for a textbook preparation firm, I can assure you that the people preparing the texts don't necessarily know any history--or any other subject! The author of the original manuscript might be a history teacher, but not necessarily a professional historian, but by the time the book reaches print, very little of the original manuscript is unchanged, and the wrong font is more likely to be corrected than the wrong date.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 27, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

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