Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Fatal Flaws of Standards-Based Education Reform


ew Americans have forgotten what happened on September 11, 2001, otherwise known as 9-11. It's no surprise that violent events of such magnitude that occur over a brief period of time would tend to burn themselves in the human psyche, especially when watched live by much of the country. But at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I would suggest that another event that occurred only four months after 9-11 has had an equally profound, if a much more insidious effect on the lives of Americans. That event was the signing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Education Act in January, 2002.

NCLB wasn't the sole brainchild of President George W. Bush, who signed it into law. It was the culmination of a movement toward mandatory standards and assessments for all children that began with the release of the report, A Nation at Risk, in 1983. To understand the background of that document, and its misinterpretation of statistics and inflammatory language, please read this article. One can trace the condemnation of public schools and the accusation that they were failing our children to this point in time.

Despite its questionable history, once A Nation at Risk hit the press, the education reform juggernaut became unstoppable. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000 law, which required states to develop content and performance standards for K-12 schools. NCLB then doubled down on an earlier idea by requiring that schools demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" to prove that they were taking the standards seriously.

In the years since its signing NCLB has produced an unending litany of vilification, finally meeting its death in December of 2015. But despite all the negative rhetoric, the one thing that has never happened in either the political or private arena is a serious discussion about the principles on which the whole standards and assessment movement is based. The "new" Every Child Succeeds Act simply shifts the responsibility from the federal government to the states…while the standards themselves remain unquestioned.

What is particularly ironic was this major provision of the NCLB Act: "Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government will invest in educational practices that work—that research evidence has shown to be effective in improving student performance."

"To say that an instructional practice or program is research-based, we must have carefully obtained, reliable evidence that the program or practice works."

What research-based evidence have educational policy makers used to justify a mandated system of public education based on one-size-fits-all standards and standardized tests? What assumptions are built into that policy? What research supports those assumptions? Let's find out.

Hidden…and Unquestioned Assumptions

According to the dictionary, an assumption is "a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

When someone in authority makes a statement, few people take the time to identify the assumptions behind the statement. Further, they fail to analyze whether the statement itself is fact or opinion (belief). Just think of the time one would waste analyzing a simple statement such as "John is a good father." But just for fun, let's look at the assumptions behind that simple statement.

If you accept the statement "John is a good father." as true, you are unconsciously assuming that the following statements are also true.

If all of those statements are true, then the listener can accept the original statement as true—at least to the extent that they trust the speaker's judgment. In reality, the statement "John is a good father" is a belief, not a fact. Why? Because the term "good" is subjective—a matter of opinion. There is no absolute standard for "good."

When we accept a statement as true without questioning the underlying assumptions, we also unconsciously accept those assumptions as true. In this way, our language communicates much more than the words themselves. This makes conversation much simpler and produces a high degree of cognitive economy. Unfortunately, it can also lead to significant, and sometimes deadly, errors in judgment as we will see. That is what happened with No Child Left Behind.

Unexamined Assumptions of No Child Left Behind and other Standards-Based Reforms


he NCLB Act and other standards-based reform efforts are packed with assumptions that have been unconsciously accepted by the majority of people involved in public education, as well as by the public. Had these assumptions been identified and questioned from the beginning, I believe there would have been much more outrage about the fundamental flaws in the whole concept. Here are just a few of the assumptions that form the foundation of public school policy today.

Are any of these assumptions true? Are they backed by the "research-based, carefully obtained reliable evidence" that NCLB itself demanded? Let's take them one at a time to see if we can legitimately accept them as true.

Defining Essential Content

Many people (at least in the Western world) generally agree that all humans who are not prevented by some physiological or psychological condition should attain "literacy"—that is, they should know how to read, write, speak, and perform basic mathematical operations at a level that enables them to function effectively in the world.

To this fundamental (and essential) list, we might also add a number of basic thinking skills, such as effective problem solving, decision-making, predicting, critical thinking, etc. (For the record, there are cultures around the world that would define literacy in a very different way. For the sake of this analysis and to keep things as simple as possible, I will limit the definition of literacy to this list. I'm sure that many of you have other skills or knowledge that you would add to a list of "basic literacy.")

Beyond basic literacy, there is the question of what it means to be "educated"—to be "culturally literate." What is the responsibility of schools in that regard? It's interesting to note that in June of 2002, a panel of the Appellate Division of New York State's Supreme Court ruled that, in terms of spending on public schools, the state "is obliged to provide no more than a middle-school level education, and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs." Clearly, there remains disagreement about the purpose of schools—or at least about how much tax-supported schools are required to accomplish.

Information Funnel

Whatever you believe to be the purpose of schools, and however the lists of "essential knowledge and skills" are constructed, I doubt that any of us would come up with the nearly 5,000 items in 13 different subject areas that were present in state and national standards and benchmarks in 2000. These standards and benchmarks were purported to be what ALL students should know and be able to do. Yet what standards writers tend to include in such lists are those things that have played an important part in their own lives—that have served them well in their own development—that have contributed to their "success"—as they define it.

Originally, there were only eight broad and open-ended "essential" standards identified for language arts. Math, social studies, and science standards also focused on fundamental processes inherent in the subject. Few would have argued with the skills identified in these standards. However, the developers of standards were concerned that teachers would interpret broad standards in different ways. So they provided benchmarks—specific examples of the content of each standard—as guidelines for what might be taught. Again, these were examples meant to guide a teacher's interpretation of the standards—they were not essential knowledge. But as might have been anticipated, rather than use the benchmarks as guidelines in developing their own curricular programs, many school districts simply accepted the benchmarks as required content. The benchmarks—the endless list of factoids picked from infinite universe of human history and thought—became the curriculum! As a result, explaining the Code of Hammurabi, identifying the dates of the Six-Day War, and deciding whether the Japanese government during the Kamakura and Ashikaga periods constituted feudalism joined the every growing list of "essential" knowledge in World History—for the 5th and 6th grade! Do you consider yourself literate? Educated? Could you correctly answer a test question based on each of these three bits of "essential" knowledge? If not, then why are they essential?

This same expansion of "essential knowledge and skills" occurred in every discipline—every subject area. And despite the prediction by education theorists that "covering" all of the standards and benchmarks in even the most minimal way would extend education from K-12 to K-25-26, there was little or no response other than from the few who had questioned standards in the first place.

The assumption that there exists a universally agreed-upon list of "essential" skills and knowledge that every person must possess is unsupported by either research or common sense. Not only do the experts charged with developing such lists disagree, but the lists presently used for testing largely reflect the values of one segment of society—those who deem themselves "educated" and "successful" and have the social position to back up their authority. They assume that this definition of success is shared by all—or that if it isn't, it should be! (Please see this article for more information on the topic of whose values determine success.)

There is an enormous distinction between making sure that each student has access to the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to become whatever he or she chooses, and imposing one's own values on what is "essential." At the rate that information is proliferating and the world of work is changing, we have no idea, beyond basic literacy, what students will need to know later in life. And in the digital age, does it make any sense to force learners to memorize endless lists of facts that they can access in seconds—if and when they need those facts?

There's little doubt, however, that today's young people will require the willingness and ability to learn on their own, and to determine how to use information effectively. That they will need strong problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as the ability to collaborate with others. These are skills learned through hands-on experience with complex real-life problems that rarely, if ever, have single right answers. What gets tested gets taught—and what gets tested in today's high-stakes standardized tests is, in large measure,the ability to recognize, recall, or identify context-free facts, not the higher level thinking that students will need as the world changes.

Variability in Learning


f there are still arguments about what everyone should know and be able to do, how can there be agreement about when—at what age—those disputed achievements shall have been accomplished? Yet standards continue to be written for grade levels, which are, in turn, correlated to age. Thus, all first graders (~6 year olds) are expected to "know and be able to do" ABC, while all fifth graders (~10 year olds) must "know and be able to do" XYZ.

Even if we accepted that there are identifiable "things" that everyone of a given age should know or be able to do, the claim that all "normal" people of a given age are capable of knowing or doing them is not only unsupported by research, but is the antithesis of extensive research data and conclusions on human development! This is the most egregious of the fatal flaws in standards-based reforms!

How would parents respond if schools failed every 12-year-old who couldn't bench press 50 pounds or jump over a 5-foot-high bar? I would hope that parents would raise a cry, citing the obvious fact that not all children are possessed of the same physical characteristics and that such a demand in unreasonable. Is it fair to expect a 90 pound, small-boned female to possess the same physical strength and/or muscle development as a 130 pound male of the same age? And wouldn't the cry be even louder if the same demands were placed on students who arrive at school undernourished to begin with!

Why then, is an even greater cry not forthcoming when policy makers make similar demands in the mental arena? Cognitive differences in students of the same age are immeasurably greater than physical differences. Consider the following FACTS:

In other words, there is no "standard" wiring that correlates to the ability of any individual to acquire an externally chosen body of knowledge! Based on these facts, how could any reasonable person accept that "all" children of a given same age should know and be able to do the same things—even if they wanted to?

Once again, high-sounding rhetoric is used to still the dissent. People are discouraged from questioning the assumption that all students can learn the same things at the same level, at the same age, and in the same amount of time by being accused of the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

Is it bigotry to suggest that not all people have the same physical strength, build, or muscle development at a given age? Is there some physical standard to which all people should aspire in that regard—some standard form or appearance? We accept and understand that people's physical characteristics are dependent on many factors, such as genetics, environment, and diet, not to mention personal choice. In fact, we are surprised when two people look alike.

Why then is it bigotry to suggest that not all people will have the reached the same level of mental development at a given age? That mental development—the sum total of what a person knows, the thinking skills a person has developed, and the cognitive processes a person uses to manipulate information—is similarly dependent on genetics, environment, and diet, not to mention a person's life experiences and personal choices.

Further, there is a substantial body of evidence(2) demonstrating that lack of good nutrition and/or exposure to mental stimuli early in life limits, or at the very least, delays learning capacity by limiting the growth of areas in the brain most necessary for "academic" learning.

High Jump to Standards

Research also suggests that those initial conditions can be reversed.(3) But that task must precede any more complex learning tasks. For reasons often out of their control, or the control of the teachers in whose classes they participate, some students are simply not ready to clear the mythical "average" bar in the early grades. And if they are rushed into academic learning before their brains/minds are ready for it, they will not only continue to fall behind, but experience the increasing stress we see in so many of our children today. This is not an "achievement" gap…it is an opportunity gap.

Yet some politicians are quick to claim that "poverty is no excuse." Oh really? Apparently, if teachers would just force children to develop enough "grit," all of that unpleasant correlation between poverty and brain growth will disappear.

Saying that not all people are developmentally ready to learn the same things at the same age and in the same amount of time is not equivalent to saying that some people are inherently "dumber" than others. It is not the same as holding some students to lower expectations. It is the enforced comparisons of students to some mythical (and culturally biased) "norm" that constitutes bigotry. It is the pressure placed on schools and teachers for ever-higher standardized test scores that inhibits teachers from focusing on and addressing the needs of individual students.

Assumptions about Testing


he last two assumptions listed earlier in this article refer to standardized testing as an appropriate measure of student learning and school effectiveness, as well as an indicator of who should be blamed if test scores are not what policy makers demand. Again, given the unproven assertions about what knowledge and skills are "essential" and whether there is an age at which everyone should have achieved those goals, the assumptions about standardized tests being appropriate and/or accurate are highly questionable at best.

In fact, the whole premise of using standardized testing on human beings is shown to be invalid in The End of Average, by Dr. Todd Rose. Rose is the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In his book, Rose traces the concept of "the average person" to its questionable source in the 19th century. He goes on to explain how the concept was then repeatedly distorted by other "scientists"…as well as how that distorted definition came to define the structure of public education in America.

Rose cites numerous research studies showing that there is no such thing as an "average" or "standard" person. Each individual possesses what Rose calls a "jagged profile" of strengths and weaknesses…and no two individuals have the same, or even comparable, profiles. Further, any system designed around an "average" person essentially fits no one! (For a summary of Rose's findings, as well as how errors in the applicaton of statistics has, and still is distorting the educational process, see The Myth of the Average Man, The Historical Purpose of American Public Education, and The Lingering Influence of Scientific Management.

One would hope that this research would provide the final nail in the coffin of standards-based education and assessments, yet once again, the research is ignored. Standardized, or "norm-referenced" tests, are built around that non-existent average person. But if that person doesn't exist, how valid can those tests possibly be?

These same standardized tests are used, not to measure or assess the learning of individual students, but to compare student performance and make predictions about a student's capacity for "success." Yet there is a long-standing statistical theory stating that using a group average to make predictions about individuals within a group is only valid if two conditions are true.

It is obvious that these conditions don't exist in human beings and never have, so predicting a student's future based on a standardized test is about as valid as a psychic reading by the Easter Bunny! Yet this is the primary method being used to declare whether children, teachers, and schools are succeeding or failing!

Scientifically-Based Practices


rograms such as NCLB and its subsequent incarnations placed tremendous emphasis on scientifically-based practices. Yet they have based their own premises on claims that research has shown to be totally inconsistent with the nature of authentic learning, developmental readiness, and the principle of statistics. Where is the "carefully obtained, reliable evidence" that the standards and standardized tests "work"? That standards for what a child should know and learn for all grades even exist given the variability of the human mind? That standardized testing, based on the concept of a non-existent average student, and flying in the face of statistical theory, contributes to the effectiveness of educational programs?

Shouldn't the practices—the claims of policy makers who devised and continue to mandate this method of so-called accountability—be subject to the same scientific scrutiny they demand of programs used to teach students? In fact, I suggest that policies with such wide-ranging influence over the lives and futures of so many people should be held to an even higher burden of proof.

Listen carefully to the rhetoric—to the unconscious assumptions and beliefs embedded in educational policy statements. Decide for yourself whether these assumptions—the foundations on which the policy rests—are sound. Insist on evidence. Demand that the policy makers be held accountable to the same "standards" to which they hold others.

One of the most insidious beliefs in the field of education today is that standards are, or should be, a "given" part of the educational process. Until that belief is questioned…until the assumptions hidden in standards and standardized testing are exposed to light of day and examined for their validity, we're unlikely to see a meaningful change in public education. In fact, given the psychological damage being done to students and teachers by this policy that flies in the face of both research and common sense, we are likely to see even more lasting damage being done to our children, their future, and the future of the country.

  1. http://www.human-memory.net/brain_neurons.html. 5/5/16
  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poverty-disturbs-children-s-brain-development-and-academic-performance
  3. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poverty-shrinks-brains-from-birth1/
  4. Rose, Todd. (2105) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, Harper Collins Publisher, New York, NY, p 62

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