Why Standards Aren’t Sticky

by Robert Pondiscio
September 25th, 2009

In his 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Stanford business professor Chip Heath describes why some bad ideas such as urban legends and misleading bits of conventional wisdom are “sticky” and gain traction, while some very good ideas don’t make it through the clutter.   Early in the book, Heath describes how the Army used to invest enormous time in planning military operations that turned out to be useless for an obvious reason:  the enemy doesn’t follow the plan.  The answer, developed in the 1980s, is a planning concept called Commander’s Intent (CI).

CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.  At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: ‘Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region.’ At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete…The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events.

 “Commander’s Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders,” Heath writes. “When people know the desired destination, they’re free to improvise, as needed in arriving there.”  Right about now, you’re probably thinking, Hey!  That’s just like those voluntary national standards they’re cooking up! Brilliant! 

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Standards might work just as well as “CI” if there was a shared understanding and deep experience with the tactics needed to achieve the desired results—if our understanding of how to teach reading were as simple and straightforward as determining the range of a piece of artillery.  The problem in education is that it is possible – nearly certain, in fact – to follow “Commander’s Intent” yet still fail miserably.  The draft reading standards put up for public comment this week by the Common Core State Standards Initiative can’t “stick” because they are built on a flawed model of reading as a transferable skill.  By promoting even tacitly the idea the we can teach reading independent of content (decoding + reading strategies = the ability to comprehend everything), the standards offer little useful guidance for teachers, virtually ensuring that even these “fewer, clearer” directions will not be met.  Only by describing specific texts and content across disciplines (making clear that comprehension equals background knowledge) with assessments aligned with those texts and content, can there be any hope of measuarable progress. 

Let’s be blunt:  Find one single teacher drawing breath that needed a secretive committee of two dozen experts to tell her that high school students ought to be able to “discern the most important ideas, events, or information, and summarize them accurately and concisely.”  This is not a standard, it’s a platitude.  As a goal or statement of purpose, it offers as much guidance and direction as military orders to “win the war.”   We do not lack clarity on our goals.  We lack clarity on how to achieve them.  The draft of the voluntary standards promotes tacitly the same flawed concepts that have driven reading instruction for decades. 

Worst of all, the standards movement as currently conceived threatens to make matters worse by sending the message that there is now absolute clarity on what is to be taught in the nation’s schools.  That, of course, is not what standards do.  That would require not national standards, but a national curriculum.  They are the same thing in the public imagination.  This predictable confusion between standards and curriculum, strategies and tactics, already colors everything from the political attractiveness of merit pay to the anger at teachers for our failing education system.  Many education policies assume teachers know exactly how to teach every child to read well but fail to do so out of incompetence, laziness, or refusal to execute the Commander’s Intent.  The reality is infinitely more complex.

 As written, our vague, insubstantial voluntary national standards are not “made to stick.”  In fact, they are virtually guaranteed to have exactly the unintended results.  By refusing to specify content to be taught, they will perversely encourage bad practice—teaching reading as a skill rather than a function of background knowledge.  In the absence of clear guidance, we will have more unnecessary and pointless reading strategy instruction, more test prep, more focus on reading as a transferrable skill.  And less–much less–of what actually creates competent readers—a well-rounded, content-driven, robust core curriculum.