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.

President Obama’s Standards-Based Speech

by Robert Pondiscio
September 8th, 2009

If there’s a bright side to the past week’s uproar over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren it’s this: when was the last time we had a robust national debate about what our kids actually do in school?  A Niagara of ink was spilled debating whether the speech and a set of recommended classroom activities represented political propaganda, indoctrination or an abuse of presidential power.  But here’s an overlooked, yet indisputably accurate description of Obama’s speech and those controversial lesson plans: 


The draft national standards in reading, writing, speaking and listening worked up by National Governors Associations (NGA) and The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), specify only the skills our children should be able to demonstrate.  Whether President Obama and the Department of Education realize it or not, they are revealing exactly how empty and meaningless these “standards” are as currently written.  For example, in order to be “college and career ready,” the draft standards hold that students must be able to “listen to complex information and understand what was said, identifying main ideas and supporting details.”  This is a standard you can apply to today’s speech by President Obama, a Glenn Beck talk show rant, the films of Michael Moore, or the conspiratorial ravings of the 9/11 “truth” movement.   So while conservatives can rest assured that Obama’s speech to schoolchildren will not be a part of the emerging national standards, neither is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.   In fact, no speech, book, poem or play is required.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all speeches are created equal. 

But wait a minute, you might be thinking, “isn’t that what national standards are supposed to do?  Doesn’t it mean that kids from Maine to Montana are learning the same thing?”  No, that’s what a national curriculum would do.   It’s become distressingly clear that even people in education who should know better use the terms “standards” and “curriculum” interchangeably.  Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University wrote in the Detroit Free Press last week that national standards “stifle creativity and reduce diversity of talents by instilling a single view of worthwhile knowledge” thereby doing “irreversible damage” to American education.  There are many criticisms one can level at the national standards movement.  That’s not one of them.

What conservative critics like Beck, Michelle Malkin and others might have focused on but did not is that the Administration’s suggested activities meet literally every one of the draft common core standards.  In order to be “college and career ready” students should be able to “sustain focus on a specific topic or argument through careful presentation of essential content;” “support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details and examples;” and “represent and cite accurately the data, conclusions and opinions of others” among other skills.  Even the “inartfully worded” suggestion, that students ”write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president” is not in conflict with such standards. 

This is the dilemma of process standards:  they are aggressively, adamantly agnostic on the content of a good education.  Anything goes.  What speeches and texts are important to know?  Right now, the official answer is “none.”   Perhaps that’s a silver lining in this otherwise strange and irritating controversy that has greeted the President’s speech to school children.  If you don’t think that listening and responding to a Presidential address is a productive use of school time, the question you need to address is, “What exactly do you think your child should be reading and listening to all day?”

It’s a debate that is worth having.  At present, 46 states and the District of Columbia are close to answering the question “What should children learn in school” with “whatever.”    If you don’t think “whatever” is a good or helpful answer, then your choices quickly narrow to two:  You can fight to define what is (or is not) the appropriate content of a sound, well-rounded public education.  Or you can keep your child home every time he or she is assigned a text that you don’t like.

Update: Jay Greene comes at this from a similar angle.  “Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school,” he notes. “This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.”