Diane Ravitch On National Standards


And I envision a curriculum that in toto amounts to not more than 50 percent of the school day, so that there would be many variations and additions depending on the state, region, and locale. I also envision a curriculum that encourages projects, intensive study, and creative teaching.

If we’re to turn this job into a profession, is consensus too much to assume here?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Do you pose that as a fundamentally unassailable question? I’d toss a list out for Algebra but the ensuing debate here would overwhelm the larger question: can we arrive at a list? In particular, a list which the states’ rights crowd and the local unions could customize to their contentment.

    The answer, of course, is no. Not if we continue to pursue the perfect at the expense of improvement.

  2. The National Science Teacher Association came up with a list of science standards.

    So yes, I think lists can be reached.

    In fact, my state made only minor modifications to that list (renumbering it and rewording some standards) but otherwise left it alone.

    Is this not the case for other fields?

    I think the answer to Dan’s question is a resounding, “Yes.”

  3. Can I ask a question that may seem silly….why do states need to change the standards to “fit” their state? Why is Ohio different than California in the math (social studies, science) that their kids need?

    I’ve never understood this states and local rewording and rearranging thing. Can someone explain?

  4. I’d say the reason that different states (or schools or teachers) feel the need to tweak standards is that there is no way to teach *everything* in a subject that everyone who knows that subject wants to be taught. Most standards lists end up being monsters, because the people who love that subject don’t want to miss anything good.

    Just like Ravitch’s point isn’t “only spend half the day on academics.” The point (I think) is that the lists of standards should be basic yet inclusive enough that teachers can expand in the direction they please — expanding in an academic direction, in the same field, not expanding on watching videos or doing um, dumb stuff. ;-)

  5. We have to find a way to agree upon a set of standards. That are clearly defined. That are not a laundry list of what everyone wants. Will everyone be happy? No. Can we get everyone to agree to them anyway? I hope so.

    I cannot explain why the standards (at least for math) vary so much from state to state, but they do.

    What would be really nice is to agree upon what happens when the standards aren’t met.

  6. Local control of schools exists in many school districts in the form of an individual School Board–the governance structure for establishing curriculum, procedures, and more is at the local level. The state governments often take a bigger role as part of the state constitutions, but the federal government has a rather small part of education–although their dollars: Title, Special Education (as under-funded as it has been by the Feds), etc. are too big for states and school districts to forego, particularly when they would be held responsible for the services by the courts.

    Teacher Associations are not the only groups that have a stake in the standards debates, so adopting those standards often doesn’t work. I’ve seen teaching staffs spend literally years “aligning curriculum to standards” without ever paying much attention to what students are actually doing and learning in the classroom.

    Adopting national standards has some appeal and efficiencies, but it fights a long historical precedence and doesn’t always result in the best choices for individual school districts. NCLB is something of a “national standard” at least procedurally.

  7. Joel, can you explain what you mean by “doesn’t always result in the best choices for individual school districts.”

    Why do individual school districts lose out when there is a national set of standards? That’s what I’m not understanding.

  8. I have an arithmetic curriculum from my school district for 1958. Keyword; arithmetic! For grades k-6 it is strictly confined to arithmetic, which is simply computation. In those days, mathematics (the science) started in grade 7.

    It also clearly spells out mastery of key concepts by concept and grade, something that is anethma to current standards. Our current standards add probability, statistics, geometry, and algebra to the same demographic.

    Interestingly, the authors of today’s curriculum/textbook/ed school industrial complex seem to be quite aware of the potential for overload that this curricula bloat engenders. What they do is introduce a topic without the scary math words and rigor. So for example; the first encounter with a vertex is a ‘corner’, the first encounter with slope is ‘steepness’, the first encounter with a linear relationship is ‘incrementing table’, the first encounter with everything is a watered down built in misconception that you have to unteach later on. And yes, the first (too many) years of the arithmetical, mathematical smorgasbord are delivered by teachers who aren’t very good with math themselves.

    A national curriculum scares the hell out of me because the existing loons that created this mess will be in charge of the next one. If I could command something new it would be anarchy in the hopes that somewhere a Phoenix would arise from the mess that could lead by example.

    25 or so years of this crap has lead us to a situation where (in my district at least) the only mathematically correct language, equations, and reasoning are to be found in the teacher’s guides. The kids, they get worksheets with pretty pictures and no math. Would you get your car fixed by a mechanic whose library of shop guides contained lessons on how to use a wrench?

    I am the white rabbit!

  9. Well, no, my question could certainly be read quite literally. Which standards do you propose to use? The problem is not at all the abstract idea of national standards. But what are the standards to be? We’re well into the standards movement; there are many countries with successful national standards; there ought to be some specific ones you like.

  10. Mindy– I suppose I’m not sure if that’s true. The politics of the standards gets pretty intense–reading wars & math wars as examples. Perhaps, the best set of national standards could be established. I just don’t see what government entity would implement those–and if it was the Department of Education as it’s now made up my guess is that there would be many educators that would expect that we wouldn’t get the best set of standards.

    Personally, I’m less interested in standards that I am in what learning can be demonstrated by the students in the classroom.

    Many traditional math classrooms have taught esoteric vocabulary & algorithms, with little care about understanding–and even less care about students that don’t have an aptitude. Much of the recent math reforms have been focused on understanding and supporting success for all students.

    Statements like my last paragraph can bring out the math wars and make establishing national standards a nightmare.

    It’s certainly interesting. Tom– I think the answer to your question is “the one’s I like”, although that may be quite different depending on who is talking. It does seem that common standards should be something achievable — the next question is how to get all students to reach those standards.

  11. A year ago, the idea of a national curriculum scared me to pieces. This year I’m becoming more inclined to having national standards beyond NCTM.

    I don’t have a curriculum.

    I haven’t taught this before.

    The two different high schools I attended taught math courses in different orders. Actually, I think they had different required courses for graduation. They were in the same state, so I’m not sure how it worked.

    Point being, I need some sort of guidance to make sure that what I’m teaching this year is what my students should be learning.

    My state standards are vague enough to be next to useless. Looking at them for ideas of what I’m supposed to teach has not been helpful in my first year teaching. I’ve looked at California’s, Hawaii’s, and NCTM’s lists periodically. I have a shelf of sample textbooks that I pull from. Every textbook teaches things in a different order. Different states, different textbooks take you farther in a course. Deeper in the subject. It varies a ton.

    I know what I’ve taught this year should NOT match up to the standards for Algebra II. (Given that it’s my first year, and given where my students started, I feel proud of our progress through Algebra I.) It’s pitiful, I’m sorry. And if you want me to, I can point to a state standard for every lesson.

    So to follow-up on JackieB and Joel’s comments, what do you do with classes where the standards are not met? In the meantime, what do I do with my class, entering way behind without standards to hold me accountable to where they should be?

  12. As to graduation requirements: usually the district sets the requirements within the outline provided by the state. For example, 22 credits (4 yrs. with 6 classes per year) with at least 2 high school math credits — some schools will allow credit for basic math, pre-algebra, or functional math. Historically, math students have been sorted into two groups: those that got it & those that didn’t. The business community and common wisdom is that to make a family supporting living most people need to continue in school beyond high school. Students successful in Algebra II are 50% more likely to graduate from college. My conclusion is that more students need to succeed in math (Algebra II) and for that to happen it has to be taught differently.

    What to do when students don’t meet standards? One thing we know that doesn’t work is sorting those that don’t into the “can’t do math” group. Double-dosing in one strategy that’s shown some success, providing two classes of math–one with the best possible teacher explaining concepts, filling gaps, providing lots of activities, and no homework; and a second traditional algebra or algebra II class. Even when a whole class is below standards there is still lots of difference within the class. Great instruction and the best teachers for the students with the greatest need helps too.

  13. Yup, I’d be happy with national standards that set a floor — a floor that everyone recognized as the bare minimum necessary to say you’ve had that subject. The national test (the one in my imaginary world) would test this bare minimum. Easy to compare, easy to see where the kids are at least uh, my new term, bare bones basic. Not so much on the multiple choice though — more here’s a problem, solve it. Here’s a passage to read, here are some questions, choose a couple and write about answers including ___). Mighty expensive to grade, of course.

    Then the state and the local could choose from the voluminous standards they’ve already got (which are often immense, yet also overlapping, repetitive, and still glaringly incomplete in some things) and add in what they think really needs to be added in, here’s hoping that it’s in some ways a la carte — teach at least one of these [time periods/scientific theories/etc.] in depth, covering at least [list of important stuff]. This would also be far more helpful for teaching gifted students — you could add on another topic, or require more depth in the given topic with a road map right in front of you.

    States could still give harder, based on their less basic standards, and assuming the floor ability tests. Some states would be known to have really stupidly silly tests (as they do now) and others would be known for their very difficult tests.

    But, we’d still know that there was a floor. The biggest problem with NCLB, wait, biggest two problems are not acknowledging big gains — say from 3 years below grade level to less than a year below in one year of teaching (yes, they’ve given some states this) and tracking individual kids rather than comparing different kids each year, and not acknowledging that while all kids deserve to achieve at that floor level and should be worked with until they do…we still don’t live in Lake Wobegon and we’re never all going to be way above average.

  14. I think its more than we want to “customize” our standards by state. I dont know if we truly know what the set of skills our students need by the time the graduate are. Look at the recent news about the need for students from MA (which is generally regarded as a state with strong standards) who have to take remedial classes upon arriving at university.

    We need to do some serious alignment between what the eventual employers need, what the colleges determine is an entry level amount of knowledge and what we teach at the K12 level.

    Unfortunately, because of our segmented education system and department, decisions are made at the federal level with lofty ideals and real consequences for local schools, and rather than adopt their ideals and work for them in a meaningful way, panic ensues and some people try to game the system.

    We do need a floor. And a measurement of how cohorts of students move towards that standard. But we also need a bar, a goal, a acknowledgment of the students who not only are standing on the floor, but have jumped over a second bar. There needs to be something better than passing to strive for and be rewarded for. For both teachers and students. And we cannot rely solely on the AP program to set that bar or you get the recent debacle with the AP Computer Science AB exam.

    Look at the news (MSNBC as of yesterday) for the 30 fastest growing jobs. 4 of the top 10 are in computers and technology – yet the Collegeboard canceled one of the two AP computer science exams without even consulting their own computer science development committee.

    A national curriculum with national standards set for two levels, basic and excellent is much needed. We also need to choose to stop letting private organizations (AP and IB) decide what subjects are important.

  15. From Leigh Ann Sudol: “We need to do some serious alignment between what the eventual employers need, what the colleges determine is an entry level amount of knowledge and what we teach at the K12 level.”

    I just wanted to repeat that, and add that this is something that should happen regularly (annually or so?).

  16. I’m not so sure about an annual readjustment — we have a very hard time predicting specific job skills and the standards they’d require (beyond say, some very solid math and analytical skills and science knowledge + ability to recognize good v. bad science) — especially predicting them 4-8 years in advance.

    Any well-prepared student (at the higher bar level at least) should be able to learn anything they need in college IF they come in knowing how to think and with a large basic reservoir of knowledge.

  17. I’m currently taking an environmental science class at our community college — to be certified as an elem. teacher in my state, it’s required that everyone have a class in the environment (never mind I already have a B.S.). Fine, I’ve found the two classes I’ve taken at this school are well-organized, with excellent teachers.

    But, even my current professor (who of course, is younger than I am!) said they’ve noticed the change in students over the last 5 or so years. Their test scores may be “proficient” but that’s exactly what they can do — they can take what you tell them and tell you it back. They have less knowledge overall and they have a very hard time seeing problems in logic.

    Now, all anecdotal of course, but if NCLB and standards as is were working, it seems like we’d have seen at least a slight jump upwards. Although I guess we sort of have — just not in skills that really do a lot of good academically.

  18. Lately I have been telling people that we are creating a generation of “formula-pluggers” and “step followers”.

    Give them a formula and values and they can plug in or move it around and do great. Give them a series of steps to solve a problem, and they can do it.

    Ask them to pull from existing knowledge to create a new formula or build their own series of steps.. not so much.

    Your statement about “if they know how to think” is crucial but how do we measure that with easily graded mandated assessments?

  19. Your statement about “if they know how to think” is crucial but how do we measure that with easily graded mandated assessments?

    whiiiiine, does it have to be easily graded?! What would it look like ideally and what would it look like in practice?

    In science, I could see perhaps a comparison of three studies. Students would review the three studies, identify the important components, and then discuss using both their knowledge and their analytical skills which of the studies was the best designed and why, what questions the results pose for further study and then describe an experiment to test one of those questions.

    There. That’s one. Not necessarily totally difficult to grade; there could easily be at least a key of “obvious problems” “more difficult to discern problems” and maybe a category of “wow, why didn’t we notice that!” with codes attached for grading purposes.

    Same sort of thing perhaps for a literature based assignment. Read an essay or an excerpt and write an essay on a given topic and hand in and perhaps answer some short answer questions about grammar, or vocabulary or the like. Then read two reviews or essays about the about the original piece and write an essay analyzing the different viewpoints and talking about how your opinion has or has not changed/been strengthened/been broadened.

    I could actually see using something like this at the elementary level — obviously with appropriate level material. I think the having an opinion first, then seeing other opinions and then *rethinking* is a valuable learning/thinking skill that can be taught.

  20. Joel, your comment that…

    “Students successful in Algebra II are 50% more likely to graduate from college. My conclusion is that more students need to succeed in math (Algebra II) …”

    raises my overactive “causation-or-merely-correlation” radar.

    Yes, students who succeed in Alg 2 are more likely to graduate from college. Also true: students who eat dinner as a family unit more nights than not are are also more likely to graduate from college. Do we need to make sure families eat dinner together, too, as well as making more kids suffer through Algebra II?

    I hope this didn’t sound snarky. I really don’t mean it that way. I just worry when people credit credit math courses for delivering certain outcomes that are more likely caused by *other attributes* of the students who take said math courses. Am I outrageously wrong?

    –Sandy (Slacker/almost-flunker of Algebra 2 in 1973, successful in college and life nonetheless)

  21. What would a national curriculum do for teaching and public education that state standards fail to do? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Aren’t state standards already a statement of the bare minimums? That’s how I read the framework in my content area.

    National consensus is too much to assume. Absolutely. We can barely even reach campus or district consensus. State consensus is a joke. Besides, consensus doesn’t create professionals. It takes a lot more than that. I’m not even sure consensus is a necessary part of professionalism.

    Dan, your line about pursuing “the perfect at the expense of improvement” ignores a painful truth: conversations around standards and curriculum are never opening volleys; they are crushing spikes that end all discussion. If we want to improve, let’s keep the conversation going once the list has been created. However, we all know that’s not how it works. Once the curriculum is in place, it’s there to stay. The standards for both our subject areas were adopted in 1997 with no discussion of improvement and no plans for refinement since then.

    We should all be hesitant to put something in place that we know is flawed because it’ll be there for a long, long time before anyone even thinks to do anything about it. Education does not take incremental steps toward perfection like you suggest. It takes one huge step at a time, perhaps with 10 years between steps. Don’t talk about the public education system as if it were a well-oiled machine that’s prepared to change tack at the first sign of distress. Our classrooms might work like that, but the system certainly does not.