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High Standards

Posted: 2008-04-06

This chapter appears in Knowledge & Power in the Global Economy: The Effects of School Reform in a Neoliberal/Neoconservative Age, Second Edition, ed. David Gabbard (Lawrence Erlbaum 2008).

You will try. And try again. And again. And you will smile. Because it's so much healthier than crying or throwing up.
--Molly Ivins

Years ago, then-New York Times metro reporter Michael Winerip wrote a fascinating piece about a member of the Association of professional Organizers, people paid top dollar for organizing other people's closets. Winerip asked to see the professional organizer's own closet and reported that for every piece of clothing, this woman keeps a note card of matching accessories. With her green suit, she always wears her green shoes, amber pin, and beige pocketbook. "I never have to think about anything, it's great," she said. Surely the professional closet organizer is a great countermetaphor for teaching, a craft of uncertainty, a profession where you have to think about a lot of things at the same time, a place were we have to come up with alternatives all the time. We have to clean our own closets.

Or at least we did until the Standrdistos moved in. These days, in the name of standards, keeping all students on the road to 21st century skills, teachers get decrees on everything from scripts for reading lessons to required bulleting board content. Once a school system signs on to standards, the required formula for chicken feed follows close behind. For example, in what they called iterative meetings and contractual agreements with Mark Tucker's National Center on Education and the Economy (NCCEE),* the Georgia Department of Education came up with a standards-based Quality Core Curriculum, part of a process illustrated in a rather amazing flowchart giving new meaning to the expression form over substance. Next came the chicken feed. With 135 Days of Teaching With the Quality Core Curriculum! (Georgia Department of Education, 2003), the Georgia Department of Education offers standards-based lessons delivering curriculum to all students. Offering a "concise timeline of the phase-in of the testing alignment," the department warns teachers, in effect, "Do this or else." They state unequivocally that "the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) and Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT) administered in the second year of the phase-in for a particular course will be developed and aligned to the new curriculum."

Covering all bases, the department has advice for teachers whose students cannot read the texts specified in the curriculum: Rewrite the texts. In the General Accommodations for Non-Readers (Georgia Department of Education, 2002), teachers are advised that for students who are unable to read Lord of the Flies, the teacher should "rewrite student's text using pictures for key words, using Writing with Symbols software" (2003). The high-standards-for-all crowd insist that the proverbial playing field will be leveled by giving all ninth-graders Lord of the Flies. The Robins can read the whole book; the Blue Jays need read only half; and for the Pigeons, the teacher will rewrite the text, substituting pictures for difficult words. In such an environment, all students are probably cheated, but the Pigeons are harmed the most. They are cheated from learning what they can learn--and what they need to learn. As a contrasting, messier approach, I offer the best advice I ever received as a teacher. Hired on an emergency credential in mid-October by the New York City Board of Education, I complained to my department chair that one ninth-grader refused to read the prescribed John Tremain. The chair advised, "Then find a book he will read." What a revolutionary idea: Tailor the curriculum to the needs of an individual student instead of trying to twist and shove that student into a Standardisto regimen.


Of course, it all depends on how you see the universe. Some of us watch for the daily particularities (and peculiarities) of the kids in our care; others worry about completing the grand plan. Having put David Hawkins's (1974) insistence that learning is really a process of choice at the core of a teaching career spanning grades 1 through 14, E. D. Hirsh's first book in the Cultural Literacy (1987) assembly line hit me like a ton of manure. The hubris of the subtitle and the appendix title reflect the snippy, braggadocio tendencies of all Standardistos: What Every American Needs to Know and What Literate Americans Know. When Education Week published an excerpt--all the words from Hirsch's list beginning with the letter C--I did not get halfway through the list before picking up the phone and calling Education Week, insisting that they let me review the book.

Funny thing, I had rather admired Hirsch's small essay on cultural literacy published earlier in The American Scholar (Hirsch, 1983). After all, most of us would agree that there are certain basics that all people need to know to function in the world. But when we try to turn a few generalized precepts into laundry lists, there is trouble in River City. Your list will be different from mine, and we may both be right. Or wrong. And this is the sticking point. People who decide they are capable of or destined for writing standards, which drive pretentious and persnickety lists, rarely have the ability to admit error. The gods seek no advice. Neither do Standardistos. And worse, they have no faith in children's enthusiasm for learning.

Ranging from the abominable snowman to Zurich, Hirsh's list of nearly 5,000 items is awesomely loony. When I first got my hands on the book, I amazed and alarmed strangers on airplanes and in hotel lobbies by reading them portions of the list: What do you know about Leyden jars and when did you know it? How are your Mach numbers? Is your amicus curiae in working order. During long hours in a hospital waiting room, I quizzed my sister and nephew with list items: Lee Iacocca, Jerry Falwell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the pre-Ralphaelites. When I got to "La Cucaracha," they burst into song, but I have never quite figured out how knowledge of this song certifies national literacy. My husband is the only person I encountered who could identify Marianas Trench, and he was quick to admit he acquired this arcane bit of information not from his university education, which includes a PhD in physics, but from nosing around in The Guinness Book of World Records. I rarely go for the feminist angle, but I did ask this question in Education Week (1987):

And why Onan, Mr. Hirsch? Onan, but not Ruth, Naomi or Esther? Teachers across the land wait with ugly anticipation to learn at what grade Onan's tale should be told. And who gets the job of explaining the Marquis de Sade? People alarmed by the possible mention of condoms (not on the list, though penis envy is) in the schools will have a field day with Mr. Hirsch's literacy prescriptions.

On the surface, Hirsch's premise would seem egalitarian, insisting that, with the right content, all children will have access to the same basic education: all knowledge for all people. It is, however, conservative in that it aims at preparing children for an existing, predefined world order rather than working toward a new one, but political conservatism is not what is wrong with Mr. Hirsch's list and his subsequent series of books that prescribe education standards and content for kindergartners through sixth-graders. What is wrong with Hirsch's list and that of all Standardistos is the excessive orderliness when leads to teaching by checklist. Remember Rose in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist? The queen of standards, Rose had a kitchen that was so completely alphabetized, you'd find the allspice next to the ant poison. Rose cannot mail off her brother's book manuscript until she buys 9-by-12 envelopes: "All we've got left is ten-by-thirteen. It's terrible when things don't fit precisely. They get all out of alignment."

Alignment: The battle cry of the corporate-politico-Standardisto alliance that makes its rounds under the banner of education reform.


People who label their think tanks "progressive" are as obsessed with the neat and tidy universe offered by alignment as are other Standardistos. Echoing Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, progressives promise a skills checklist in every lesson plan. If outfits like the Center for American Progress did not label themselves "progressive," we would have a hard time distinguishing their education policy from that of neoconservatives. Equating reform with standards and testing, they all talk about rigor, and if you wonder why this is a bad thing, look up the word in the dictionary. Then, if you have not croaked from despair, take a look at the 24-page report The Progressive Priorities Series: Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force, issued by the Center for American Progress (2005). You will see that just about the only place their recommendations differ from the rhetoric spewing forth from Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is in their failure to embrace vouchers.

Here's part of the laundry list offered by the progressive revisionists: teaching as a clinical practice profession, much like medicine; competitive compensation structures for all teachers; using data for greater accountability and smarter decision making; a uniform curriculum; learning benchmarks aligned with state standards; aligned model lessons; aligned benchmark assessments.

And it gets worse. On November 8, 2005, the Center for American Progress and the Institute for Responsive Education joined hands to write a manifesto, The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity (Brown & Rocha, 2005). Arguing that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a step forward in the standards movement, the Center makes the case that 50 separate sets of standards from 50 states is slowing down progress and what the nation needs is what President Clinton wanted: national standards and a national test.

The federal government should support the crafting, adoption, and promotion of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas so that students can succeed in every academic setting and in the national and global marketplaces. It should also expand national accountability measures and assist low-performing schools and districts. It should initiate a national conversation about not only the importance of standards and accountability but also the need for paying sufficiently and equitably for public schooling, including modern and safe facilities, from pre-school to college. (Center for American Progress, 2005)


The longstanding corporate-politico alliance marches on. John Podesta, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Clinton, the Standardisto governor who worked hard at bringing us a national test. As first lady of Arkansas, Hillary had an education plan long before she had a health plan.

As Kathy Emery and I show in Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (2004), by the time Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, the infrastructure for corporatizing schools was firmly in place. From the National Education Goals Summit in 1989, where America 2000 was ironed out, through the No Child Left Behind Act, corporate chiefs and their allies have worked to end kindergarten as we know it, to deny children's diversity in every grade, and to install a rigid system of tests and measures that will force a national curriculum onto the schools. Once that curriculum is in place, politicians can claim that every student has an equal opportunity to become a global worker. The mantra of marketplace education is "Algebra for elimination." When students fail, members of the ruling elite can send them to their rightful place on the minimum-wage dunghill with admonition, "Well, we gave you an equal opportunity to meet the gals." And the outlook is not any better for those who conquer algebra, calculus, and other things that go bump in the night. In The Shell Game, education analyst Clinton Boutwell (1997) argues that Corporados have deliberately sought world-class education in order to lower the wages of high-tech workers--with the result being a lot of highly qualified people competing for the same job--and desperate enough to take whatever is offered. A look at the U. S. Bureau of labor Statistics job projections shows that new jobs over the next 10 to 15 years are in the service industry, not in fields requiring a college degree. Larry Cuban, for one, says that "the myth of better schools as the engine for a leaner, strong economy was a scam from the very beginning" (Cuban, 1994).

For the Education Summit held at IBM headquarters in Palisades, NY, on March 27, 1996, the planning committee included the governors of Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and North Carolina, as well as business leaders from IBM, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, Procter & Gamble, and Boeing. The list of people invited as resources reads like a "who's who" of corporate/conservative think tanks and their lackeys: Lynn Cheney, American Enterprise Institute; Denis Doyle, Heritage Foundation; Chester Finn, Hudson Institute; Diane Ravitch, consultant; Albert Shanker, American Federation of Teachers; Lewis Solomon, Milken Foundation; and Bob Schwartz, Pew Charitable Trusts. Third-grade teachers, of course, were conspicuous by their absence.

At this Palisades meeting, President Clinton talked of a "full-meaning" high school diploma and of "meaningful standards" that would "requite a test for children to move. . . from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school." He used the word standards 40 times in his short speech and he made it clear where these standards would come from:

I accept your premise; we can only do better with tougher standards and better assessment, and you should set the standards. I believe that is absolutely right. And that will be the lasting legacy of this conference. I also believe, along with Mr. Gerstner and the others who are here, that it's very important not only for businesses to speak out for reform, but for business leaders to be knowledgeable enough to know what reform to speak out for, and what to emphasize, and how to hammer home the case for higher standards, as well as how to help local school districts change some of the things that they are now doing so that they have a reasonable chance at meeting these standards. (Clinton, 1996, p. 4)

This noisy alliance of politicians, CEOs, think tank entrepreneurs, and media camp followers remains intend on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lock-step through a one-size-fits-all curriculum. They call it higher standards for all.

Take a look at Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America's Public Schools (Gerstner, Semarad, Doyle, & Johnston, 2000), by Louis Gerstner, Jr., chairman and CEO of IBM. The fact that it was published within a month of the passage of Goals 2000 is no coincidence. One of the noteworthy features of Goals 2000 is that Gerstner and his cronies got to name the problem as well as define the solution: claiming the need for choice, competition, and technology in the schools; defining students as human capital and the teaching/learning compact as a "protected monopoly" offering "goods and services"; describing the relationship between teachers and the communities they serve as that of "buyers and sellers." ** Gerstner and company talk about measuring school productivity "with unequivocal yardsticks" (Gerstner et al., 2000, p. 69). They speak of the need for national tests and "absolute standards," insisting that schools must compare themselves to each other the way "Xerox, for example, compares itself to LL. Bean for inventory control" (p. 70). Now that's a fine notion: teaching as inventory control.

Gerstner and his crew address the big questions of education: "How much do students learn each month...? How great are these learning gains per dollar spent?" (Gerstner et al., 2000, p. 69). They define the business of teaching as "the distribution of information" (p. 155). At their April 1997 meeting, members of the California Academic Standards Commission of the state board of education, whose job it was to approve academic standards in the various disciplines, showed a similar fondness for teaching as the delivery of skills: "A fifth-grade teacher would have a firm grasp on what skills and knowledge had been conveyed in grades K-4, and would deliver kids to the next grade ready to continue with the next set of expectations." How many minutes does a fledgling teacher have to be in a real classroom before she realizes that students do not pass by her desk like goods on a conveyor belt? You can teach and teach and teach. You can even teach the California seventh-grade history standards. But all your teaching does not mean those pesky students are going to learn--or deliver their skills intact to next year's teacher.

It is long past time that we question whose good is being served when kids are pushed out of school without a diploma. Whose good is being served when, instead of denouncing and dismantling high-stakes testing, quisling academics publish books on how to train children to feel better about taking the tests? Whose good is being served when once-venerable professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English are no hawking corporate flimflam called 21st-century skills? Whose good is being served when hapless teachers are manipulated into teaching from an impossible canon decreed by the politico/corporate cartel? Members of Congress, executives at IBM, and the folk at progressive think tanks can sleep easy, knowing that every seventh-grader in the land is being trained to identify William Tindale. (For a reason known only to them and the Almighty, the California Standardistos who wrote this curriculum imperative insist on this third alternative spelling.)***


Believing that we teachers are our stories, and because Jack's story is one of the most important of my career, I get it out often, re-examining what it means. When I taught in an alternative high school, part of the public school system, where our main job was to keep those kids out of contact with regular kids, Jack was one of my most difficult, irregular students. One day, out of desperation, I shoved an article in Harper's about Scrabble hustlers in New York City at him, growling, "Read this!" Attracted by the fact that street hustlers made money from a game, Jack noted that serious players prefer the Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary because it has lots of extra word lists, words beginning with the same prefix, and so on. I insistd that for launching his own Scrabble career, our American Heritage Dictionary would surely be adequate, but Jack pestered until I ordered Funk and Wagnall's. Always eager to upend preconceptions about my students, I felt pretty good about telling my supervisor that a student had requested a dictionary recommended in Harper's. With the Scrabble board and the new dictionary in hand, Jack moved to a back corner of the room. He stayed there for six months. According to our school rules, a student had to be in attendance only 3 1/2 hours a day. Most days, we had to shove Jack out after eight hours.

As the most obnoxious of the obnoxious, Jack probably started playing himself in Scrabble because nobody else would go near him, but then a passion for the quest took over. Jack sat there muttering, cursing, studying the dictionary. During this Scrabble marathon, Jack did o school assignments, and significantly, none of his classmates asked me, "How come?" How come they were doing school assignments and Jack wasn't? My experience is that most kids want to be "regular" and they do not complain when an oddball gets irregular treatment. The simple truth of the matter was that nobody wanted to be like jack. My supervisor, however, could not resist a few digs. He would walk into the room, nod toward the corner, and say, "Jack still playing Scrabble?"

I'd reply, "Yes, he's still working hard at it." Give the man credit. Having hired me, he then allowed me to take charge. I will not pretend that my smile did not become a little forced by the third month and even desperate by the fifth, but the fact of the matter is that no one can make a student study anything. And remember Frank Smith's advice: When a student persists at the same irregular activity, doing it over and over, he is not wasting time, is not trying to get out of real work. I can testify that whether it is a third-grader reading Rumpelstiltskin 16 days in a row (before I stopped counting) or a kid obsessing over Scrabble, he persists at that activity because he is getting something important out of it.

But if you are welded to standards and testing, if you bow every morning at the alignment altar, then you have to tell the kid he cannot read Rumpelstiltskin again. Or play Scrabble for six months. In reality, in his decidedly unaligned state, Jack was engaged in the most difficult work of all--that silent, solitary, internal task of coming to grips with one's self, with one's own deepest needs. Jack's work meant first changing his view of himself and later figuring out where he might find a place for himself in the world. Finally, Jack decided he was ready, and he challenged me to a game of Scrabble. He trounced me badly. It was a wonderful, electric moment. The immediate results were that other students wanted to play Scrabble with Jack, and soon after his triumph, Jack started working on the regular school curriculum.

Jack's story is one of the leitmotifs in my professional career. I cannot stop from telling it over and over. I knew at the time that his Scrabble work was important, but years later, I am still learning what it meant. In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the world of Competitive Scrabble Players (2002), Stefan Fatsis shows the reader that Scrabble at this level is about weirdness, extreme weirdness. It is also about linguistics, psychology, mathematics, memory, competition, doggedness. Scrabble at the national competitive level and with one out-of-kilter kid in an alternative school set up for misfits is about mastering the rules; it is about failure and hope. But we must not forget: it is also about weirdness.


* For a discussion of Marc Tucker and his connection to Clinton's plan for national standards and testing, see Emery and Ohanian (2004, pp. 48-52). Conspiracy theories continue to swirl around Tucker. The right wing sees him as a prime mover for "womb-to-tomb" government control. An emerging left-wing theory is that he is positioning himself for lucrative deals when school choice becomes a reality.

**This analysis is adapted from Ohanian (2000)

***I don't know which is my favorite: seventh-graders analyzing the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of Islamic civilizations in the Middle Ages, of China in the Middle Ages, of the sub-Saharan civilizations of Japan in the Middle Ages, of Europe in the Middle Ages, and of Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations; or the theological, political, and economic ideas of the major figures of the Reformation (e.g., Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale). These are just 2 of 11 standards to be covered by California seventh-graders.


Boutwell, C. E. (1997). Shell game: Corporate America's agenda for schools. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.

Brown, C., & Rocha, E. (2005, November). The case for national standards, accountability, and fiscal equity: Standards-based framework in a decentralized system. Center for American Progress. Retrieved March 12, 2006, from

Center for American Progress (2005). The progressive priorities: Ensuring a high-quality education for every child by building a stronger teaching force. Retrieved March 12, 2006, from
http://www.american progress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=260627

Clinton, W. J. (1996)m Remarks to the National Governors' Association Education Summit in Palisades, New York. Retrieved May 1, 2007 from

Cuban, L. (1994. June 15). The great school scam. Education Week, p. 44.

Emery, K. & Ohanian, S. (2004). Why is corporate America bashing our public schools? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fatsis, S. (2005). Word freak: Heartbreak, triumph, genius, and obsession in the world of competitive scrabble players. New York: Penguin.

Georgia Department of Education. (2002). General accommodations for nonreaders. Retrieved May 1, 2007 from

Georgia Department of Education (2003). 135 days of teaching with the quality core curriculum! Retrieved December 18, 2005, from

Gerstner, L. Semerad, R., Doyle, D., & Johnson, W. (2000). Reinventing education: Entrepreneurship in America's public schools. New York. Dutton.

Hawkins, D. (1974). The informed vision and other essays. New York: Agathon Press.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1983. Cultural literacy.American Scholar, 52, 159-169.

Hirsch. E. D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few: The folly of educational standards. Portsmouth. Heinemann.

Ohanian, S. (2000, January). Goals 2000: What's in a name? Phi Delta Kappan,. Retrieved from

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