As we work to replace the Curriculum Transfer Model with the Student Agency Model, we immediately bump into the topic of standards and standardized testing.  If you are a classroom teacher, you are undoubtedly enmeshed in this issue. Perhaps you have a standardized semester exam and you can’t seem to cover all the material.  Or you are required to spend a week every year preparing your students for a state-run standardized exam, like the ACT, at the expense of the content you want your students to be learning.  Perhaps you have had disagreements with colleagues or a department chair over what should be included in the standards for a course that you teach, or you have a difference of opinion about implementing the Common Core curriculum in your classroom.  

Over the past decade or so, this issue has become ever more acrimonious, pitting school reformers against teachers’ unions, charter schools against public schools, and administrators against teachers.  Yet, we must address the problem of standards, because, like everything else about school, curricular standards must obey the Prime Directive and serve the new fundamental purpose of school.  Resolving the tension, and even hostility, between the various factions on this issue is a critically important task.  Without it, no true improvements in school can take place.

The reason this issue has become so problematic is that, over the years, standards have been made to serve the purposes of the Curriculum Transfer Model, with all its attendant consequences.  Here is why that must change.

The Standards Problem in a Nutshell

The question at the heart of the school reform for the past quarter century has been: “What must every student know and be able to do?”  This is the essence of the Standards Movement.  

But the Prime Directive says otherwise.  Now that we have our new purpose as a philosophical ground, this question must be revised to: “What must every student know and be able to do in order to be prepared to live life well?”  

The difference between these two questions is of profound importance.  The first doesn’t offer any guidelines as to why the standards must be mastered.  As a result, it fails to distinguish between content which is important for its own sake to the subject being taught, and that which is essential in preparing students to live their lives well.  The Prime Directive requires us to make this distinction.  We must ensure that the skills and knowledge that every student is required to master are chosen specifically to serve her needs.  

Let’s be clear:  dismantling the Curriculum Transfer Model does not mean abandoning curricular standards or lowering our expectations.  It simply requires us to redefine those standards so that they contribute to preparing students for their lives. To accomplish that, we need to liberate standards from the Curriculum Transfer Model. In so doing, we will make them more meaningful and effective.

This task of defining what constitutes essential content is both critically important and extremely challenging.  The problem is further complicated by the fact that what students need to know and be able to do is changing rapidly.  How much content they must know is continually becoming less important as the availability of information through technology continues to explode. As such, the definition of curricular standards, which has been such a central feature in conversations about education, is becoming less and less important in preparing students for life, exactly as the skill of learning and the desired character attributes discussed above are becoming more important.

Resolving the problem of standards is beyond the scope of this book, which is designed to provide teachers with the theory, strategies, and tools needed to transform their classrooms.  It is, instead, a task for the entire school community.

Fortunately, we do not need to solve this difficult systemic problem before we, as teachers, begin to make our own schools better.  No matter where you find yourself in relationship to standards and standardized testing, the strategies described in this book will be useful in the changes you are looking to implement.

An Optimistic Future

The current state of affairs in school reform is fraught and not particularly effective.  It would clearly be more productive to have a common purpose that can bring all the feuding parties back to the table; we need to solve the problem of improving schools together.  Surely we can all agree that there must be clear standards for what students should know and be able to do when they graduate. If we can also agree on our new fundamental purpose for school, then we can create a mechanism for building a new standards framework as well.