Despite debate, learning standards have little influence on students – The Washington Post

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I play a lot of golf these days. My belief that I am going to improve my game is fortified by my inability to remember how badly I have played in the past, including yesterday.
Similar ineptitude and forgetfulness are reflected in the proposed revisions to Virginia’s history and social science learning standards. A huge political fight is underway between those who support the new standards’ commitment to “the optimism, ideals and imagery captured by Ronald Reagan’s ‘Shining city upon a hill’ speech” and critics who bemoan what they say are the new standards’ “overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians [and] highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals.”
The movement to save U.S. schools from mediocrity with standards for instruction began in the 1980s, about when I started covering education. I have since watched the decline of that movement, including the estimated $80 billion spent to create the Common Core State Standards that are now fading away.
As I read my Washington Post colleague Joe Heim’s excellent report on the new controversy in Virginia, I kept saying to myself: “Are they kidding?” Both the supporters and opponents of the new standards, which await a Virginia Board of Education vote in 2023, appear to think it is still important to have such guideposts. They only disagree on what the standards should be.
Virginia is changing the way it teaches history, social studies. Here’s how.
The education department’s confidence in the power of the proposed revisions is comic, at least to me. Once the goals are announced, the department says, they will come true. I am certain the hard-working state officials ordered to write such nonsense do not personally accept this fairyland view of school improvement.
“Every graduate from Virginia’s K-12 schools will possess a robust understanding of the places, people, events and ideas that comprise the history of Virginia, the United States and world civilizations,” the department says. “Our students will learn from the rise and fall of civilizations across time, so that we may pursue and maintain government and economic systems that have led to human achievement.”
Many experienced educators in the state’s government and in its schools know from personal experience that in the long run standards rarely work. Virginia created a Standards of Learning program for English, math, science and history in the late 1990s. I was allowed to sit in a room in Richmond and read all the high school history exams after promising not to reveal what was in them. History has always been my favorite subject. I thought the questions were very good.
But I also knew, from studying the disappointing results of history tests given to Americans since the 19th century, that we as a people don’t do well in this subject. Few of us need to know history for our jobs, so why bother?
What I once considered strong standards in Virginia have since declined, as standards tend to do. High school students are no longer required to take those tough exams. They can instead get the verified credit they need in history and social science through what the state calls “successful completion of assessments that include state-developed performance tasks scored locally in accordance with [state school board] guidelines using state-developed rubrics.” Giving the schools power to score those assessments is one of many new devices, like credit recovery online classes, that make graduating from high school easier than it has ever been.
Why our many big plans to raise education standards will never work
The experts are tired of my questions on this, but remain polite. Tom Loveless, past director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said: “Standards rarely affect teaching and learning. The state’s assessments and textbook recommendations can sometimes be more influential, but I doubt that the changes in history/social science standards will substantively change what Virginia students are taught or the topics on which they are tested.”
Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System — and How to Fix It,” said: “Academic standards alone often don’t affect what teachers do in practice, especially if they are not connected to state tests — which are usually limited to math and reading.”
Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was less pessimistic. “It’s true that state academic standards themselves don’t teach anybody anything,” he said, but “in the long run they affect curriculum, teacher prep, assessments, accountability and more.”
Our nation’s finest education historian, Diane Ravitch, focused her comment to me on the insanity of the political battle over Virginia’s suggested revisions. “Horace Mann, the father of the common school idea, said that if ever politics is inserted into the schools, the curriculum will change with every election.”
I think The Post’s education reporters have better things to do than write about bitter battles over what useless standards will say. But I learned something about how schools work when I covered the SOL battles two decades ago: It is teachers, not standards, that make a difference.
I wish Virginia educators luck dealing with this new controversy, just as I still have hopes for myself whenever I wave my battered 3-wood in the direction of the little yellow ball on the grass in front of me.


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