Harriet K. Cuffaro (2000)

Educational Standards in a Democratic Society:
Questioning Process and Consequences

Preparing a presentation can be difficult and unsettling. It requires much thinking, reading, reflecting, organizing thoughts, and seeking the words that will engage and hold the interest of the listener. It is a rather solitary task but its end is social—to communicate. What begins as a conversation within self becomes a sharing of ideas with others. I confess that this presentation has been particularly difficult and unsettling and it took a while to understand why.

I began with: "Well, what experiences can I call on to inform my thinking about standards?" Thinking about standards and my experiences as a teacher, I was having difficulty making personal connections. Yes, as a classroom teacher, I had dealt with curriculum guidelines, the expectations of principals and parents, rules and requirements, and supervisory visits. Still, in my thinking I was not making meaningful connections to the topic of the presentation. As I procrastinated further in writing this talk, by reading more articles, I realized that it was more than the topic of standards that was causing my difficulty. What was surfacing was my increasing frustration with the field that has been my life’s work for so many years—a frustration rooted in the ever-recurring cyclical call to arms in education. I refer to the repeated search for solutions to society’s problems through education, as well as blaming education for the nation’s problems. I have worked in, and with, a variety of calls to make our world better through education: Sputnik, the War on Poverty, Competency Based Teacher Education, A Nation at Risk, Technology, to name just a few. As I reviewed each decade and its mission and promises, I remembered an essay from which I would like to quote.

"Consider the wave by which a new study is introduced into the curriculum. Someone feels that the school system… is falling behind the times. There are rumors of great progress in education making elsewhere. Something new and important has been introduced; education is being revolutionized by it; the school superintendent, or members of the board of education, become somewhat uneasy; …letters are written to the newspapers; editorials appear, finally the school board ordains that on and after a certain date the particular (study)… shall be taught in the public schools. The victory is won and everybody—unless it be some already over-burdened and distracted teacher—congratulates everybody else that such advanced steps are taken.

The next year, or possibly the next month, there comes an outcry that children do not write or spell or figure as well as they used to; that they cannot do the necessary work in the upper grades or in the high school because of lack of ready command of the necessary tools of study. We are told that they are not prepared for business because their spelling is so poor, their work in addition and multiplication so slow and inaccurate...Some zealous soul on the school board takes up this matter, the newspapers are again heard from; investigations are set on foot, and the edict goes forth that there must be more drill in the fundamentals of writing, spelling, and number." (Dewey, 1976, 1901, 263) | Read the full paper»