Nick to Ted

Whose Standards? Nick to Ted ...

On Fri, 26 Apr 1996, Nick, in response to Ted's e-mail dated 4/24/96, wrote:

That's always been the point of resistance to standards. We already have standards that aren't being met--building code, occupancy rates, curriculum (can't meet them if the books aren't there). So to solve the problems, grandstanding on the need for standards because the thing to do.

Still. As cynical as I am, and as aware of the failure of both government and business to support schools adequately now, I can't think of how else to start reform than by setting some goals/standards/understandings. To that end, the dialogue, though limited, was at least useful.

One, not every discussion has to include everyone. Teachers should have their own conversations about standards too. It's like taking time to compose a message in e-mail before sending it to the list. There's a moment for personal reflection, a chance to figure out what one thinks.

Two, some of the discussion is public, in so far as it is on-line (which is still not very public). Although I imagine much of what goes on happens in hallways and between sessions. And while the talk of the conference in the press after has been from op.-eds. by those who attended extolling the conference (Shankar and Ravitch have had pieces that I've seen.), there's something on the table of public discussion.

Three, we can all go to that table; we need to. If we don't, we'll only get crumbs.

Four, technology literacy standards sound like an oxymoron when considers how little in computer technology is really standardized, though in the PC market it seems to Microsoft. But unlike print, which has been around for a long time, there's not yet a set standard for hypertext, or e-mail, or IRC/MOOs.

Five, because of four, the timing of the discussion is important. While that discussion was going on, Lester Faigley was giving a speech at CCCC on "Literacy After the Revolution." Point is, where in the revolution now and if we're going to effect literacy after, we need to act now. We need to because action is taking place. (Brings us back to Three, don't it?)

Six, we know from the reception of the NCTE/IRA standards what type of document will get heeded. I found it, for example, telling that the New York Times editorial on the standards complained of a lack of a declarative sentences. What the heck are process writing elements, they wondered? A few days later a letter appeared from someone involved in the project who said, in effect, why don't be silly, any elementary student can tell you that, and then she proceeded to list, fairly clearly, brainstorming, drafting, revising etc. with brief statements on what each were. NCTE/IRA wrote the standards for professional teachers, not for the community at large. Any standards anyone issues, then, need to be articulated in ways that include more than a narrow audience. To do that, they need to be written in collaboration with all stake holders, not just this or that group.

Seven, whose standards? I find comfort in their being no standards yet for computer technology, and specifically on-line writing. That means when we teach students how to write on-line, we can't readily revert to Strunk and White. We necessarily pay more attention to audience, purpose, rhetoric, grammar for meaning rather than by prescriptive rules, the role of feedback, of revising based on feedback, the cost of incivility in discussions, and so on. Previous standards were based on 'content' on matching an array of models and list of rules, and not on cognition and rhetorical fluency.

Eight, following seven I think there's a tremendous opportunity to help shape a set of standards that don't have to answer whose, but how, how to be literate.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344

To which Ted replied...

On Mon, 29 Apr 1996, Nick, in reply to Ted's 4/27/96 e-mail, wrote:

I caught that bit on the Regents exam and the promise to create. I'm also working with a student who is reading _Savage Inequalities_ and am reminded of disparitys. One of the thoughts this and exchange is leading me to, at least at this turn, is that no standard should be issued without a budget. I forget where I read it, but one of the phrases used, I believe by Gerstner, was "inexpensive technology." Technology is very expensive--maybe not in cost per unit, but certainly in cost per rethinking curriculum, training, up grades, etc.

On another angle: My daugthers' school district is exploring alternative assessment strategies. One option is using the Work Sampling System, a portfolio based method that sends home 'narratives' instead of report cards and includes a winter and spring conference with the parent wherein the teacher walks the parents through their child's portfolio. It's an exciting and effective practice, but also very time consuming. It reflects how teachers are teaching--integrating science with math and language arts and art and music and phys. ed.; it reflects the more hands on approaches being used; it makes space for a range of student work to show growth. But it is all more time consuming and teachers are hard pressed to find the time to do the work that just goes into maintaining 20 or so portfolios.

This year they've been given release time, but that's not likely to be in the offering much longer. The curriculum changes stem from new state standards, standards which evolved from many groups coming to the table. One of the claims between the lines of the Summitt seemed to be that new standards could be put into place and somehow that could be done more efficiently. It was ominous to note for example Ravitch's not being sure portfolios were valid because they can be so subjective. The belief that assessment by code or number, that standards can be measured by standardized test the best is what's troubling. The governors and business leaders declare that accountability needs to be in an accountant's language--numbers.

My sense is that standards are coming and that you have vested interests leading the way: businesses that sell technology, governors who run for re-election and want property values to be up in the right neighborhoods; educational testing services. This is not to say that teachers and parents and students don't have vested interests, but that each interest is skews perspective. I agree, then, that the course, as set needs some correction.

There should be for example, standards for funding standards. The emerging standards will not, cannot, be divorced from pedagogy. And pedagogy of connection, collaboration, technological literacy depend more on smaller student teacher ratios. We ain't just lecturing. One person can lecture to hundreds. We're coordinating, stepping in, sitting down with students...well you now better than I about all that.

We do teach to the test, at some level. Which reminds me, some of the rhetoric makes it sound like there have been no standards in place, as if everything has been willy nilly. There's a misleading sentiment being espoused that's dangerous for the very reasons you cite--standards will be declared and not met and teachers and public education will be damned even further.

The forum was disheartening in this regard. It was also disheartening because none of the participants in the summit joined the forum, so it really wasn't an interaction. But it was disheartening in how many views were one note sambas that over-simplified and chose convenient strawmen.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344

To which Ted replied...

On Tue, 4 Jun 1996, having failed to reply to Ted's message of 5/2/96, wrote in reply to Ted's note of 6/4/96:

Speaking of nightmares...

I have copies of your messages, Ted, but not mine. My sent folder was accidentally deleted during some housekeeping. If you can zap my messages to me, I'll code them tonight; thanks for the urls, i'lll add them.

I've got some links ready that go to the American Federation of Teachers homepage ( where Shankar's essays (for example, his blistering attack on the NCTE/IRA standards) are stored. I'll send you a copy of a page they have on grading and standards.

You're right about the testing. The Hartford Courant ( has coverage of that--the cheating scandals. It's one of the ironies of the whole debate where people want ot ahve national standards based on measurable performance and content standards. Thus test will be derived to see if those standards are met, and decisions about school districts will be based on those test results, and teachers will teach to the test.

For a conference that declared itself as about literacy and technology, it wt was only partially about those two areas. It was more about'fixing' schools. But the fix is to say teachers don't want standards, only parents, legislators, and business leaders do. But parents, the logic goes, don't want shared standards, only district standards. And they don't want to challenge their own teachers, who they generally like. Thus business-based, and other bottom-line-where's-the-dollar-going reformers, step in and offer standards.

We live in a political climate where we protect the right to drive cheaply in the summer by bribing oil companies to pass 4.3 cents a gallon on to consumers and then have the House Minority Leader suggest that we can pay for that cheap gas by cutting schools.

Education debates are argued by innuendo and mistrust, across political fences made up children, which each side hides behind; so people on the left and right argue about whether standards, and whose standards, but generally forget to ask the teachers in the classroom what's really going on.

One thing the Courant did well in its series on Hartford's school woes was visit classrooms; they got beyond the abstraction and malfeasance of statistics.

All that said brings me back to your original question--whose standards. That answering that is so troublesome indicates to me that it is a question worth trying to answer. Since it is usually avoided in any serious way, as is how standards will be accepted once agreed upon, as is the question of training, as is the question of cost, answering the question is somethign that needs to be done.

There's a direct correlation of poverty to success in schools and teaching; the poorer the district and the students, the poorer the performance. Instead of addressing that directly, governors go on about standards. You know what? If tomorrow national standards were adopted, universally accepted, and taught in good faith, but nothing else changed--no school funding changes, no teacher training changes, no reduction in class sizes, no increase in up to date text books (the money to purchase them), then in five to ten years we would declare the new standards a failure and in another ten to twenty years after that there would be a new clamor for standards, the need for them, the complaint that we don't have them.

We do need standards, national standards that are measurable, in education, but we also need standards of committment to children, to schoools and a standard for the governmental and private sector will to act--to reform school funding formulas, to recognize educational truths (smaller classes learn better than large; teachers choose the profession because they're idealists; both unions and management need to redefine their relations), and to use standards not so much as a measure of a sytems success, though that's important, but as tools to help children learn.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344

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