Body Counts and Standards-Based Reform
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 8/17/11

See also, National Standards


Why aren't all of America's school children achieving? Here are some obvious, but largely ignored, reasons:

Unwilling to address these root causes of schooling failure, unprepared to take the long view, unready to make hard decisions, public officials substitute quick fixes. And the most recent quick fix is the codification of schooling standards. If we can just decide what students should know or be able to do and how they should be required to demonstrate it, these officials assure us, things will get better.

This top-down, management by standards emphasis is entirely contrary to what excellently managed corporations have learned it takes to succeed. Focusing on inspector-generated quality controls obscures the overriding importance of individual teacher-generated quality control. It fails to focus the attention of school bureaucrats on individual students. It misses the elemental importance of helping individual teachers do their job. It fails to accentuate how strongly teachers can identify with their work if we actually listen to them, give them a little say in management, and protect them from harassment. It doesn't encourage educators to nourish innovation. It doesn't encourage school officials to overspend on instruction, overkill on student service and insist on offering courses that produce truly lasting results. It just iterates ideal accomplishments.

This standards approach to educational management recapitulates the management style that nearly destroyed corporations like ITT or the Ford Motor Company. Worse, it is the self same style that contributed mightily to our loosing the war in Vietnam. Robert MacNamara's whiz kids in the Pentagon set standards, counted bodies and just knew we had to be winning. Vietnamese peasants counted their dead grandmother or little sister and made serious plans to fight us indefinitely. Officials tell us if we adopt content standards and count test results things will get better. But classroom teachers face a thousand frustrations that are a consequence of these same officials neglecting the issues that began this monograph. And we can be certain that many of these teachers are making serious plans to ignore national standards ? indefinitely.

The standards style of management is fundamentally wrong-headed. Standards set at the top, have little or no lasting effect. Why? Because teachers caring about what they do is considered either unimportant or taken for granted. Yet teachers must feel valued, be eager to work and excited about what they do for good things to happen in the classroom. Any approach that fails to focus on this will not improve schooling. Achievement and people are synonymous. Instead of recognizing and acting on this, however, public officials ignore problems they should be addressing while piously admonishing teachers to meet standards they usually had no say in setting.

Here is a real-life example. It concern a middle school math teacher in a decaying industrial city. Persistently inadequate funding and deteriorating property values annually bring this teacher's district to the brink of bankruptcy. Our teacher's pay is less than teachers in every surrounding suburban district. She teaches in a dilapidated "annex" rented by the school district because the oversized, main building is chronically overcrowded. Instructional materials are scarce and out of date. The school's one photocopy machine is broken and no one knows when it might be repaired. Her classroom ceiling has been leaking stinking water for months. Wet plaster sags ominously, waste cans fill with putrid water, but no one in administration seems interested in getting it fixed.

The kids in our teacher's classes come from an economically devastated neighborhood abandoned by American industry when they sent the jobs overseas. Drug dealing now is the "hood's" biggest business, supplementing that tiny bit of the nation's above-ground wealth that "trickles down" to this level.

Kids are routinely tardy or absent ? a substantial number being out of class more than they are in. And when they do show up a lot of them are angry and nasty. When not bullying and distracting kids who want to learn, they abuse our teacher, defying her to "learn me anything." They scorn homework, preferring to spend out of school hours hanging on the streets where they get drunk or high and raise general hell. They also fill vacant hours watching mind-numbing drivel on TV -- MTV and shows like Jenny Jones being their favorites. (Today on Jenny, mothers who are having sex with their daughter's girl friends!)

Our teacher is white; but the kids, most of her fellow teachers and the annex principal are black. Harassed to the point of tears, but forbidden by school district policy from inflicting punishment hoodlums care about, our teacher beseeches the principal for support. Intent on pleasing his higher ups, he lines up with the kid's and their pugnacious parents instead. When our teacher complains to her colleagues about this, they look at one another with raised eyebrows as if to ask, "Is Ms. Charlie a bigot?"

Abused, forsaken and scorned, our teacher feels hopeless and utterly alone. Then, one fine morning, she takes her mail to her battered desk and opens it. She finds a brand new copy of Developing Numbers Sense : Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, published by the national Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Do you think she will find it helpful?