Standards: If You Can’t Beat Them, Use Them To Your Own Advantage

When the Common Core standards first came out, I hated them.  To be completely honest, I hated them before I had even read a single one. I hated the idea of them more than I hated the actual standards themselves. I hated the fact that something, other than the students sitting right next to me, was supposed to tell me what I should teach. I hated the fact that someone who had never met my students was going to tell me what was best for them. I hated that the standards assumed that each child, in each district, in each state across this country was starting his or her fifth grade year at the same place and therefore should be able to accomplish the same things by the end of the year. I hated so much about them before I even read them.

Most of what I thought about the standards came not from reading the standards themselves, but from the hype that surrounded the standards. Before I even had a chance to read what they said, I had listened to countless new reports and parents and other teachers tell me how bad they were. And I jumped right on that bandwagon. Because who doesn’t like a good fight against standardization when it comes to the very un-standardized children we teach and love?

And then I stopped myself. I realized that I was letting others form my own ideas for me. I realized that I was doing exactly what I asked my students never to do, I was making judgements without doing the work to inform myself. I was jumping to conclusions before I did my research.

And so I did better. I read the standards. I thought about the standards. I talked to others about the standards. I argued with others about the standards.

And slowly I began to grow. To deepen my own understanding.

To be honest, after working with the standards for a while, many of my feelings about them remain the same. I still push back against a system that tries to standardize everything. I still raise concerns about valuing consistency above doing what is best for an individual child. I still argue with the idea that one set of standards can ever meet the needs of every child in this country. However. I can now at least say that I understand the argument for why we need a set of standards. I might not fully agree with it, but I can at least understand it.

I also better understand the standards themselves. I see that they are not a curriculum but a list of objectives and learning targets for us to strive for. I see that they are not mandating how we teach, but rather explaining what our students should be able to do.  I do see that the standards allow for flexibility in our teaching methods and our teaching resources. I do see that there is value and worth in these standards, even if I don’t agree with their existence completely. I believe there are things that the Common Core got wrong and I also believe that there are things that the Common Core got right.

But here is what I have also come to believe: standards, in one form or another, are not going anywhere. This is the age we are in. This is the educational system that we are teaching in. This is where we are as a country.

And I do not believe, in any way, that we should just accept things as they are. I believe that we need to speak up and fight for our students and fight to make things better. And I also believe that in the meantime, until things change, if we can’t beat the standards, we should at least use them to our own advantage and to the advantage of our students.

And to use them to our advantage, we must know them. We have a responsibility to know what the standards say. For us and for our students.

We must know the standards so that when others falsely tell us what they say in defense of bad programs or bad instructional strategies, we can speak up and speak from knowledge.

We must know the standards so that we can use them to defend the practices that we know are best for kids. So that when someone questions our methods or our work, we can confidently tie them back to the standards we’ve been told that we must teach.

We must know the standards so that when someone brings us a new program that we do not believe in, we can ask, “What standards is this program teaching towards?” And then, more importantly we can ask, “Can I teach to these same standards in a way that works better for my students?” Because who can argue with that?

We must know the standards so that we can invite our students into the process of unpacking them, figuring out what they mean and finding ways to meet them and show mastery of them.

We must know the standards so that we can use them to do the things that we know are best for kids.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent,” and use it to justify why we are teaching students to analyze texts from the media for bias. So that we can explain to a parent who doesn’t understand why we are teaching about the riots in Baltimore or about Eric Garner or about race to fifth graders that we are using these current events in order to teach to one of the Common Core standards. So that we can justify our teaching of social justice issues by explaining what an effective way it is to teach this particular standard.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably,” and use it to justify writing inquiry circles into the fifth grade reading curriculum.

So that we can take a standard that says, “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly,” and use it to fight for literature discussion groups as a part of our reading workshop.

Too often, as teachers, we fall back on the standards as an easy explanation as to why we can’t possibly do all the things we want to do in the classroom. And yes, sometimes, the standards CAN be limiting. But they can also be used as a reason we can give as to why we are doing the work that we know is good for our students. But for that to happen, we must know what the standards really say. That is our responsibility.

And I know it won’t always work. I know that even armed with our knowledge, we will, sometimes, be told that we can’t do something that we believe in.  But what I know for certain is that we are always better off if we know what the standards say. If we are ready to explain how what we are doing is meeting those standards AND best for our students then we become infinitely harder to argue with.  Because those who want to just push teachers around and tell us what to do are hoping that we don’t do our research. That we give up. That we say that we are beat by the standards. So I, for one, do not plan on letting that happen.