Will Standards Save Public Education?
reviewed by Kennon Sheldon - 2002
This essay by Deborah Meier, published in the "New Democracy Forum" series, addresses the potentially pernicious effects of top-down standard-setting and testing. The essay reveals a deep and practiced intuition into the factors which make for the very best in public education. Meier argues that the best and most vibrant schools are largely locally shaped, via democratic interactions and negotiations among students, teachers, parents, and community. She fears that federally-imposed standards tend to be superficial and overbearing, relying overmuch on circumscribed tests which likely will not tell us whether the true goals of education (i.e. creating responsible citizens who are also life-long learners) are being met.
I am a motivation theorist, not an educational psychologist. Nevertheless, I have had some opportunity to consider the impact of top-down standards upon school reform (Sheldon & Biddle, 1998). Indeed, many of Meier’s arguments and prescriptions are consistent with our own predominant frame of reference, self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This theory, under development for more than 30 years, emphasizes the importance of autonomous self-regulation for bringing about optimal motivation, well-being/satisfaction, and cognitive/societal integration (see Sheldon & Biddle, 1998 for a review). According to SDT, when people are treated in controlling ways by authorities, their intrinsic motivation is often undermined, and their internalization of desirable norms and practices is forestalled. The result: bored, alienated students who do not believe in the value of learning. In this light, Meier’s insistence upon local autonomy rings true.
However it seems there are a few problems with Meier’s argument. First, as pointed out by Nash in an accompanying commentary, granting total control of the curricula to the local community opens the door for marginalized groups to dominate that community’s education. For example, religious reactionaries might refuse to admit evolutionary theory into their curriculum, or present their own dogma as truth. Thus, ideally there will be at least some global standards in place, to prevent communities from isolating their children from the rest of the nation. Conversely, allowing some degree of top-down control over local curricula and practices is likely to help to keep us united as a nation, in that all children thereby come to share a common cultural and pedagogical bond (for example, I recited "The Pledge of Allegiance," as did all others of my generation).
A second problem is that Meier’s complaints may apply primarily for schools with gifted children and/or educators. In fact, as commentator Murnane points out, national standards are typically not levied to rein in dedicated educators and high-functioning schools, but rather, to try to force attention to the failings of inadequately funded and staffed schools. By providing a yardstick clearly indicating dysfunctionality, argues Murnane, national standards provide a tool for local activists, to begin trying to rectify problems in underprivileged schools and groups. True, we should not drag our best schools down with arbitrary or inappropriate rules and regulations; but in addition, we should not let the status quo continue in the many districts which would otherwise be lost and forgotten.
Meier seems most fearful of total insensitive control by clueless bureaucrats. In this, SDT would concur. SDT emphasizes the importance of authorities providing autonomy-support as they attempt to motivate and influence their charges. Specifically, teachers (and bosses and coaches and doctors and parents) should take their subordinates’ perspective, provide as much choice as possible, and provide a meaningful rationale when choice-provision is not possible, in order to maximize intrinsic motivation and internalization. It appears that SDT’s prescriptions might also apply at a higher level, to describe how national education boards might best interact with, and attempt to motivate, the regional and local entities they oversee.
In short, it seems a compromise is required. Local schools and boards should be open to influence from higher-level agencies, but they should not have to fear pernicious and insensitive control (as is too often the case, according to Meier). Thus, ideally, coherent national standards can be promoted in a way that also supports the autonomy of local bodies in deciding how to use those standards. This will best encourage democratic interchange at a higher level, i.e. between district and nation, a consideration which is missing from Meier’s discussion of democratic interchange, which focusses on local negotiations between students, teachers, and parents.
Sheldon, K.M. & Biddle, B.J. (1998). Standards, accountability, and school reform: Perils and pitfalls. Teachers College Record, 100, 164-180.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.