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"Standards or Standardization?,"

by William Ayers September/October 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

The "standards movement" — the reform du jour of the educational establishment and its camp-following gurus — is at its heart a fraud. It is demagoguery at its most depraved: the leaders feign knowledge and concern about the crisis, all the while drawing energy and attention away from the substantive demands of that crisis and toward a manufactured ill. Campaigning vigorously against their invented problem, they attempt to drown out more promising and progressive voices. Their shrill and insistent message — simple and believable in its own right — slowly and subtly shifts responsibility away from the powerful, making scapegoats of the victims f power. The band-wagon is decorated and over-flowing, the drumbeat deafening, but it is all illusion: the "standards movement" is not a popular upheaval for positive or fundamental change — it is a deceptive crusade in the service of the status quo.

High academic standards (as well as social and community standards) are essential to good schools, of course — as Keenan and Wheelock note, such standards, in part, can demonstrate a commitment to high expectations for all students. A watery curriculum, vague or meaningless goals, expectations of failure — these are a few of the ingredients of academic ruin. Other elements include the inequitable distribution of educational resources, the capacity of a range of self-interested bureaucracies to work their will against the common good and a profound disconnect between schools and the communities they are supposed to serve. Any hopeful strategy to improve our schools must ad-dress these underlying causes of crisis as well.

The "standards movement" is flailing at shadows. All schools in Illinois, for example, follow the same guidelines — these standards apply to successful schools as well as collapsing ones. While we could argue about this or that specific item, the fact is that standards are in place and have been for decades. Why, then, do some schools succeed brilliantly while others stumble and fall? More than standards must be at stake.

The school crisis is neither natural nor uniform, but particular and selective — it is a crisis of the poor, of the cities, of Latino and African-American communities. All the structures of privilege and oppression apparent in the larger society are mirrored in our schools: Chicago public school students, for example, are overwhelmingly children of color —65% are African-American, 25% are Latino — and children of the poor — 68% qualify for federal lunch programs. More the half of the poorest children in Illinois (and over two-thirds of the bilingual children) attend Chicago schools. And yet Chicago schools must struggle to educate children with considerably fewer human and material resources than neighboring districts.

Illinois in effect has created two parallel systems — one privileged, adequate, successful and largely white, the other disadvantaged in countless ways, disabled, starving, failing and African-American. When former Governor James Thompson called Chicago schools "a black hole" as he rejected appeals for more equitable support, he brought out all the racial justifications and tensions inherent in that situation. And when current Lieutenant Governor Robert Kustra called Chicago schools "a rat hole," he was merely following suit.

Ten thousand kids are repeating eighth grade this year in Chicago in the name of standards. It is impossible to argue that they should have been passed along routinely — that has been the cynical response for years. But holding that huge group back without seriously addressing the ways school has failed them — that is, without changing the structures and cultures of those schools — is to punish those kids for the failures of all of us. Further, the standard turns out to be a standardized test and nothing more — a measure designed so that half of those who take it must fail it.

The purpose of education in a democracy is to break down barriers, to overcome obstacles, to open doors, minds and possibilities. Education is empowering and enabling; it points to strength, to critical capacity, to thoughtfulness and expanding capabilities. It aims at something deeper and richer than simply imbibing and accepting existing codes and conventions, acceding to whatever common sense society posits. The larger goal of education is to assist people in seeing the world through their own eyes, interpreting and analyzing through their own experiences and reflective thinking, feeling themselves capable of representing, manifesting or even, if they choose, transforming all that is before them. Education, then, is linked to freedom, to the ability to see and also to alter, to understand and also to reinvent, to know and also to change the world as we find it. Can we imagine this at the core of all schools, even poor city schools?

If city school systems are to be retooled, streamlined and made workable, and city schools are to become palaces of learning for all children (Why not? Why does it sound so provocatively extravagant?), then we must fight for a comprehensive program of change: Educational resources must be distributed fairly. Justice — the notion that all children deserve a decent life, and that the greatest need deserves the greatest support— must be our guide. Equity, not sameness.

School people must find common cause with students and parents. We must remake schools by drawing on strengths and capacities in communities rather than exclusively on deficiencies and difficulties. We must focus on problems as shared and social, and solutions as collective and manageable. We must talk of solidarity rather than "services," people as self-activated problem-solvers rather than passive and pacified "clients."

School is a public space where the American hope for democracy, participation and transformation collides with the historic reality of privilege and oppression, the hierarchies of race and class. The "standards movement" – geared to simple, punitive, one-size-fits all solutions – is not worthy of our support.

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