Originally published November 25, 2009 at


A couple weeks ago I spent a bit of time talking over teachers’ use of classroom standards with Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week.  Standards are a big topic right now, especially as the Common Core State Standards Initiative finalizes national standards for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.  Almost all 50 states have signed on to adopt and implement whatever standards the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) develop with very little fuss.  Why is this?  Perhaps states are desperate for federal funding; they are required to sign on in order to compete for current funds.  Perhaps, at this point, we see ELA and mathematics content as uncontroversial.  Perhaps states know that national standards will have to be broad, at least as broad (in the case of ELA) as the standards they are already using.  After all, states will only be required to use 85% of the Common Core Standards, and how different can they really be?  Perhaps states think adopting the Common Core will only require minor shifts in verbiage, not major shifts in systemic thinking.   Perhaps, after all, we recognize the fact that standards have very little, if any, impact on daily classroom instruction.

Yes, I know…teachers have to write the day’s standards on their boards, list them in lesson plans, and address them when preparing students for state standardized assessments.  But that doesn’t mean that teachers actually understand and use standards.  In my experience, what happens is that teachers design great lessons around great content, then cherry pick standards to fit that lesson and content.  In my subject area – English – you can design almost anything and find standards that fit.  Over the last two years, working with my department chair to make sure our department’s classroom tests and tasks assess standards at high levels, I’ve come to believe that teachers design first and look at standards later.

That’s not surprising.  Years ago, while on a Fulbright to the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, I spent a year and a half analyzing the factors influencing teachers’ use of the new national curriculum, English in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1994).  I found that the national standards did not impact teachers’ individual pedagogy directly.  Instead, teachers tended to formulate practice and respond to curriculum documents based on the same set of factors:  Experience, Management Purposes, Consciousness of Professional Environment, Teacher Interests, Context Constraints, Students, and Teacher Beliefs.

In a U.S. context high-stakes standardized assessments also play into teachers’ thinking.  At least in tested subjects, we want to address standards because those standards are what is purportedly being assessed on the tests by which we, our students, and our schools are evaluated.  In the back of our minds, however, we know how impossible (and unethical) it is to match our teaching to the questions on a high-stakes test.  Standards themselves – as they should be – tend to be broad and many, too broad and too many for one test to cover or even one teacher in one, 180-day year to teach well.  Teaching/testing mismatches are inevitable.  “There are enormous and typically unrecognized mismatches between what’s tested and what’s taught.  If you look carefully at what the items in standardized achievement tests are actually measuring, you’ll often find that half or more of what’s tested wasn’t even supposed to be taught in a particular district or state” (Popham, 2001).  Deep down teachers know this.  My low-level middle school students rarely missed questions because they didn’t know the standard.  Often, what tripped them up was a vocabulary word in the question itself.

According to the NGA and CCSSO, their common core state standards will be fewer, clearer, and higher.  That’s great, but it’s not the point.  In the state of education right now, standards only inform practice minimally, if at all.  Even if we create a massive national standardized assessment program and all the test-prep workbook and workshop nonsense to go with it (for which I am sure the Common Core partners – Achieve, ACT, and the College Board – see the potential), teachers will still cherry pick.

Standards are targeted only when a teacher first looks at the standards, then designs.  What that takes is a very savvy teacher, one who can analyze the language of the standards, translate them into learning targets, design instruction leading to those targets, and design assessments that reliably verify learning of those targets.  Standards and assessment go hand in hand.  We need teachers who can both deduce learning targets and induce the big picture.  We need teachers who can get their students talking about standards, not teachers who cherry pick from a curriculum document to write standards on the board or in their lesson plan books.  The educational environment right now encourages teacher compliance, not true understanding and creativity, and it is understanding and ingenuity that will make the standards rubber hit the classroom road.  For that what we need is not mandates or legislation, but strong instructional leadership and professional development focused on increasing teachers’ assessment literacy from pre-service to tenure.


Ministry of Education.  (1994).  English in the New Zealand curriculum.  Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.

Popham, W. J.  (2001).  The truth about testing: An educator’s call to action.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD