Friday, November 12, 2010

NCSS 2010

I attended the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference in Denver today and, at the risk of sounding like a crank, I can’t help but think about how disappointed I am in some of my own colleagues. Not the speakers that I saw, I am very impressed and sometimes even inspired (rare for me) by them…even if they aren’t any good, I’m impressed by their effort. I am disappointed by my colleagues in the questions they ask and the attitudes they carry.

In nearly every session I attended, at least one person would raise their hand and ask: “What standard does this cover?” Standards: An obsession in the world of education. An obsession that should not be one at all. Standards take the focus away from the student and put it on what the average student should be learning. We then test standards using (aptly named) “standardized tests” to measure percentages of which students are hitting the benchmarks and which ones aren’t. Teachers’ jobs then become dependent upon hitting high percentages and teachers therefore become obsessed with teaching standards rather than actually teaching the kids. I don’t want to say that teachers who obsess about standards are bad teachers, but I do believe they are more concerned about keeping their jobs than doing their jobs. That being said, it is odd to me that a very enthusiastic presenter with very great ideas can be instantly marginalized by a colleague who asks: “how well are the standards being covered?” That all being said, I found a new hero in a presenter today who when confronted with that very question answered: “Probably not very well, but I don’t think that matters.”

The other annoying attitude is quite simply a failure of creativity. I have often noticed that my fellow teachers do not want to create lessons themselves. Now, I should probably be clear. These conferences are great for getting ideas from colleagues and for looking at teaching from new perspectives. However, too many teachers want cookie-cutter lessons that they can easily use in their own classrooms. They seem unwilling even to take good idea and to adapt it. It is an “accept or reject” mentality rather than a “what can I learn from this?” mentality. This rigidity will not benefit our students when lessons must be adapted for every class we teach.

I often feel alone in my disdain for standards and my unwillingness to adhere to them. And while I can criticize with the best of them, at the very least I am able to focus on the positives. Events like this usually serve to convince me that I am probably a bit of an outsider in the teaching profession. I, for one, enjoyed the conference and the presenters that I saw…I’m just not sure I enjoyed the crowd.


  1. Hey there. Nice post - I'm at NCSS too and I also often feel conflicted about standards too (which may seem odd to some folks - I'm an assessment specialist at the district office). I'm not sure the root of the problem is standards - maybe the education community isn't thinking deeply enough about standards? In my district we've made a little progress by having discussions about essential questions - the really truly important questions "behind" the standards. Wineburg has good stuff to say about standards too. Good luck - you're not alone in your critique of current standards thinking.

  2. Standards. What are the alternatives? Unless education is treated as a localized event under control of local officials, standards are unavoidable.

    Although I understand the need to make sure that students are learning the three "R"s, I am at a loss for why we bother with standardized testing for other subjects (the sciences, social studies, independent study, etc). Isn't testing someone's knowledge of US history roughly the statistical equivalent of playing Trivial Pursuit?

  3. It's not that standards in and of themselves are a bad thing or are to be avoided...its teachers' obsession with them that I can't get past. Also, the way in which the results are misused and mismanaged get to me.

    Testing knowledge of history is indeed like trivial pursuit...but if teaching history is done correctly, it's a matter of whether or not a student can use historical fact to create and defend an opinion or a position. The knowledge base is important, but the way one applies that knowledge base is much more the point. How this can be measured with a multiple choice standardized test is beyond me. I'm content to simply get my own class to this point at the moment.