Standards, Or No Standards? That Is The Question.


Education standards have played a role in education reform measures since the 1990s. In the last few years, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has been a buzz word amongst educators, politicians, and even comedians like Louis CK.

When I was a teacher, I constantly utilized the standards — first the California State Standards and then the Common Core standards — to design and pace my curriculum. The standards gave me a baseline set of objectives to reach on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. But, after starting my Masters in Education this year, I began to read about the backlash on standards, and I began to question what I thought was a fundamental aspect of my pedagogy. To expand my thinking, I engaged with friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect. Today, I bring their thoughts to you, in the hopes that your thinking can be pushed and challenged as well.

Ryan McCormack:

Me: To what extent should teachers think about standards in their pedagogy?
Ryan McCormack: “I think it depends on the standards. To say they’re automatically harmful or beneficial can be irresponsible. If we are to have standards, they need to provide teachers with the freedom to enact the choices that are best for their group of students in their development. Standards that are too specific often hurt the students who need the most help.”

Me: What do you think of this quote: the standards movement “is the latest means of exclusion, whose success depends on placing the onus for failure to achieve academic credentials on the individual rather than the system” (Aronowitz 2004)?
Ryan McCormack: “I would agree with that statement for the most part. Standards are around to ensure teacher accountability. Whatever standards are changed to, now or in the future, are intended to be fixes to improve the system. However, until you start at the beginning with teacher education (both in credentialing and continued development at the school site), teacher selectivity, and the elevation of the profession to a respected place to attract the best teachers, it’s hard for the standards to have a whole lot of impact. More education, training, and recruitment on the front end would lead to new implementations to be far more effective.”


Ryan McCormack earned his undergraduate degree in International Relations from University of San Diego (USD). Ryan went on to obtain a Masters degree in Secondary Education from the University of Southern California (USC). After his masters program, Ryan joined the Teach For America 2012 corps. Ryan currently teachers Pre-AP World History and coaches the soccer team at KIPP San Jose Collegiate. He intends to one day pursue a school leadership position.


Ben Spielberg:

Me: Do you, in theory, agree with the idea of standards?
Ben Spielberg: “There is a large difference between the way standards are currently written and implemented and the concept of standards in general. Broadly defined, ‘standards’ to me means things every student should learn. And I think that’s something we should have. Students have to learn certain things to be successful in society and to develop the type of character that people should have. This is very important as a concept.”

Me: What do you think about the Common Core State Standards?
Ben Spielberg: “I think, in theory, something like the Common Core is compelling. The idea of focusing on skill learning rather than content learning is a good thing. The transition to Common Core has helped teachers think through questions like: ‘how can we help students think more critically about math?’ But Common Core, at least in secondary math, has also failed to deliver on one of its most important promises. The standards were supposed to help teachers delve deeply into the most important mathematical ideas, but rather than narrowing the list of topics covered, Common Core mostly moved standards around. If we really wanted to help students build conceptual understanding, we’d drastically reduce the number of standards to enable truly in-depth instruction on the most essential concepts.”

TFA Headshot (High Quality)

Ben Spielberg (@benspielberg): After graduating with a degree in Mathematical and Computational Sciences from Stanford, Ben joined Teach For America as a middle school math and science teacher. Following his third year of teaching, Ben served as a math instructional coach in the San Jose Unified School District. Ben currently works in Washington D.C. for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More of Ben’s opinions can be found at his personal blog, 34justice.

Esther Fensel

Me: In the 2012-2013 school year, you were already developing a curriculum that aligned to the Common Core Standards? What was your experience with this standards-based teaching? 

Esther Fensel: I believe that the CCSS — especially for math, given my own experiences — are a necessary opportunity to establish a floor of rigor for math education.  As the current state of secondary math education shows, absent a rigorous, cohesive set of math standards (that focus on depth vs. breadth, concepts, and reasoning), schools & systems can — and do — operate from low expectations.  Low expectations are aggravated in schools and systems that teach low-income students of color.  With a rigorous set of common standards, we can have the dialogue we desperately need: about implementation of rigorous math instruction (and professional development that actually supports teachers to do this), how to be rigorous and culturally responsive, and holding high expectations for what all students are capable of producing in math.

Me: Did you think this standards-based learning was helpful or harmful for students?
Esther Fensel: What I saw from my own students when I was supported in teaching towards the CCSS (compared to previous years, where I based my instruction on the CA state standards) was that they were able to explain the math concepts behind their chosen strategies; we had discussions about these concepts; and, simply, math was much more fun.


Esther Fensel attended the University of Southern California (USC), where she earned a degree in psychology. After college, Esther taught 7th grade math and science at Joseph George Middle School in East San Jose and then at Gateway Middle School in San Francisco. Last year, Esther joined Teach For America staff to help support first and second year corps members in their classrooms. Now she works more closely with secondary math teachers throughout the Bay Area.


Ivy Martinez

Me: How do the Common Core State Standards impact students of color?
Ivy Martinez: I think Common Core standards can be a path to equity for kids, especially for low-income, children of color, especially given how rigorous and high-level the standards are. In an ideal world, they should be a slap in the face to any low-performing school that serves those children. The standards also give a clear picture of what kids need to be achieving regardless of the state they live in, thus increasing urgency and raising the bar. Where I think it gets tricky is when teachers feel like they are achieving equity for their students by following the standards period.

Me: How can we make these conversations about the Common Core Standards, which have become increasingly political and alienating, more productive?
Ivy Martinez: I would prioritize that we shift focus from the standards themselves to implementation of the standards. The nature of a word like “standard” can connote a “one size fits all,” which feels really dangerous because all kids are different and need different things. Teachers should take the spirit of the standards, maintain the high bar, and ask “how would my kids best access these? How can I teach these in a culturally competent way (affirming my students home knowledge and empowering them in their identity)? How do I use the standards themselves to teach kids about equity and access and to question equity and access?”

ivymartinez1Ivy Martinez graduated from Brown University with a degree in Public Health and Anthropology. Ivy was a member of the 2010 Teach For America corps and taught 4th and 5th grade at Galarza Elementary School in San Jose. In her second year, Ivy won the prestigious Sue Lehman Excellence in Teaching Award. Ivy now works as the Director of Admissions & Diversity for the Teach For America.



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