The magic of what we teach our children in school is about so much more than a set of dry standards from which we derive a test.
A basic set of academic standards is meant to set the foundational pieces of understanding that will underpin a student’s ability to understand the world around them and to express the world within themselves. It matters very much that we set academic standards worthy of our children’s potential. That we allow our students to build an intellectual foundation that will support everything they may wish to learn in the future, in such a way that will sustain their lives intellectually, economically and spiritually.
But where we fall furthest behind in Arizona is in our shared expectation for what our students will learn. What we must admit we are not doing is securing the broad foundation that will allow our students to build a life worthy of their potential.
It is extremely difficult to take that step. And we have been inching toward the creation of higher expectations for the broadest possible learning for years. We have called those efforts by different names — CUES in the ’70s, ASAP in the ’80s, AIMS in the ’90s — all of those efforts strong, and all driven by teachers.
The fact that all of them have been replaced does not mean than any of them failed. They all mattered, they were all driven mainly by the knowledge of our teachers, and they all began a very high standard for what our children would be taught.
We have eroded those standards with impunity because we ourselves set the rules for what percentage of those standards our students will have to prove that they know. We alone control the information that parents and the public receive about how well their students are building their own foundations.
For example, we tell ourselves that today’s AIMS standard is met by 97 percent of our students. When we first tested that standard, only 11 percent of our students could meet it. We didn’t improve the foundation, we lowered the bar.
And we weren’t alone. Almost every state has been struggling to set and then maintain challenging and broad foundations. It isn’t easy to create them and it’s harder still to stand by them. The real-life impact of failing to reach standards we set is painful.
But this time, we have company. This time, we built these standards in partnership with others, and we have committed to assess ourselves and to compare ourselves with states around the country. Voluntarily, and intentionally.
Because only comparability begets any meaningful judgment about quality. And only a meaningful judgment about quality begets strong competition.
We have a lot going for us this time around. We have a strong majority of our teachers in support of the new Arizona standards, a much higher percentage than in past efforts. And the majority of the public remains strongly in support of this effort. They always have been.
Those who oppose the new standards avoid the specific content of the standards themselves. I always ask people who do not support these new standards to tell me specifically which aspect of the standards they believe would be harmful for their children to learn. Specifically. Exactly. Which ones?
Without meaning any disrespect for an honest difference of opinion, I am amused that all over the country, opponents to the new state standards are bringing in national outsider “experts” to warn against giving up state autonomy.
OK, fair enough.
It is right to be concerned that we should place ourselves in a position to unwittingly be drawn into setting expectations for our students that are beneath their abilities. But this we have already accomplished all by ourselves.
As of this moment, we have created for ourselves a new opportunity to judge the work of our schools by a set of standards that are by every measure stronger and more demanding than what we currently ask of Arizona students. What I wish fervently is for the debate over what we teach our children to be played out on the field of what is real rather than what is imagined.
We have walked right up to the brink of success on this any number of times. And we have regretfully stepped back.
We have an opportunity to move ahead, and to stand firm. We must do that.
— Lisa Graham Keegan is principal partner at the Keegan Company, where she consults, writes and speaks on critical issues in American education. She is also a former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and author of the popular parenting book Simple Choices.