Does the "standards" movement have promise in improving education for poor children and children of color--and has it delivered on that promise?
My reaction to standards initially was, finally, someone is saying kids can achieve at high levels. There is no question that teacher expectation is low. But at some point, standards became a code word for a reinvention of tracking and exclusion, and what was supposed to be accountability of schools became punitive to students. Now we have things like graduation and promotion requirements and high-stakes testing, so kids can't go forward if they haven't reached these standards, but what happens to the schools, teachers and districts that didn't guarantee that these kids had access to the things they needed to meet the standards? Where's the opportunity to learn?
Luis Garden Acosta:
As Gandhi said about Western Civilization, it would be a good idea. We ought to have standards in education. The problem is equating high standards with norm-based, high-stakes exams. Frankly, there is a good reason why private schools and schools that pride themselves on mastery and schools that promote young people to go to the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords of this world do not believe in those high-stakes tests, and yet, those of us who are poor and only have access to the public school system as it is today must endure what in effect becomes a real barrier to the education of our young people.
The promise of the standards movement, I think, is terribly important. Until there were public standards, there was implicitly a multistandard system. A system where you had a set of standards for white kids and a set of standards for minority kids, a set of standards for affluent kids and a set of standards for poor kids. But folks who think the work of the standards movement is over are absolutely wrong. That was the easy part, writing the standards. Now the real work is about resource allocation, as in the distribution of good teachers between high- and low-poverty schools and high- and low-minority schools so that all kids can meet the standards.
High-stakes testing to me is a way to insure that children are brought up to the highest level of performance that they are capable of, and it forces them to be rigorous in their thinking and to dedicate themselves to particular tasks. Those are the kinds of skills you need to be a full human being, just as much as having creative ability. It is very important to have the critical faculties that are tested by high-stakes testing. I'm not saying that we should use any old test or tests that can be beaten by test-cram courses. But I do think it's important that we hold ourselves to a high level of performance.
What role do the arts play in education, and is that role in jeopardy, given the current obsession with standards?
In Georgia, in the schools that aren't doing well in reading and math, they are actually taking away arts and having kids spend more time on those subjects. But there's plenty of evidence that kids who engage in the arts do better on standardized tests anyway. Some kids who do poorly in reading have the most creativity. If you don't include the arts, you're going to prevent so many kids who are so talented from ever communicating.
What happens when art gets removed from poor communities and communities of color is that you have no way of naming your experience. And it's not like the mass media or anybody else is naming that experience.
I don't see any incompatibility between high standards and creativity. But it was a terrible, terrible error to let the arts languish, particularly in urban communities, where the arts are so vibrant. There are more museums and theaters and creative arts people in the urban centers than anywhere else, and if you can hook the young, outgoing, interested, interesting teachers to those communities and make them see the inherent relationship between the creative act of teaching, on the one hand, and the arts, on the other, I think there's a shot at making the system perform in ways we haven't begun to consider. When I came onto the board, I brought with me two or three people, one of whom is looking at arts connections and cultural connections precisely because that's one of the key ways to enhance the system.
The idea that you could have no art or no music in New York schools is very revealing about what we think is important for poor children. The arts can be the hook that lures kids in, opens their eyes, catches their imagination in much the way that for other children sports or student government does. The mind is enormously subtle and variegated, and how you draw people in to be playful, to be intellectually venturesome, is what education is all about.