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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why Do We Have State Standards?

Can You Explain?

When I gave my talk in Napa over the weekend, the first comment from a librarian was that the only way books — hardcover, paperback, digital — would be used by teachers is if they are clearly linked to state standards. Indeed in another digital project I may be working on that involves high school students in many states, once again the first point our educational advisor raised is that we need to link the teenager’s work projects to each of the state’s standards. Why? When did standards set by states become so important? And what is the logic behind them? I assume it is linked to state tests — if you need to have test scores to meet NCLB requirements, then you need standards that guide teachers and are reflected on those tests, right? But does this really make any sense at all?
   This year I got my first peek at how this works in my son’s 4th grade New Jersey social studies textbook. On the one hand, he was required to learn about minor figures (if the canvas is the history of our nation much less the world) just because they were, at one time, important in New Jersey. I simply fail to see why — in this interlinked, globalized, world — we should train our children’s eyes on the extremely local. But on the other hand, it quickly became clear that whiile the textbook appeared to be focusing on political, social, and economic events here, it was merely using those local examples to get at the tried and true themes of American history that have been mainstays of social studies for decades. The kids were getting Native Americans, colonial, revolution, westward expansion, industrial revolution….just as if they had been using a national textbook — with a bit of New Jersey window dressing. Again, why? 
     I know all about the idea that kids go from the immediate, personal, local to the external, abstract, global. But there was no way this textbook built from kids actual experience. It just cluttered history with minor local figures on its ways to the same thematic strands. In an age where families move, jobs connect parents with all parts of the globe, and we are preparing children to interact with peers on every continent, why do we enshrine the state, of all things, as the measure of what children need to know? I just don’t get it.


  1. I think you’re right, Marc. Quality writing in textbooks should be the “standard.” My personal feeling is that teachers keep teaching the way they have for centuries; central office folks are the only ones obsessed with standards.

  2. Absolutely right, Marc and marybk! Quality in has gone downhill throughout our society, and not just in writing. State standards are a product of No Child Left Behind. In its efforts to measure student progress and achievement, I, a teacher for 30+ years, have seen NCLB causing the dumbing down of curriculum, attempts by school administrators to succeed at any cost, elimination of arts programs to put more room in schedules for math and literacy drilling towards the test, and in many ways, leaving Every Child Behind. The students in Texas are little served by the biases of the fearful Right.

  3. the interesting question is what will happen when we adopt national standards, will the state standards (outside of Texas and Alaska) go away? Fine, but then all of that testing and test prep will be changed. A big U turn, and why? What did we gain in the process?