Social Justice and Education Standards

There has been a relatively recent shift within American education to using standards based curriculum. I think that this shift is largely positive because standards should provide specificity and specificity provides clarity. Before schools utilized these standards there was too much flexibility. One school may create their own standards, while another requires teachers to cover the book, while still another lets the teachers decide what the standards are.

This creates a huge range not only of student outcomes, but of expectations. If we, as a country can agree on the same education standards, then, on paper at least, we have agreed to expect that all students should achieve at least “this” (whatever this is). From a scientific perspective, this approach improves the quality of the available data. The data quality is improved because every school has the same goal. All our students will achieve “this”.

For teachers, the advantage also lies in the specificity of the standard. If the standard is not specific, then it is a waste of time (Vague standards can be vaguely met). For example, in using standards, a math teacher can know that student A struggles with dividing fractions but is fine with multiplying them. From this data, a teacher is able to adjust their teaching and tailor it to the needs of their students. A teacher does not necessarily need this data in a small class, but many teachers have over 200 students and cannot possibly keep all that information stored in their head. Putting it explicitly on paper helps the teacher help the students. 

When the educational goals between schools are more specifically aligned, we can better assess the reasons for different outcomes. Why is this high poverty school in district A succeeding while this low poverty school in district B is only experiencing middling success? Having access to better data is an integral component of improving our children’s education.

Standards do not just give administrators, policy wonks, and teachers better data, they can (should) also help increase student achievement, particularly mobile students. This is the key point, because helping students (however you define it) should be the purpose of education. I am going to use an extended quote from Dr. Ed Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit because he explains the cost of mobility on student education clearly.

“One study has analyzed those effects (of mobility) on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.”

-Dr. Ed Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, p109-110, data from Deborah Cohen, “Frequent Moves Said to Boost Risk of School Problems”

Hirsch claims that while the findings show that mobile students tend to be from low income families, their low scores are not related to poverty. He quotes Herbert Walberg to show how the effects of student mobility can be mitigated,

“common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation). . . alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.”

Research has found that each time a student moves to a new school in the school year the student suffers around a 3 month loss in both reading and math (Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson). Mobile students are also more likely to be both a minority and poor than their peers from more stable households (Edweek).


This brings us to the “Achievement Gap“. This gap is describing the differences in achievement between minority and or low income students with white non low-income students. The chart below shows the gap between students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch (not in poverty) and those who are are eligible (in poverty and thus, likely to have higher mobility).

achievement gap money

The chart below shows that scores for white students have been higher than scores for other minorities for as long as the NAEP has been gathering data.

acheivement gap scores

In looking at the 2 charts, it becomes clear that there are social justice issues to resolve in education. Based on Ed Hirsch’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I think that there is some good evidence for using standards to improve America’s education system. Robert J. Marzano has said, “Standards hold the greatest hope for significantly improving student achievement.”

Do to the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the achievment gap, I think it would be beneficial for educators and social justice proponents to work together to promote the use of standards as a way to improve the quality of education students all students receive while reducing the achievement gap to create a more just society along the way.

It is important to note that I am not saying the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are a perfect bed of roses. I am saying that standards can bring tangible benefits to administrators, teachers, and most importantly students. And by promoting standards we are working to make the curriculum known to the public. This makes the age-old debate over what schools should be teaching explicit and allows for this important debate to be had in the open, hopefully making it easier for us to move in the right direction.