As the results of state and national standards-setting projects1 become clear, there will be a rush to review them. If sessions during the 1994 National Council for Social Studies annual conference in Phoenix are any indication, however, those reviews will be mixed at best. I am certainly not sanguine about these efforts. The potential for nightmares is real. But the possibilities of authentic and substantive change cannot be ignored.
Let me begin with three nightmares. In a chapter titled "Autonomy and Obligation," Lee Shulman (1983) describes the assorted horrors of policymakers, teachers, and researchers:
For many of the policymakers, the vision is of teachers who do not teach, or teach only what they please to those who please them...whose low expectations for the intellectual prowess of poor children leads them to neglect their pedagogical duties toward the very groups who need instruction most desperately; or whose limited knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, and language arts results in their misteaching the most able.... (484)
To this horror, Shulman adds another:
...teachers harbor their own nightmares...They are subject to endless mandates and directives emanating from faceless bureaucrats pursuing patently political agendas. These policies not only dictate frequently absurd practices, they typically conflict with the policies transmitted from other agencies, from the courts, or from other levels of government. Each new policy further erodes the teacher's control over the classroom for which she is responsible.... (485)
As if that weren't enough, he adds the phantasm of the educational scholar:
...the scholar's nightmare is of an educational system at all levels uninformed by the wisdom of research, unguided by the lessons of scholarship. (485)
Shulman's "nightmares" have the ring of truth, or at least the ring of the familiar. Anyone who has worked on educational policy recognizes the potential for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misuse by "street-level bureaucrats" (Lipsky 1980). Anyone who has taught recognizes the frustration born of outsider interference (even if well-intentioned). And anyone who has looked at classrooms with a researcher's eye recognizes the frustration of wrong turns needlessly taken.
Critics of recent standards-setting efforts are right on one score: The potential for similar nightmares is distressingly apparent. The blunt instrument of policy may work well in addressing broad schooling inequities (Green 1983). But the fine work of teaching and learning seems to lie well beyond the rhetorical reach of policy and policymakers (Grant 1994).
Like many, I suspect that the standards-setting efforts will produce little dramatic effect on social studies classrooms across the country. But let me suggest (if only for the sake of argument) that there may be possibilities here that we would do well not to ignore or dismiss.
Consider three such possibilities. One is that recent standards documents may offer a vision of what might be, an image of the possible. A second possibility is that standards may serve to focus educators' attention, energies, and resources in support of ambitious teaching and learning. And third, standards may provide a context where teachers can engage in substantive conversations about ideas and practices. Let me say a bit about each of these by drawing from NCSS's Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (National Council for Social Studies 1994).
An Image of the Possible
First, standards can offer a vision of what might be, an image of what is possible. Past policy efforts have been justifiably criticized for aiming at mediocrity. The basic skills reforms during the 1970s, for example, undercut images of ambitious teaching by focusing on minimum competencies. Teachers who sought to create powerful learning opportunities for their students undoubtedly saw little to challenge or inspire them in policies with such middling expectations.
Teachers and others will read much of the new standards as obvious. The authors of the NCSS standards assert, "Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are meaningfuquot; (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 11) and "Our responsibility as educators is to imagine and create places of learning" (13). Statements like these and a list of practices such as debates and role-playing simulations will strike few teachers as revolutionary.
But imagine the power of a policy that does more than rearrange content topics or offer stale bromides. Imagine a policy text where vivid images illustrate the power, complexity, and dynamism of meaningful teaching and learning. Here the NCSS standards live up to their ambition of "providing examples of classroom activities that will help teachers as they design instruction to help their students meet performance expectations" (National Council for Social Studies 1994, ix). An extensive array of hypothetical classroom vignettes illustrates each of the ten major themes2 at three levels: early grades, middle grades, and high school. For example, the early grades vignette around the theme of "Time, Continuity, and Change" describes how an elementary teacher might organize a class of first, second, and third graders into cooperative groups to study historical photographs of their community (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 51-52). After the groups study and discuss each photograph, one can easily imagine a spirited conversation as students attempt to interpret the meaning and import of these historical artifacts. A middle grade vignette illustrating the theme of "Culture" (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 80-81) begins with a student questioning use of the term "Indian" in such manner as to blur distinctions among the many Native American peoples. Here the teacher uses the question to launch an investigation into similarities and differences across the Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, Cherokee, and Arawak. Though hypothetical, it is not hard to imagine a student concluding, as in this vignette, that "We can make it a rule-well, I guess I mean a practice-that whenever possible we will refer to American Indians by specific tribal names...." Nor is it hard to imagine another student adding, "I think we need to do this for everybody. We tend to do the same thing with Asians" (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 81). Finally, a high school vignette representing the theme of "Civic Ideals and Practices" illustrates how a teacher and his students might deal with the delicate issue of freedom of expression (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 140-141). As posed, the vignette begins with an argument between two students over the possibility of restricting offensive language in popular music. Here the teacher uses previous lessons on state authority and individual rights to issue a powerful and provocative question: "Are limits on freedom of expression appropriate in our democratic society" (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 141). Set in the context of an issue real and vital to the students, the teacher pushes them to consider and debate an array of positions.
To be sure, these vignettes exhibit a degree of artificiality: They portray only thoughtful, interested, and articulate students. They suggest teachers have virtually limitless curricular and instructional autonomy. They ignore the daily hassles of classroom life: frequent interruptions, too little instructional time, inadequate materials and resources. And yet, in these and several other of the classroom vignettes, one can imagine teachers reading them and thinking, "I could try that."
Focusing Attention: Energy and Resources
A second possibility is that standards might serve to focus attention, energy, and resources toward ambitious teaching and learning. New standards are likely to inspire a lot of activity. Conference sessions, inservices, and university courses will examine the standards; textbooks, curriculum guides, and tests will be reviewed and reconsidered. The authors of the NCSS document, for example, note that publication of the standards will begin a "series of discussion and training workshops at conventions and in other venues at national, state, and district levels" (National Council for Social Studies 1994, viii). Through these efforts and others, teachers will have multiple opportunities (and in some locations, even some time and money) to learn about new ideas and to make changes in their classroom practices.
Some of these opportunities will be unhelpful. Teachers may find professional development sessions of uneven quality. They may discover that textbooks present pallid versions of new ideas. They may observe that standardized tests send messages which conflict with reform messages. Beyond these problems lie others. Tight schedules, egg-crate structures, and batch processing approaches to schooling undercut the time and energy teachers will need to embrace big changes in their practices.
These difficulties cannot be dismissed lightly. But we should not leap to the assumption that the exigencies of teaching and learning will crowd out all efforts toward ambitious teaching and learning. Good classroom teachers, like those described in the vignettes above, know how to seize teachable moments. We must not ignore the potential inherent in individual teachers seeing opportunities in the new standards and seizing them to support and extend new approaches to teaching and learning.
If individual teachers can benefit, then one other possibility is that standards might provide a context that encourages groups of teachers to engage in substantive conversations about practice. Consider two prospects. One is the notion that ideas can serve as powerful levers of change (Cohen 1989; Weiss 1990). The other is the potential of informal teacher networks (McLaughlin 1990; Wilson and Poppink in press). These prospects are inter-related: Some of the most dynamic work occurring in classrooms today is the result of teachers becoming involved with one another around a set of powerful ideas (the Bay Area Writing Group is one example). Taken together, these two points-that ideas matter and that teachers profit from opportunities to talk to one another-are worth considering. If teachers are both the "problem" and the "solution" to educational reform (Warren 1989), then one dimension of the solution may be creating opportunities for teachers to develop idea-based conversational communities (Grant and VanSledright 1991, 1992; VanSledright and Grant 1991).
The authors of the NCSS standards offer a number of big ideas worth serious and sustained discussion. One of those ideas is the notion that social studies educators should teach toward the "common good."
Excellence in social studies will be achieved by programs in which students gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to understand, respect, and practice the ways of the scholar, the artisan, the leader, and the citizen in support of the common good. (National Council for Social Studies 1994, 5; italics added)
The authors go on to assert that "individuals must understand that their self-interest is dependent upon the well-being of others in the community"(6). These are strong statements. They suggest a particular relationship between social and individual goals which privileges the former over the later. Some teachers may read this and simply nod in agreement. But I can imagine a group of teachers reading these statements and finding much in them to debate. Conceptual arguments could easily develop around questions such as who determines which goods are common and how many Americans must benefit in order for the "common good" to be served? Similarly, one can envision extended pedagogical discussions of how to represent such ideas in K-12 classrooms.
As teachers are increasingly urged to collaborate in their planning, teaching, and evaluation of students, one assumes that they will discuss ideas big and small. The marketplace for ideas in education is large. It is possible that teachers will interpret the buzz of standards as something to be ignored. But to the degree that standards such as the NCSS effort offer big, complex, and meaty ideas, we should expect that many teachers will find exploring them rewarding.
These possibilities may turn out to be an academic's daydreams. There are serious questions to pursue around the new standards and there is much work ahead in examining and understanding questions such as what sense teachers make of these efforts and what influence (if any) standards may have on the classroom lives of teachers and students. As we investigate these questions, however, I hope we can be as sensitive to the possibilities as to the nightmares. n
1NCSS offered Expectations of Excellence in the fall of 1994. Standards for United States and world history developed by the National Standards project associated with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act soon followed (e.g., National Center for History in the Schools 1994a). New geography and civics standards have also been developed.
S. G. Grant is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His interests lie at the intersection of curriculum policy and classroom practice.