David Lee Finkle, best known as the creator, writer, and artist of the comic strip “Mr. Fitz,” also pens a blog. With his permission, Grumpy Old Teacher is proud to present his latest post about the B.E.S.T. standards adopted February 12, 2020, by the Florida state board of education. He discusses what the changes will mean for English Language Arts.

The Standards Shift Again: Maybe Derek Zoolander Had It Right

In a feat of spontaneous irony (my irony is usually calculated and planned), this week I reposted blog posts from 2013 about my reactions to the Common Core Standards. I reposted them on Wednesday night – the very day those same standards were ousted here in Florida in favor of their new “B.E.S.T.” standards. So I was looking back at my reactions to the last set of standards as the new standards were bursting on the scene. (By the way, B.E.S.T. stands for Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking. Another acronym! Exactly what we needed.)

So I spent part of last night looking at the new standards for English in grade 9 – the grade I currently teach. I cannot speak to the math standards, which are apparently very much like Common Core, just reworded, but the ELA standards really struck me as a throw-back to the old Sunshine State Standards we had before Common Core (or Florida Standards, as they were officially called). 

Just a case in point – the writing standards, which say that students should write in three modes: narrative, informative, and persuasive. I’m not complaining – I’m just not impressed, either. Sure, these three modes were also in the Common Core standards, and yes they represent a vast oversimplification of writing forms and how they flow into one another and take on new forms depending on the audience and occasion. That’s always been the case. But at least we don’t seem to have the David Coleman nobody-cares-about-your-story-narrative-is-bad and cite-textual-evidence-instead-of-having-ideas-of-your-own baggage that the old Florida Standards/Common Core Standards had. 

I find the reading lists a bit heavy on the “classics” which are more public-domainy (cheaper) but also less diverse, and also a bit more Biblical in some cases, which I find suspect. The Bible can be read as literature, but I doubt that’s why it was included. 

The new standards offer some things to be positive about. The dropping of “writing to text” as a thing, and the fact that they appear to be getting rid of the 9th grade standardized literacy tests. But what matters more than the particular standards is how we view standards, and how they are used. 

If we view a set of standards as limiting, as the only things we should be teaching, then those standards instantly become problematic. No set of standards is going to cover everything we need to teach. But too often, administrators and teachers alike view standards as Holy Writ that we must not deviate from. When we view standards as the only things we are to teach, we are intellectually bankrupt because we are limiting thinking rather than encouraging it. For instance, the Florida Standards we just got rid of didn’t have any mention of irony in the 9th/10th grade standards. Should I just have ignored teaching irony to my 9th graders, even though irony is the key to so much literature and even non-fiction writing? Indeed, I find leaving irony out for two full years of high school… ironic. The Language Arts Florida Standards (unironically called LAFS) also failed to mention poetry at all. So is poetry forbidden in our classrooms? 

Specific skills or concepts can be neglected in other ways as well, because each standard we’re asked to teach comes with a whole set of hidden substandards that need to be taught. For instance, the LAFS said (grudgingly, I think) that students should write narratives. They did not note that students should know the difference between moment-by-moment narration where time slows down and list-of-event narration where time speeds up. They did not note that describing a person can involve describing both their personality and appearance, or that a setting such as a person’s living room can reveal as much about that character as the clothes they wear. These are concepts that a good writing teacher will know to teach that are probably not covered in the standards. 

Of course, you might argue that those things should be in the standards, but then the standards multiply and become more and more specific and nitpicky to try to cover all bases. This leads to madness. You can see a bit of this madness at work if you look at the conventions progression in the new B.E.S.T standards on page 197-198. It’s a lot to keep track of. 

If we view standards as Holy Writ, we delve into thought control. If we try hard to make them all-encompassing, they spiral out of control. But in addition to how we view standards, we must look at how we use them. Because no matter what anyone says, the only standards that actually matter are the tested standards. In the era of LAFS, writing has been tested year after year in Florida in one format: students read three texts and write an essay synthesizing their ideas. Because that’s the writing that is tested, that is the only type of writing taught in many classrooms. (My wife and I have had to teach seniors how to write narrative essays all over again for them to apply to college. They say things like “can I use the word I?”)

But if writing to text the only kind of writing that matters, there must be simple ways to get good scores on that test, right? We want good school grades and good VAM scores so we can get $51 bonuses at the start of the next school year, right? So we reduce writing to a formula: this many paragraphs, these types of sentences within the paragraphs, these specific transition words. We have taught them nothing about how writing actually works, but they will get those scores! 

This is what I have come to believe: no standard is so good that it can’t be reduced to a worksheet by a teacher who only cares about test scores. Tests it seems, narrow the very standards they are meant to measure.

So if making standards the unquestioned authority on what needs to be taught is intellectually bankrupt, and trying to make standards too specific makes them too cumbersome to handle, and testing basically eliminates any standard that isn’t on the test… what should we do about standards? 

Perhaps the ideal standards would be very broad and admit their own limitations. I agree with the U.S Commissioner of Education who when asked if there should be national education standards replied, “the vaguer, the better.” 

And that’s where Derek Zoolander comes in. In the movie Zoolander, the extremely dimwitted fashion model is opening a school called “The Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.” 

In the end, all the standards basically say very similar things. Be able to understand, interpret, analyze, and discuss what they read. Write in multiple modes for various purposes and audiences. Question and think instead of falling for anything. We all want our schools to be centers for “Children Who Want To Read Well, Write Well, And Do Other Stuff Well Too, Like Think Well and Not Make Really Dumb Mistakes In Their Writing.” 

Perhaps standards should be that vague. Perhaps every effort should be made to stop the insidious, and at one time un-ethical, practice of teaching to the test. Perhaps the biggest, most important standard of all is the simplest one: question everything.

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