The history of educational standards and objectives offers insights into how we might effectively rethink our curricula today.
Since the formation of the American republic and the nation’s first halting steps toward building state public school systems, educators and policy makers have debated which kinds of knowledge and skills schoolchildren should acquire and the levels of proficiency they should reach. Today, we often call these expectations standards, and the most recent effort at defining these types of academic objectives is the Common Core State Standards, an outgrowth of the standards-based reform movement that has been with us now for a quarter century, with no signs of dissipating. For instance, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act — reinforces the movement by requiring “that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”
The vocabulary used to describe what students should know and be able to do when they complete a lesson, a unit, or course has shifted over the past 100 years, but the underlying belief in the necessity of standards has not. For example, curriculum theorist Ralph Tyler’s 1949 explanation of how standards work is more or less the same as the logic behind the Common Core:
These educational objectives become criteria by which materials are selected, content is outlined, instructional procedures are developed, and tests and examinations are prepared. All aspects of the educational program are really means to accomplish basic educational purposes. Hence, if we are to study an educational program systematically and intelligently we must first be sure as to the educational objectives aimed at. (p. 2)
That is, once objectives (or standards or essentials or competencies) are specified, they shape every aspect of a curriculum, its assessment, and its instructional materials.
Determining what students need to know
The origins of the current standards-based reform movement are usually pegged to events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when state legislatures and governors began to assert a new level of authority over the details of student learning. But while these developments marked an important shift in reform strategy, the obsession with standards in our national educational experience actually goes back much further. Over the past century, policy makers have made many efforts to specify the learning objectives toward which the K-12 curriculum should lead.
Beginning in the 1890s, and with greater regularity than most scholars have recognized, prominent educational leaders dedicated themselves to identifying the core curricular material necessary for American students to thrive in and out of school. The first major national undertaking, sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA), was the Committee of Ten’s (1893) attempt to determine what knowledge high school pupils require.
Once objectives are specified, they shape every aspect of a curriculum, its assessment, and its instructional materials.
The Committee of Ten was successful in sketching out core curricular requirements, such as five weekly periods of Latin each year in grades 9-12, five weekly periods of chemistry in grade 11, and one year of natural history (botany, zoology, etc.) at some point during high school. At the same time, though, its recommendations grated against the zeitgeist of the times. Many progressives thought the notion of a common curriculum for all students was hopelessly anachronistic in an era in when pupils could (or should) be scientifically sorted using IQ tests and divided into separate tracks of coursework. Moreover, young educators and reformers wanted to escape the rigidity that characterized their experience with the 19th-century curriculum.
Two decades after the Committee of Ten, this time under the auspices of the NEA’s Committee on the Economy of Time in Education, a new generation of educational leaders attempted to determine scholastic “minimum essentials” — the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that all pupils should acquire. Despite initial optimism that identifying essentials and “objective standards” in core subjects would be straightforward, the committee ultimately found the assignment enormously frustrating and complex. For example, wrote the author of the study, “We cannot tell how much time ought to be given in arithmetic until we know how much arithmetic is taught; nor indeed even then, for we must next determine how much time is necessary to reach a defined standard of achievement” (Holmes, 1915, p. 23). The difficulty of establishing the subjects that should be taught, determining the most essential topics and objectives within each subject, and quantifying how much time should be devoted to each topic persisted as curricular challenges for educational leaders in the century that followed.
In the 1920s, the University of Chicago’s Franklin Bobbitt took up the challenge of crafting clear educational outcomes anew. “Education has always aimed at objectives,” explained Bobbitt (1922), but “these have usually been memories well stocked with examinable textbook information,” a practice he argued was increasingly disconnected from adult needs in the 20th century. Working with educators in Los Angeles, Calif., Bobbitt set out to draw up lists of objectives that included both academic knowledge and required life skills, totaling well over 1,000 in all. Bobbitt’s objectives offered a fascinating mix of straightforward academic expectations (“the ability to get the essential thought of books or articles quickly with a minimum amount of reading,” p. 46), the bizarre (“ability to make a hat frame,” p. 18), and the pedestrian (“ability to select proper utensils for preparation of food,” p. 19). Bobbitt also crafted objectives that signaled attention to the kinds of critical-thinking skills that many reformers assumed were neglected in the past, such as the “ability to collect, organize, and interpret facts involved, and to arrive at sound conclusions” (p. 34).
Although Bobbitt’s objectives were soon adopted or adapted by states and districts, his purportedly scientific approach to curriculum making received sharp criticism, both then and in the decades that followed. Teachers College professor Boyd Bode (1927) argued that Bobbitt’s rational approach simply smuggled in personal bias and preference “under the guise of an objective, impersonal determination of fact” (p. 85). The danger here, Bode explained, was that “educational objectives become . . . an excuse for the perpetuation of tradition and the status quo” (p. 85). Some observers worried that the goals of every discipline could be splintered into an almost infinite number of specific objectives, and they documented some extreme cases: One specialist tabulated a list of 888 generalizations important in the social studies; another catalogued 1,581 social objectives to be achieved in studying English (Caswell & Campbell, 1935). With such an immense number of objectives, teachers might quickly become overwhelmed, especially in the elementary grades where multiple subjects demanded attention. Others feared that children might achieve specific objectives but fail to reach the more general aims. For example, they might master the required facts and skills of a specific English assignment and still come out of the experience without the appreciation for literature that was the original purpose. Unmoored objectives, some educators feared, could just as easily contribute to “scientific attitudes or non-scientific attitudes, to tolerance or intolerance” (Caswell & Campbell, 1935, p. 119).
Standards that stagnate, drifting on unrevised or unevolved, will do more to perpetuate the status quo rather than to prepare students for the future.
In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness. For example, writing in the midst of the Great Depression, William C. Bagley (1938) of Teachers College contended that “age for age, the average pupil of our elementary schools does not meet the standards of achievement in the fundamentals of education that are attained in the elementary schools of many other countries,” adding that his statement had been substantiated by student scores in other English-speaking countries (p. 241).
That assertion was repeated in 1958 after the Soviets launched Sputnik (and again in the 1980s and 1990s after states had been shocked into action by A Nation at Risk). Critics of public schools in the 1950s argued that schools had become “educational wastelands” and so often forsook fundamentals that “Johnny” couldn’t read. A Life magazine series (1958) argued that standards had become “shockingly low” and documented examples of failure within public schools, in part by contrasting the rigor of Soviet schools with the weak academics and leisure-oriented offerings of their American counterparts. Other developments of the time, including the work of educational scholars, reinforced the quest for strong and clear objectives.
The age of objectives
In the 1950s and 1960s, the task of identifying clear, measurable ends of education was facilitated by a scholarly love affair with educational objectives. Benjamin Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy of Educational Objectives had been published in 1956, but it was not especially popular until Robert Mager built off the taxonomy to design instructional objectives for individualized instruction. According to Mager (1962), “an objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit before you consider them competent. An objective describes an intended result of instruction, rather than the process of instruction itself.” UCLA researcher James Popham enthusiastically took up Mager’s prescriptions on objectives, later writing that “without question the most important instructional advance in America during the 1960s was a widespread advocacy and increased use of measurable instructional objectives” (1970/1987). Popham (1972) so strongly supported the use of behavioral objectives — objectives stated in such a way that they can be assessed by measurable, observable behaviors, skills, and demonstrations of knowledge — that he created and widely distributed bumper stickers that read “Stamp Out All Nonbehavioral Objectives!” (p. 605).
Popham and his colleagues soon noticed, however, that although many educators had familiarized themselves with the procedures involved in specifying objectives, relatively few teachers were actually using them. In response, they established the Instructional Objectives Exchange, which served as a depository of instructional objectives from which teachers could choose, along with sample test items for each objective.
One vocal critic of an overreliance on objectives or other predetermined “ends” of education was Elliott Eisner (1967), who explained that “the outcomes of education are far more numerous and complex for educational objectives to encompass” (p. 254). He believed that curricula driven by predetermined outcomes prohibited the development of “curiosity, inventiveness, and insight” (p. 257). In other words, heavy reliance on objectives in curriculum design not only eliminated the potential for unanticipated learnings, but also had the potential to limit the development of creativity and critical thinking in students — which, to Eisner, were the true goals of schooling.
Eisner was not alone in asserting that the assumptions behind a reliance on objectives needed to be reexamined. In a 1970 essay published in Phi Delta Kappan, Robert Ebel explained that “little that is wrong with any teacher’s educational efforts today can be cured by getting him to define his objectives more fully and precisely . . . too much of the current reverence for behavioral objectives is a consequence of not looking closely at their limitations” (p. 173). Behavioral objectives, argued Ebel, rarely match the real intent of instruction. Furthermore, simply stating an objective in behavioral terms does not inherently make it worth striving for. For example, it is quite difficult to specify an observable outcome when the intent of instruction is for students “to respond adaptively and effectively to unique future problem situations” (p. 172), and clearly stating that a child should be able to name all of the rivers in South America doesn’t necessarily make this a worthwhile skill. Ebel, notably, understood the desire for behavioral objectives, but he was apprehensive about their growing prominence.
As states continued adopting more rational, objective-based systems of curriculum and measurement, some early behavioral objectives advocates like Popham began to see validity in the assertions of Eisner and other critics. Although Popham still believed that most objectives ought to be behavioral, he acknowledged that “There are some important goals which we have for our children which are currently unassessable,” and these goals should be pursued despite a lack of appropriate outcome measures because “high gain goals warrant high risk instruction” (1972, p. 608).
Minimum competencies or higher-level skills?
In the 1970s, increased focus on the ends of education led to the development of “competencies” and the related idea that educators could identify and assess the basic competencies that all students should possess upon graduation. By 1978, 35 states passed accountability or minimum competency test (MCT) legislation, usually with the stipulation that the state board of education or other state-level school leaders would supplement these skills with “the minimum basic or life skills that students should attain as a result of moving through the elementary or secondary schools” (Pipho, 1980).
Even after the release of A Nation at Risk, states continued to adopt high school graduation tests that assessed basic skills in reading, math, writing, and spelling — instead of focusing on the report’s call for more rigorous standards that stressed higher-level skills. By 1986, nearly every state had adopted minimum competency exams for either high school graduation, special recognition, grade promotion, or identification for remediation. In part because clearly articulating and measuring higher-level thinking skills was more difficult, only a handful of states adopted such standards for all students. New Jersey was one of the first of a small number of states that discontinued its Minimum Basic Skills program in favor of a more rigorous High School Proficiency Test (HSPT) program in 1984, which was intended to assess higher-level skills. Notably, the concern was that existing objectives were not good at capturing higher-level skills — little attention was paid to the idea that the focus on objectives could itself be standing in the way of higher-level thinking.
In the 1980s and 1990s, critics argued that weak or vaguely written objectives explained why students were not reaching international benchmarks or that poorly written objectives fail to develop higher-level thinking skills. Meanwhile, a fairly consistent contingent has blamed overly specific objectives for limiting student and teacher creativity. Gerald Bracey (1987), for example, explained that “U.S. educators have acted as if the whole were never more than the sum of its parts . . . as if education were no more than the average number of discrete objectives mastered” (p. 684). Three decades after his initial critiques of objectives, Elliott Eisner (1995) asserted that any method to use specific student outcomes to govern so much of student learning “distracts us from paying attention to the importance of building a culture of schooling that is genuinely intellectual in character, that values questions and ideas at least as much as getting right answers” (p. 764). In a 2001 Phi Delta Kappan piece, Eisner addressed a fear that the consistent practice of designing curricula around predetermined expectations not only limits the creativity of students, but distracts educators, researchers, and others from addressing the deeper problems facing schools. For example, too few students are engaged in the type of challenging classroom conversations that prompt them to respond reflectively, analytically, imaginatively. Too many teachers remain isolated and deprived of time and opportunity for professional collaboration.
Throughout his career, Eisner acknowledged that objectives were adopted so quickly and have remained so popular in curriculum creation and implementation because they make so much rational sense. “If one is to build curriculum in a rational way,” he admitted, “the clarity of premise, end or starting point, would appear paramount” (1967, p. 250). Bracey (1987) offers a nice illustration of the continued conundrum posed by the attractive simplicity of some standards:
The Parent Guide to the Detroit High School Proficiency Exam advises that one objective is that “the student can determine the main point of a short article from a newspaper, or magazine, or a general interest book.” Who can argue with that? A parent might hope that the teachers would also teach children how to judge the credibility of the paper, magazine, or book. But, as far as it goes, it is an objective that ranks right up there with respecting Mom and the flag. (p. 685)
The use of objectives in curriculum development continues today, as any teacher working with the Common Core State Standards well knows. Policy makers are fond of predetermined standards and objectives because they see them as easy to digest, apply, and assess. Moreover, no one wants to argue for “low standards.”
Learning from the past
For well over a century, educational leaders and policy makers have turned to standards as a kind of safety zone, a common ground whereupon (they hoped) all educators could meet and agree on clear, consistent, and rationally developed objectives. Americans find comfort in knowing precisely what students should know and be able to do, especially at times of national uncertainty or economic transition — whether represented by World War I, the Great Depression, the Space Race, or anxiety about global competitiveness. Even skeptics of standards acknowledge that some skills are amenable to concise articulation and demonstrable achievement and that some proficiencies can be measured; their main concern is with universal adoption of standards as the primary tool for curriculum development.
Nevertheless, American educators have trod this terrain before, as it turns out, and we would do well to listen to the echoes of previous experiences. Several enduring dilemmas are posed by the persistent desire for measurable objectives, and policy makers and practitioners can benefit from the lessons gleaned by a close reading of the educational past. Aside from the controversies that will attend the development of any new learning goals, policy makers must acknowledge the constraints that standards are likely to place on classroom instruction.
Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.
More specifically, state and local leaders will need to remain watchful of the riptide of confusion and consternation that will follow on the publication of large, potentially overwhelming, lists of objectives. Whether standards can be unpacked and translated into realistic and vibrant classroom activities will depend on the support and resources made available to teachers. Otherwise, the aims of academic disciplines and the knowledge embedded within core subject areas will all too easily be shattered into the thin, disconnected shards of minor objectives, which in turn will ultimately narrow any broader vision of education.
Standards framed as “minimum essentials” are liable to tip the scales toward quantifiable basic skills and proficiencies. Curriculum developers will need to regularly buttress their curricula with safeguards against this tendency. At least one challenge remains unresolved in this regard, and it deserves more exploration: If educators have tried to capture the essence of higher-order thinking skills for nearly a century — from the 1920s through at least the MCT movement — what can educators learn from their successes and failures?
The history of reform movements demonstrates that one reform regime is often pushed aside by a wave of novel educational innovations. Whether the standards-based reform movement can regularly upgrade itself enough to escape such a fate remains to be seen. Finally, then, persists the danger that Bode once voiced about Bobbitt’s objectives: Standards that stagnate, drifting on unrevised or unevolved, will do more to perpetuate the status quo rather than to prepare students for the future. In an increasingly unequal society, that hazard is well worth avoiding.
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Citation: Gamson, D.A. & Eckert, S.A. (2019). Standards, instructional objectives, and curriculum design: A complex relationship. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (6), 8-12.