A Teacher’s Adventures in Standardsland

Carol Jago teaches at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. E-mail:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where--" said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

"--So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

The Cheshire Cat seemed to be talking straight to me. But how could this most cynical of felines know about the circumlocutions of public education, and how could he possibly guess that I was lost in Standardsland?

On Nov. 14, the State Board of Education approved standards in language arts. On Monday, the board adopted standards in mathematics.


The initiative to create these documents at first enjoyed broad-based support from both teachers and public. But if the latest board meetings are any indication, support for the idea of standards and support for what has been adopted are two very different things.

For example, the draft standards proposed a change in the eighth-grade curriculum from traditional algebra to a mathematics class incorporating algebra and geometry. But there was about as much consensus on this measure as there was at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a member of the Standards Commission, objected to the introduction of geometry in eighth grade, particularly as many teachers at that level were not math majors or even trained in the subject. “The basic problem is that they spread all this material over hill and dale,” he told the board in November. “I don’t think you should experiment with a whole state population of children.”

Evers proposed an alternative document prescribing a traditional sequence of algebra and geometry that has won the endorsement of Mathematically Correct, a grassroots group advocating traditional math instruction. The standards that were finally adopted by the state board Monday reflect Evers’ and Mathematically Correct’s recommendations, emphasizing correct answers and lots of practice while discouraging the use of calculators.

Though the language arts document faced no organized opposition at the hearings, it includes high school standards so out of touch with classroom reality that English teachers who read them will feel they have drunk from Alice’s magical little bottle. “Students will analyze the philosophical arguments presented in literary works, determining whether the author’s position has contributed to the quality of the work and the believability of the characters.” Hello? Have the writers of this document spent time with any high school seniors lately? One may as well set the standard that every senior will write a novel before graduation. Benchmarks like this don’t improve education. They only make teachers whose students will never meet these standards fear that an angry Queen of Hearts will barge into the faculty lunchroom and shout, “Off with their heads!”

Like Alice, I feel a bit lost. I know I set high standards in my own classroom and, at least for 55 minutes at a time, am able to persuade students to follow me down the rabbit hole to learning. Many who return from the wonderland of college tell me they have been well prepared. I am not at all sure how state standards will help me do this better.

“What sort of people live about here?”

“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter. And in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: They’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

So that’s why I remain in education. Leave it to the Cheshire Cat to explain.