Commentary: Education standards, gutter balls and gold medals


By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a great way to improve America’s chances to win the 100-meter dash in the next Olympics.

Let’s have all the sprinters in the United States run in races. Let’s have a lot of the races be different lengths – make some 100

John Krull, publisher,
John Krull, publisher,
meters, others 90 meters and still others 120 meters. For variety’s sake, let’s throw in some different timing systems. And, just to make it fun, let’s ask some of the athletes to run backwards, sideways or on their hands.

Then, after all these races are over, let’s compare the results and pick the fastest runners to send to compete against the best from the rest of the world.

What’s that you say?

Commentary button in JPG – no shadowIt can’t work because we’ll have no accurate point of comparison? And that means we’ll have no real valid way to determine who is fast and who’s slow, who needs more work and who doesn’t?

Well, it has to work, because that’s pretty much what we’re doing with educational testing. And we have seen what a spectacular success that has been.

Consider the unbroken record of achievement and triumph Indiana has racked up in recent months.

In the past nine months, we’ve had a former state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, turned into a national joke because he demanded alterations in the school grading system that made the charter school of one of his major supporters (and donors) look much better.

Then we had a teacher evaluation system demanded by and built to the specifications of self-styled education “reformers” who then blasted that system because it showed that most teachers were doing a pretty good job.

And now we have the unveiling of Indiana’s education standards, which were supposed to replace and be an improvement over the Common Core standards the nation’s governors recommended a few years ago and more than 40 other states since have approved. At Gov. Mike Pence’s urging, Indiana rejected them because – supposedly – they weren’t good enough and they represented an unacceptable overreach by the federal government. (The fact that Common Core started at the state level never seems to dissuade the wing nuts on talk radio who drive much of our nation’s public policy debate from their conviction that this was another evil plot hatched by the big, bad Barack Obama.)

The new standards demanded by Pence have met with withering criticism from left, right and center. Pence promised that they’d be the toughest in the nation. The many, many critics say the standards have a “toughness” that falls somewhere between marshmallow and meringue.


That’s an impressive record of achievement. A few more gutter balls and we’d have the born loser’s version of bowling a perfect game.

None of it, though, would have been possible if we hadn’t adhered with a zealot’s fervor to to the idea of changing standards – or imposing new ones – willy-nilly so that politicians could reassure themselves and other people, many of them with large checkbooks, that they were doing something about education.

Lesser minds may think that standards should be just that – a standard, a constant against which we can measure progress or loss. To their small minds, a standard is just like a ruler or a yardstick. It doesn’t matter whether it’s made of wood or metal so long as it stays the same length. To these slow thinkers, the students’ progress in comparison with this constant tells us how well we’re doing.

Thank goodness we Hoosiers have leaders in power who know so much better. For more than a quarter of a century, they have shifted, altered and played with the standards like con artists at an old-time county fair moving the pea from cup to cup. They’ve been so good at the game that most of the information collected is worthless.

But that may be the point. With worthless data, we not only don’t know if we’re winning, but no one can prove that we’re losing.

That’s why we should put these geniuses in charge of getting us ready for the Olympics.

With them calling the shots, Americans could clean up a lot of clutter. We’d never have to worry about finding a place to store our gold medals again.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.