Tuesday, April 23, 2013

We Don’t Need New Standards

The standard assumption about standards, regardless of politics, is that standards are a necessary and pedagogically important part of education. After all, if we didn’t have standards for each discipline, then teachers could teach whatever they wanted. There would be chaos. There would be no equity. Some kids would get a better education than others. A recent piece in Good Education adds several other supposedly important benefits, such as providing a vision, or a “destination for learning,” and a “common language” for educators and parents.

Yet isn’t it possible to provide a high quality education without strict adherence to standards? (Many private schools supposedly do this). And are lack of a “common language” and “destination for learning” really key problems in public education?

The article does identify several significant problems with standards (or, more precisely, how we use them). For example, when the standards are tied to high stakes exams—especially those which influence teacher promotions and dismissals or school closures and restructuring—there is an incentive to teach to the test, cut course offerings and reduce instruction in areas that are not tested.  

However, there are deeper problems with standards that the author completely ignores. The most significant of these is that standards do nothing to mitigate the biggest problem with public education: poverty and the growing wealth gap. An achievement gap associated with children’s socioeconomic backgrounds is in place well before children have started kindergarten (see here and here) and tends to grow over time, as lower income students miss out on many of the extracurricular activities enjoyed by affluent children on weekends, holidays and during summer vacation.

Furthermore, the author’s assertion that standards are essential for creating educational equity is simply not true. Having the same standards and expectations for all children, regardless of their skills, academic and social maturity, and support structures at home, merely ensures that some students will fail because of their socioeconomic backgrounds rather than the quality of their schools and teachers. This serves to reinforce social class divisions by helping to sort children for future courses (e.g., advanced placement for affluent students vs. remedial courses for lower income students) and adulthood (e.g., military or blue collar work for lower income students vs. 4-year university and professional career or management for affluent ones).

Another problem is that standards are influenced far more by the needs of the market than by the needs and interests of children or the benefits to society. For example, the current California state standards for biology have completely dropped natural history to make room for more molecular biology. This is due in part to limitations in time—it’s simply impossible to cover all biological topics in one school year. However, the reason for elevating molecular biology over the study of plants, insects, birds, and marine mammals is that the big money and the jobs currently are in biotechnology, not marine biology or entomology.

For many people, natural history is not only more interesting than molecular biology, but it was precisely their experience with natural history in grade school that got them excited about science in the first place. This is not trivial. If we really want kids to like school and to become self-motivated learners, it is important give them more say in what they learn and not merely shove down their throats what the corporate employers say is important.

Additionally, education is about far more than simply learning a prescribed set of standards. Children are also learning how to communicate and collaborate. They are developing soft skills that can help them navigate the adult world. Ideally, they are also learning to be self-motivated learners who can think critically and solve unique problems. A successful molecular biologist, for example, must not only know the names of the enzymes involved in protein synthesis, but also how to design and carry out a controlled experiment, interpret the results, and communicate their analysis to their peers and the general public. Yet content standards and the high stakes exams associated with them rarely emphasize these skills.

The author suggests that the Common Core Standards (CCS) resolve this problem. While CCS do attempt to cover critical thinking and communication, they are, in fact, merely standards—they do not provide the time, resources, education or motivation for teachers to successfully teach them. And as long as they are tied to high stakes tests (which are currently being designed), most of the problems associated with state content standards will persist. At the same time, the implementation of CCS is costly (over $1 billion in California, alone, according to EdSource), taking scarce educational funding away from other, more pressing needs, like renovating or replacing dilapidated facilities and equipment, decreasing class sizes, and providing teachers and other school employees decent wages and benefits.

The author suggests that because CCS emphasize “21st century skills and knowledge that kids need to master in order to be successful,” students will be liberated from rote memorization and regurgitation of facts and teachers will be able to collaborate across disciplines, such as a science teacher and an English teacher having students “compare and contrast Apollo 11 astronauts’ accounts of the first moon landing.” The problem is that the content standards are not disappearing. CCS is being implemented on top of them. Students will still need to know facts. Furthermore, most teachers are not being provided any additional prep periods or paid time in which to collaborate with their colleagues to design new curriculum. Therefore, this sort of collaboration is not likely to increase as a result of CCS and the implementation of CCS, whether done independently or in collaboration with colleagues, will mostly be done on teachers’ own time or it will supplant their other responsibilities.

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