The structure of what children are learning in school has been changing for the worse since 1983.
In 1983. the report of American President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education was published under the title “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform.” Its publication marks a landmark event in modern American educational history. Among other things, the report contributed to the ever-growing (and still present) sense that American schools are failing. As well, it touched off the current and ever swelling wave of local, state, and federal educational reform efforts.
If you take the time to read the report, you will discover that the report surveys various studies which point to academic underachievement on national and international scales. For instance, the report notes that average SAT scores dropped “over 50 points” in the verbal section and “nearly 40 points” in the mathematics section during the period 1963-1980. Nearly forty percent of 17 year olds tested could not successfully “draw inferences from written material,” and “only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.” Referencing tests conducted in the seventies, the study points to unfavorable comparisons with students outside the United States: on “19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.”
In response, we set out as a nation to fix what was wrong with out schools.
Education reform in the United States since then has been largely driven by the setting of academic standards for what students should know and be able to do. These standards can then be used to guide all other system components. The SBE (standards-based education) reform movement calls for clear, measurable standards for all school students. Rather than norm-referenced rankings, a standards-based system measures each student against the concrete standard. Curriculum, assessments, and professional development are aligned to the standards.
For a time, States were entrusted with the development of standards, but more recently the States Governors have gotten together and established something called the “Common Core: State Standards Initiative” These standards propose to define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.
They claim the standards:
- Are aligned with college and work expectations;
- Are clear, understandable and consistent;
- Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
- Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
- Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
- Are evidence-based.
Further, when asked why we need these standards they claim:
We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. Common standards will help ensure that students are receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state. Common standards will provide a greater opportunity to share experiences and best practices within and across states that will improve our ability to best serve the needs of students.
Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do help teachers figure out the knowledge and skills their students should have so that teachers can build the best lessons and environments for their classrooms. Standards also help students and parents by setting clear and realistic goals for success. Standards are a first step – a key building block – in providing our young people with a high-quality education that will prepare them for success in college and work. Of course, standards are not the only thing that is needed for our children’s success, but they provide an accessible roadmap for our teachers, parents, and students.
So, I ask you, what if nothing was wrong with our schools in the first place? If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine. What has all this standardization managed to do?
Well, for starters I think it is doing two things that are likely to cause more problems than they solve. The first is that this approach to education tends to push teachers and students away from creativity and towards conformity. The second concern I have is that it creates fear and suspicion between and among teachers, parents, and administrators.
The scholar Yong Zhao has made a similar argument, calling for what he calls “mass localism” as the key to successful education reform. In this post, he writes:
Soon enough, the reformers will celebrate their success in finally moving America out of its miserably outdated, 19th century, parochial education system and imposing consistency and coherence upon a seemingly chaotic system. Yet, in my opinion, they will have succeeded in destroying precisely what America needs for its future in a 21st century, globalized society. And, in time, even the reformers will discover that America has lost its capacity to be the leader in creativity, innovation, and democracy. They will have succeeded in ruining the engine for that.
He goes on to explain,
… a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.
Finally, he concludes,
An ideal education system is tens of thousands of autonomous schools and millions of autonomous professional educators connected together in a global community, where they exchange ideas, collaborate on projects, and create new solutions. In this system are tens of thousands of innovation centers and millions of innovators instead of one wise body located far away from the real actions of teaching. Such a system enables every community, school, teacher, and student to build on its strengths. And such a system can be spared from a total disaster that could result from one authoritarian body–no matter how wise that body may seem to be.
In my mind, standardization and centralized control are the objectives of the technocrats, and these are the biggest opponents of innovation. The stakes attached to tests are the tools of coercion, by which teachers and students will be rewarded or punished for the extent to which they comply. But in the big picture, the final objective is not tests, but uniformity, and adherence to a centrally conceived and approved version of truth. I think the Common Core is the vehicle for this technocratic vision, and it should be firmly opposed for this reason.
All of this leads to the second issue, the mistrust that exists between teachers, parents and administrators. Because the performance of the students on the tests is considered of paramount importance, over actual learning skills, parents, teachers, and administrators are all now focused on ONE form of demonstrating learning. This focus is central regardless of the individual learning style of the student in question.
For example, we might need to confront head-on why many within education have lost faith in the transformative potential of a knowledge-based subject-centred curriculum. However now that we expect Governors (and Government) to “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs…” we have abdicated our responsibility as a society to guide education locally.
One of the unique things about America’s educational system at the K-12 level has traditionally been the local school board. The school board was responsible for setting the standard for achievement in it’s district, incorporating the community’s view of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The school board also has also been responsible for working with the superintendent to establish a valid process for measuring student success and, when necessary, shifting resources to ensure that the district’s goals are achieved.
So now, with external forces setting the standards, and advocating penalties for failing to live up to the standards, we have become passengers on this journey. There is a real loss of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Over the past few years the policies of the previous government has chipped away at the professionalism of teachers, exposing them to ridiculous levels of over-regulation.
If you find it irritating having external bureaucrats crossing the “t”s and the dotting the “i”s of every lesson, you might also realize how this lack of trust in our teachers abilities to teach and our community’s ability to set standards is impacting the overall level of trust by parents of the schools. Because all the local participants are in fact passengers and not crew on the journey, no one is really responsible for any individual child’s success in education. Worse, no one is willing to step up and be on the crew.
After all, responsibility without authority is rarely a recipe for success. Perhaps it is time for Americans to become Crew on our collective educational journey rather than simply passengers. Let’s get rid of National Standards and return Education to the communities and the people.