Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

It is time to drastically slash the number of state educational standards

Thanks to Chris Lehman’s recommendation I read Tom Hoffman’s excellent post “Weird KIPP Op-Ed” today. In it Tom asks:

…I haven’t pored over the various state standards at this point, but it seems to me that there are two possibilities: they are substantially similar, or they are substantially different. If they are similar, this is a trivial problem. Sit some folks down and make a database mapping them to each other and propose a unified consensus document. There is plenty of money floating around to do it, if it is possible. But if they aren’t very different anyhow, why does this make such a big difference?

From what I know and have been told, the answer is state standards ARE very similar. Certainly there are marked differences when it comes to state history requirements, but when it comes to core content areas the standards “map out” in very similar ways.

Some of the best people to ask on this subject are the developers of aligned, national digital curriculum tools and website resources like NetTrekker and Thinkfinity. I had a conversation recently with a vendor representative who said the projects they’ve done involving national curricular alignments definitely revealed that Algebra or Language Arts standards in Michigan looked a lot like they do in Florida or Texas.

Who benefits from the diverse array of state standards we have currently? I don’t intend to sound like a broken record, but I think the answer is the same as I cited in my reference to online testing beneficiaries in the post “Since when is a “D” Grade considered good and improving in Oklahoma?” from last week. Pearson. I’d hypothesize they love the fact individual states continue to pay them money to develop customized testing solutions for THEIR state standards. The taxpayers fork out the cash, the commercial testing companies rake in the cash, and the kids lose by being cheated out of individualized learning experiences in which creativity, imagination, expression and authentic assessment are valued. Am I oversimplifying things too much here?

I had a visit with a former KIPP teacher several years go who shared some interesting insights into the “scalability” question and issue with KIPP. His point, as I recall, was that you can’t codify and mandate visionary leadership as well as teaching passion. For the KIPP schools which are very successful, leadership and passion are key elements in the learning recipe. Every policymaker would like to discover, invent, or simply champion a “magic formula” for solving the problems which face schools and make all of them wonderful. The problem is, we don’t need a standardized “one size fits all” solution for our schools, because the students we serve are diverse and unique. What we need and our children deserve is a system which truly provides individualized education and learning opportunities. This DOES require visionary, caring, and passionate educators.

The “dead wood problem” which is discussed by Tom as well as Feinberg and Levin in their Washington Post op-ed piece is one of the biggest challenges facing educational reformers. It’s a fact: Some teachers remain in the classroom not because they love their jobs, love their kids, or are passionate about learning, they remain for the steady paycheck and the three months off in the summertime. Anyone who has spent a length of time teaching in our public schools has run into these types of teachers. It’s quite ironic that in our current economic climate, the “employee at will” nature of many business-world contracts is strikingly visible outside of schools, and the challenge posed by “dead wood teachers” who are unlikely to ever be fired or replaced in their jobs is as glaringly obvious as ever.

When I spoke with Will Richardson prior to the MASSCUE conference this past November, we briefly discussed the issue of national standards. At that point (and I assume still) he’s inclined to support the idea. I could support national standards, but under very limited circumstances. The conditions outlined by Dr. David Berliner in April 2006 are on the right track:

  1. Teachers are involved in making them.
  2. Educator professional organizations are involved in making them.
  3. There are a small number of standards in each grade.
  4. Standards are revisited often.

Unfortunately, however, I think conditions 1 and 2 above are operationally at cross-purposes with condition 3. Ask a group of math teachers to outline what kids need to know in their content area, and it’s very unlikely you’ll get a short or simple list. Perhaps this is because we’ve asked educators to create TACTICAL rather than STRATEGIC educational goals and standards. What we’ve ended up with is a confusing and ridiculously lengthy morass of requirements which it’s doubtful many people have ever even read in their entirety or understand fully.

This past Friday at our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices advisory committee meeting, we got into a discussion about whether or not submitted teacher and student videos should be correlated to state standards. Some attendees very strongly supported the inclusion of standards, because that is how many Oklahoma teachers design their lessons today and teach: Not by the curriculum or by the textbook, but by the standards. We have come to a place in education where in many classrooms, the standards have become the gospel. I was shocked to learn that in our state, we have about 3200 different standards across the K-12 grade spectrum. Imagine. Over 3000 different standards. Who do our legislators think they are kidding in passing these ridiculous laundry-lists of requirements? I would much rather have my students attend a school and live in a classroom where teachers as well as students strove to learn by the “Habits of Mind” of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) than by a laundry list of hundreds or thousands of standards. The CES Habits of Mind are:

The habit of perspective: Organizing an argument, read or heard or seen, into its various parts, and sorting out the major from the minor matter within it. Separating opinion from fact and appreciating the value of each.

The habit of analysis: Pondering each of these arguments in a reflective way, using such logical, mathematical, and artistic tools as may be required to render evidence. Knowing the limits as well as the importance of such analysis.

The habit of imagination: Being disposed to evolve one’s own view of a matter, searching for both new and old patterns that serve well one’s own and other’s current and future purposes.

The habit of empathy: Sensing other reasonable views of a common predicament, respecting all, and honoring the most persuasive among them.

The habit of communication: Accepting the duty to explain the necessary in ways that are clear and respectful both to those hearing or seeing and to the ideas being communicated. Being a good listener.

The habit of commitment: Recognizing the need to act when action is called for; stepping forward in response. Persisting, patiently, as the situation may require.

The habit of humility: Knowing one’s right, ones debts, and one’s limitations, and those of others. Knowing what one knows and what one does not know. Being disposed and able to gain the needed knowledge, and having the confidence to do so.

The habit of joy: Sensing the wonder and proportion in worthy things and responding to these delights.

QUESTION: Can we change our schools in the early 21st century into the learning centers our children deserve and need?

ANSWER: Yes, we absolutely can.

QUESTION: Where do we begin?

ANSWER: One logical place is in REDUCING the number of curricular mandates we place on teachers as well as students.

Could we please elect state leaders who support the goal of SIMPLIFYING the challenges of teaching in the 21st century classroom? Let’s begin by slashing the number of mandates and standards our legislatures lay at the feet of our teachers. Like Dr. Berliner, I support reasonable and limited standards for learning, testing, accountability, and assessment. I certainly do NOT support the myopic focus we’ve had in our nation on summative assessments and high-stakes accountability, however, and I support state and national leaders who will work to end the destructive learning cultures these political foci have ushered into our schools.

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5 responses to “It is time to drastically slash the number of state educational standards”

  1. Ben Avatar

    As an educator coming to the end of a semester knowing that I haven’t come close to total coverage of the state required standards, I’m very inclined to agree with reducing the number of standards mandated through state curricula.

    In the sciences at least, I’d much rather see the focus on scientific thinking and experimentation. The standards are too focused on specific factual information. In reality, few students will find understanding the Kreb’s Cycle valuable in their lives, yet I believe most every student can benefit from having a good understanding of how science works and how to think like a scientist- even if they don’t end up doing anything science-y for a profession.

  2. Adrienne Avatar

    Wes, I always read posts like this with a lot of interest and a general feeling of dismay. Why? Because it’s when reading posts like this that I realize how far behind American education is when it comes to curriculum and assessment. The very fact that you said so many teachers are planning based on the standards rather than the curriculum — this makes me raise both eyebrows and say, “Huh?” The standards should drive the curriculum. They should be both the beginning point and the end point. That is, they should be what teachers begin with — “What is it my students need to be able to do?” and end with “How will I know that my students can do this?” (ie., Assessment).

    The IB (International Baccalaureate) changes all of this, and it’s no surprise to me that North America is its fastest growing region. Why don’t more American schools look to its philosophy for guidance, even if they don’t become full-fledged authorized schools?

    I have never taught in an American school, but posts like these make me cringe as I consider graduate school (yes, an M.Ed) in the USA.

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Adrienne: It is interesting you mention IB, we are looking at a local school (Classen SAS) which has an IB program for my oldest child.

    Sadly I think the tail does wag the dog with curriculum standards in many cases. I think the authors and advocates of the standards movement have likely been well intentioned, but the way it has been operationalized in many schools leaves much to be desired, if one is looking for an engaging curriculum with depth.

  4. Adrienne Avatar

    Interesting about Classen SAS, Wes. Looks like a good school! It should be noted that the range of IB programs are for students aged 3 to 18.

    Standards and benchmarks *can* exist, and in my opinion, there should be standards. However, beneath those standards should come learning outcomes: this is the curriculum. So, the standards and benchmarks become PART OF the curriculum. And there is no way that testing – or any assessment for that matter – should ever reflect something other than those standards, benchmarks, and learning outcomes. IB programs are wonderful because all of the above – the standards, the outcomes, and even many of the assessments – are designed by teachers.

    (getting off my soapbox now!)

  5. […] of educational reform initiatives around our nation and world. See my January 11, 2009, post “It is time to drastically slash the number of state educational standards” and December 21, 2005, post “Habits of Mind” for more on why I believe CES is […]