Tuesday, February 17, 2009

National Standards

A Great Pontificator was Emitting Fumes Yesterday:
"National standards is the same thing as requiring every state to grow orange trees. We don't need national standards. What we can have is a national curriculum that schools can use, partially use or ignore, depending on what makes sense locally."

That's just silly – not every state can grow orange trees because of climate. Are we seriously suggesting that all states couldn't adhere to a national curriculum?

Local control is not a panacea. The kids aren't going to stay local, for one thing. Second, the people making decisions are variable in their abilities to make those decisions and their reasons for doing so.

First, I can't expect my students to stay in the area after HS. I can't expect them to only need to know what my local school board has determined to be important, whether it's evolution or pi=3. When my kids go to RPI or RISD, they need to be on par with the kids from Boston Latin and from East Podunk HS in terms of what they know and have taken. They need to have a consistent definition of what "Biology" and "Algebra II" are and what they encompass.

Similarly, we need to develop consistent definitions of what "success" means. Is it a good score on a state-wide assessment or a couple 60s on the teacher's quizzes?

Does success only include math, science, English, history? Or do languages, art and music count? How about wood-working, cooking, needle-work? When Johnny gets a diploma, what does it mean? Can he be a good math and science student but a lousy writer and still be considered a success? Without National Standards, we are all casting about and going our own way. I'm not sure that's the best or most efficient.

I'd always been a big fan of the Regents exams and the Regents diploma until recently. This was the closest Americans had gotten to a national curriculum. Criticisms such as "You're teaching to the tests" don't matter to me because those exams were always a minimum, but a really good one. If you passed it, you knew your stuff. I'm in favor of the SAT for the same reason. I don't care if you can study for it and take prep classes and raise your score; it's still a good test. Besides, the "improvements" are really just eliminating common mistakes. SAT test prep won't teach you anything you didn't already know, only remind you.

What about Local Control?

I understand that many people have their pet peeves; this is one of mine. I dislike local control of curriculum as it's practiced in my state - it means that one or two teachers in a math department can radically change what and how the district teaches.

Some times this works out beautifully - witness the success Escalante had in reforming his program; after five years he was able to make a difference. Some times, the changes do not affect things positively or negatively. Some times, they are terrible. Witness the changes to Escalante's program after he was pushed out - the local control managed to "reform" everything back to the way it was, forgetting all of the lessons learned over those years.

In my school, a couple of people changed the school's math curriculum – 3 of 4 were non-teachers, none of the four ever looked to see if the hoped-for improvement ever happened at any other school. They had anecdotal "evidence" but nothing that would count as proof. They made the change but never set into place any way of determining whether the change had improved anything at our school either. How crazy is that?

At another time, the entire middle-school curriculum rested on the shoulders of one teacher. "They chose the books seven years ago. Now it's my turn." He then chose the one with the niftiest graphics. (Actually, I don't really know his criteria. I'm in the high-school, you understand. I guess it doesn't matter to me?)

The positive aspect of a national curriculum is that the country acts as one in what it expects as minimums, and the system changes slowly. Any changes are made only after deliberation and much discussion. That is, of course, its greatest weakness as well, if all one is concerned with is immediate flexibility. I'm not.

Education, unfortunately, is one of the few areas where changes are based on shoddy, biased or non-existent research. "Studies" are performed on a select group and results are extrapolated far beyond the scope of the study. For example, KIPP schools have success in a specific testing regimen with a biased and selected sample; suddenly every public school administrator is talking about imitating small portions of their program but not necessarily the part that made KIPP successful. Computer-based learning works for a few kids in a small number of courses and people want to expand that to all students in all situations.

Some years ago, I asked our State Education Commissioner for help. We were considering a change from Block scheduling back to 7*45 and I asked what data the state had kept. "We don't do anything like that."

If I could wish for anything, it would be for someone to settle some questions with some real research, double-blind, controlled and all that: What was the effect of Block Scheduling? Reform Math? Schools within a School? Open Classrooms? Everyday Math? Connected Math? Singapore Math? Step Up and 8th Grade Algebra? The True Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds? (Just checking to see if you were paying attention.)

How about it? Let's make changes AFTER we figure out what success is and whether what we're doing is wrong. Then let's make changes AFTER we figure if they're improvements.


  1. Amen and amen! It's so refreshing to see common sense. We English teachers suffer from the same fuzzy thinking on the part of others.

  2. Leave some room for local variation in history. And literature (probably).

    But not math or science...

    And the Regents? I'm going back to my blog to start (again...)


  3. Let me be clear - the Regents BEFORE they required everyone to take it and then had to reduce the minimums required to pass.

    It's now a joke, but it didn't used to be. It used to be tough to pass and those who did knew they'd accomplished something.

  4. Thanks to Darren at Right On the Left Coast for directing me here. I am loving this blog! I commented on the first thread before reading down the page. This is terrific!

  5. Education, unfortunately, is one of the few areas where changes are based on shoddy, biased or non-existent research.
    So true. I came to teaching as a second career after a rigorous undergrad in math and the sciences. It was very easy for me to find research that refuted what some of my Ed School teachers asserted was fact.