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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

National Standards

Can America do National Standards?

This is one hot potato right now. It has been one since the 1950's. Quality Counts 2010 is reviving, reviewing, and revisiting the arguments about national standards and providing much fodder to chew on.

To begin with, I'm not sure looking abroad is correct. It seems like comparing apples and oranges. Some of the countries cited as being highly ranked are not like America. South Korea, Singapore, and Finland do not have the same demographics that we have. Our population is not homogeneous. Our students are not of the same culture therefore not bringing into the classroom common ideals or common knowledge. Our students are much more transient and not just within the borders of America but are global. I doubt very much that these schools in others countries don't have such a heterogeneous group. The same students probably travel through the grades together in those other countries. My problem with comparing American schools to foreign schools is that we are not given specifics about those school systems, just numbers and that isn't enough. I'd like to be told a lot more about those schools in foreign countries, the day to day business, the year to year business and is public education available to all students. Lots of questions.

Now getting back to America for a moment, ED Hirsch does make sense about core knowledge, but that's where it stops. It won't happen in the current system we have. I agree that students should master certain material at each grade, but what happens when this material is not mastered or even learned on a rudimentary level? We are fixated on having all grades contain the same aged kids. I'm not sure if this isn't one of our problems. I have read about schools in the 1800's and before where they had students of all ages in the same room. The students who had mastered material helped those who had not. Slowly as our population grew, we started separating our students not by ability but by age. That was where we went wrong. Think about the karate class. Everyone starts out with the white belt, no matter how old. Advancement is based on ability not age. As ability increases, NOT age, the color of the belt changes. I have been told that we just can't have older kids in a class with younger ones. Therein lies the rub. Consider the older student who has not mastered a fourth grade standard and is forced to be in the ninth grade. Failure is most likely the result. However, if that older child is in the fourth grade until the standard is mastered and then moved on, s/he will catch up to hir age group and be successful. So on the topic of mastery we do not have a good system now and I don't know how we could institute one in our current framework. We group students by age and not ability. When we change that notion the system will work better.

Now another real sticking point that is always skirted around and never mention is religion. We have a real religious problem in our public schools. We have schools filled with many different religions and that creates many problems. Much of our culture has a religious base, especially in literature. First, consider science. Some states prefer creationism and some prefer evolution and the teaching of both doesn't exist. So on this one matter we will never agree and find it difficult to have common ground for national standards. . The Bible interjects itself in the Language Arts class. There is no way we can teach some literature without the Bible. For instance, Moby Dick must be taught with the Bible as a secondary reading if not a source often referred to. If a teacher were to bring a Bible into class, the uproar would be disruptive and harmful to any learning. Do other countries have this religious problem in their schools? We speak about the separation of church and state, but in practice, well here is where we find exceptions.

The USA is not like other countries. We were thirteen separate colonies who decided to join as one and slowly we added other sovereign territories. As they joined the USA, they maintained their own identity and added to the strength of the whole. To even consider the Union as one would be ridiculous, we tried that in the 1850's and look what happened. America is made up of fifty unique countries who have joined together to create a larger corporation that oversees mutuality and helps us interact in the international landscape, but it was never created to oversee the local business of each sovereign state.Within each state there are lots of teachers teaching the core ideas, but in different ways. We aren't all the same and trying to achieve national standards will conflict with our notion of individuality. Consider the many ways a person can cut and paste on a computer. How are we going to find common ground on national standards? Sure we get to the same point, but adhering to national standards will not allow for this varied way of achieving the same goal because we will have bureaucrats overseeing it and they don't get variety. This is why the idea of national standards will never work.

I'd like to keep the textbook companies out of this process. They will merely complicate the discussion with their closed doors and proprietory nonsense. We need to create a national wiki type environment on which everyone has a voice. Yes, this could be a nightmare, but Google has created a neat new product called The Wave which could accommodate us. National standards should be by the people, not by textbook companies. We should be using Internet technology to solve this problem, to have this discussion, then it might work. But if we leave it in the hands of textbook publishers we are doomed to fail.

When we see some of the examples of what would be part of the national standards, they lead to such a dumbed down curriculum that that alone should quash any discussion of national standards. What I'd like to see is a comprehensive discussion of the foreign countries and what they do. A Quality Counts report on the foreign countries so we can see the specifics, the particulars, the what they do we could/should do rather than just numbers and someone telling us. I don't believe it, show me.

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