Dead End Standards (28 May ’09)

For years I have contended that the standards movement was ingrown and self-serving. Standards and their even less connected assessments claim to measure what should be taught. Instead they have simply distorted what is being taught. The over emphasis on reading and math at the expense of the arts or technical courses is one example. The failure of the departments of education to fully examine the correlation or lack of it between standards assessments and college or workplace success is another.

The Times article of 27 May 2009, “New Push Seeks to End Need for Pre-College Remedial Classes”  appears a beginning toward addressing this disparity. At the very least, schools and their legislated programs need to consider the purpose of education beyond the schoolroom walls. In reading through the comments on this article, however, I found a sad, though varied, set of perspectives that often limited themselves to defensive positions. True; some were dismissive, but I assume avoidance as defense. We cannot be defensive about what we are creating for our future. Aligning standards to college is a teeny step in the right direction. Can we build on it? Can we solve this problem? Can we first find the problem?

Perhaps the issue has a more fundamental root. This, I suggest, is the data-driven connection. If everything we value must be defined by data, we are without much hope for a very deep or broad set a values to live and work by. As a world view, this offers little. Art and music, by example, have done much in recent years to get on the data train by linking themselves to math and writing proficiency scores. …gives musical score a bit of a different meaning. The truly tough things to assess, those that philosophy has been going after and even trying to codify for millennia, are not easy to measure even when there is agreement on what is or is not good. And herein lies a clue perhaps. Is there just one good? Am I too stupid to know good without a label?

The answer it seems to me is to get back to teaching thinking as the standard and much of the rest as the scaffolding within which good thinking can occur. Thinking can be much richer and deeper than we generally assume, but it is often shunned as hard work. So are all academic skills as well, if one has no training in them. Yes, students leaving high school need to be able to read, write and do math at some level, dependent upon what they intend to pursue, but they need ideas and visions for themselves much more so. A well written paper ought to say something worth reading. From a book or poem should be gleaned as much as can be gleaned, especially those troubling, lingering questions. A well engineered bridge requires not just strength and safety, but beauty and a place in its surroundings.

The work we do in the world cannot just be the product of our labor; it must also be the meaningful response it elicits from all those who witness it.

Dear Senator Klobuchar (9 May ’09)

The following are the notes I delivered on 9 May 2009 to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, via two of her aides, at recent hearings here in Minneapolis on upcoming changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, plagiaristically known as No Child Left Behind.


Too much emphasis on data and numbers as though they had meaning, when they can be made to mean what ever we want them to mean.

Too much emphasis on what these numbers mean to the image of Minneapolis, or Minnesota or America.

Too much emphasis on what scores are produced in school, scores that turn education into a game of Space Invaders, where bigger numbers are all that counts.

Too little emphasis to the actual lives of the students and their families. Too little emphasis on what happens for the rest of the lives of those who have been played for the scores they produce. Little or no data exists on the correlation between their scores and the next five, ten or twenty years of their lives. The numbers as just numbers.

Too much emphasis on lock-step processes geared toward locked in goals. No two children are the same. Demanding that they all leave school the same turns egalitarianism into dehumanization. No one is a failure because they are not like everyone else.

Too much emphasis on failure; too little emphasis on how much gain has been made. Declaring students failures, declaring teachers failures and declaring schools failures solves no problems, makes no progress, leaves millions of people behind and does not make America a better place to live.

Too much dependence on decision making about public education by powerful interests who have no direct connection with teaching and learning in public schools now and never have had.

Too few meetings like this to begin to find out what’s working and rewarding and celebrating it.

%d bloggers like this: