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.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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