National Standards: Should We Take a Seat at the Table?
In the last decade, the talk in the education community has been focused around the buzz words of accountability and reform. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 encouraged schools to aim for high test scores for all of their students, and thus a disproportionate focus was placed on English-Language Arts and Mathematics, the two disciplines most widely tested and measured by NCLB. At that time, the middle school in which I worked quickly jumped on to the test score bandwagon and reduced the number of elective classes for students, in order to increase the amount of instruction in English and Math. “Hey, if the kids can’t read, why should they be fooling around making wooden ducks in shop class!” Gone were the ceramics, drama, wood shop, and home economics classes. It almost seems like another lifetime ago. Confession: I wholeheartedly joined the bandwagon, thinking I was doing the best for my students. The data, almost 10 years later, does not show that those students have done markedly better for what they had to give up. Bethune Middle School is still an API level 1 school, and narrowly avoided being on the LAUSD takeover list last year by a sliver.
Today, one of the latest reforms being proposed is the idea of National Standards, also known as Common Core Standards. In California, this initiative, AJR 39, passed 70 to 1 recently, with 64 co-authors all rushing to put their name behind this new reform. In this endeavor, all states would have a unified curriculum and all disciplines would be tested, thereby preserving the relevance of all academic subjects and giving Social Studies teachers, of which I am one, a seat at the table.
I’m not sure I want to eat at this table.
On the one hand, popular wisdom shows us that what gets measured gets taught. The Social Studies arena has seen a rapid decline in the instructional time allotted for it. Some schools have reduced instruction in this area by 50%, or condensed the year into an 8 week summer course. In elementary schools in Los Angeles, a great amount of time has been allotted to Open Court, a prescribed ELA curriculum that focuses on phonics and fluency. Elementary teachers confide that they have to sneak in Social Studies and Science when administrators are not looking, saying this with a gleam of pride and defiance, because they know the importance of a well-balanced education.
The idea is that the train has left the station, and we either participate in its navigation, or jump out and…become irrelevant. But what is to be said about decisions made in fear?
Teachers and teacher leaders around the nation have expressed concern about jumping on the National Standards bandwagon. Alfie Kohn, a Boston education writer states, “the goal clearly isn’t to nourish children’s curiosity, to help them fall in love with reading and thinking, to promote both the ability and the disposition to think critically, or to support a democratic society.” Instead, he believes these standards are geared toward providing measurable uniformity for the purpose of creating workers for an economic society. Some might consider this a good thing; we want to remain competitive, right? But I wonder if national standards are what will return our nation to its golden age of art, invention, and democratic ideals that have defined us in our short lifetime?
Did national standards inspire Maya Angelou to write the beautiful poetry of Why the Caged Bird Sings? Did they inspire Walt Disney to create a fantasy land that has brought joy to millions of people throughout the world? Did they light a fire under Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Co? Our pride as Americans has been in our innovative, independent streak that has produced critical thinkers who aspire to a better world, a life on a higher plane. As a teacher, I am unsure National Standards can further us along this path.
A belief being perpetuated in the media is that teachers want to shun accountability measures in order to escape responsibility for their students’ performance. I would argue that in fact, it is the exact opposite reason why teachers sometimes question programs proposed by the sudden rash of “ed reformers,” few of who have any substantial experience in education. As my school participates in our state’s accountability testing this week, the California Standards Test, I muse to myself how easy it would be to get students to show an increased performance on the exam. You would simply focus all instruction on the specific content standards that will be measured on the test, and exclude all other content and instructional activities that will not be tested. But can teachers ethically, morally, support the elimination of the type of instruction that may keep alive our legacy of being a nation of innovators, creators, and inventors?
Some in the education community will say we have no choice. We have already seen what NCLB did to non-essential subjects. If we do not jump on board with the current administration’s reforms de jour, we can kiss our relevance goodbye. What is worse: cookie-cutter Social Studies instruction, or none at all? Do we work from the inside, or do we refuse to contribute to the lock step pedagogy espoused by the federal government? Perhaps there is a happy medium we can reach. Teachers, what route should we take?