Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Problem with National Standards.

Duncan wants national curricular standards, to avoid the patchwork of state and local standards schools work on now.  Theoretically, I think this is a good idea.  Practically, it gets a lot tricker.  

Because everyone wants a piece of the pie.  Article in HuffPo proposes "national ecological literacy standards."  I don't particularly oppose this idea, but look: how many different areas of learning can we get into here?  Theoretically, I think kids should learn about reading and writing and American history and world history and world religions and anthropology and sociology and technology and math and ecology and biology and...

You see where I'm going with this.  

This has always been the problem with focusing on content in the curriculum.  Again, I'm not saying the goal of education isn't partly for kids to learn the content.  But a lot of it has to be skills.  Because...simply...we can't cover it all.  Humanly impossible.  

E.D. Hirsch, proponent of cultural literacy, has long been an advocate of the content-specific curriculum.  Skills are learned in the process, but he has laid out, in much of his Core Knowledge curriculum, the content knowledge he thinks is essential for students to learn - the theory behind this being that students and people in general need a certain level of common knowledge to communicate, read, grow.  Like a foundation.  Which, again, theoretically - I agree with.  

But take a look at what he specifies as what should be included.  See anything missing?  I do.  Lots.  So how do you decide?  How do you determine what's important and what's not? (I have thoughts on the answer to that question.  But I'll refrain for now.)


  1. It seems like there is a fundamental difference between the content driven approach and the process driven approach to learning. The content advocates, appear to be the pessimists in that the approach seems to ultimately be directed to filling students' heads with enough information to create a common knowledge base for our culture, in order to make basic communication more easily attained. It almost assumes that at least a certain percentage of students will not learn to love learning, and so fills them with the basic data that will be required to function in society. There's probably a lot to be said for that approach, but it gets back to the 'give a man a fish vs teach him to fish' argument. There's obviously some bit of both approaches required. Part of the equation may be identifying which students benefit the most from each technique. Another question becomes, how do you quantify the other type of non-content driven learning in order to satisfy a national standard?

  2. That's where I come up against a wall. Duncan and his irk would never be pleased with standards that were so broad and vague as "...think critically...problem a love of reading/learning/etc...

    And I get that. But we can't keep chasing ever-expanding content. The thing I worry about with regards to national standards is that it will make things worse then they already are - there is already so little room to teach the kids about the things I think they should learn about that isn't in the curriculum...

    It's a mess.

  3. I'm reminded of my basic botany class, freshman year. For some reason, I became interested in leaf senescence, and why they turned such vivid colors in the fall. I went off on a tangential exploration of glycoside linkages and temperature induced biochemical reactions. Got no extra credit for the exercise, and there were certainly no questions on any exam that were pertinent. Yet the exercise in itself was instructive, and encouraged similar digressions on my part. Some people may be more adept at the rote approach, but I have to agree with Vonnegut, who I saw speak at a local college in the early 90s, when he said to the graduating class, "You're here to fuck around". I think he meant that in the sense he did in 'Cat's Cradle', when Dr. Felix Hoenniker, 'father of the atom bomb' decides to stay home from work when he becomes interested in discovering whether his son's pet turtle's neck compresses or buckles when it retracts into its' shell. He only returns to work after a few weeks when the company sends some security guys to drag him back to work. I don't envy the decisions you have to make as an educator. It is a mess.