Steven Weinberg, a recently retired Oakland middle school teacher, critiques California’s content standards.
Having written previously about ways education has improved in the 40 years since I began teaching, I would like to address one change that I do not believe has been beneficial: the attempt to make “content standards” the basis for everything in education.
The standards movement, which began about 20 years ago, is an effort to improve K-12 education by creating a list of content standards for each course and grade level, telling teachers exactly what needs to be taught and measuring what students have learned using tests built around those standards. California started generating these standards about 12 years ago, and now has content standards and tests for English, Math, Science, and History. These standards list between 40 and 70 things that need to be taught in each subject, each year. With 180 days in a school year, it is clear that this allows only two to four days per standard.
These standards are based on a misconception of what education is. They assume that education is like building a brick wall. If you place every brick in just the right place — that is, if you teach each standard –you end up with the finished product you desire. However, education is not just a matter of teaching 70 bits of information or skills each year. It’s about exciting students. It’s about inspiring them. It’s about awakening their individual talents and ways of looking at things that are never exactly like anyone else’s. Excellent teachers know this, and that is why many of us resist the effort to “standardized” what we do.
In English classes, the most important outcomes are that students read well and write clearly, that they enjoy reading, and that they take pride in their ability to capture their own thoughts and feelings on paper. Those goals are not enhanced by having 70 numbered standards ranging from “1.5 Use correct punctuation and capitalization” to “2.6 Write technical documents: a. identify the sequence of activities needed to design a system, operate a tool, or explain the bylaws of an organization. b. include all the factors and variables that need to be considered. c. use formatting techniques (e.g., headings, differing fonts) to aid comprehension” (Eighth Grade California English Standards).
In math, the one subject that most of us were taught based on the building-a-brick-wall method, the leaders in the field are rejecting this approach in favor of one based on developing thinking skills. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Henry S. Kepner, Jr. says “Reasoning and sense-making are at the heart of mathematics from early childhood through adulthood,” and W. Gary Martin, professor of mathematics education at Auburn University adds “We keep teaching that learning to carry out complicated procedures is what math’s about; to me the real question is, can [students] do anything with it?” (Both quotes from Education Week, Oct. 7, 2009.)
In history and science the standards also now favor breadth over depth, and teachers are pushed to cover more topics, even if it means doing so superficially. Excellent teachers do just the reverse.
Look back at your own education. I doubt if the teachers who influenced you most were those that preferred covering many topics over going into depth. The teachers who had the greatest impact on me stressed a few important concepts and stayed with them until students had time to fully internalize them. My tenth grade English teacher, Ms. Gilbert, didn’t jump from one writing type to another as the standards now require (nine types are listed in the tenth grade California standards). She stuck with critical book reviews until we could write clearly about a book’s theme and style and make reasoned evaluations with adequate supporting citations. That didn’t happen on our first or second attempts. Mr. Sheilds, my eighth grade history teacher, didn’t cover every one of the 69 topics now listed in the eighth grade standards, much less the 109 sixth and seventh grade standards eighth grade teachers are now expected to review, but he did take enough time on the topics he taught to allow us to do individual research and explore the controversies of the periods, letting American history come alive for us.
I am not claiming that content standards have made good teaching impossible; that isn’t true. Teachers are adaptable and resourceful, and some can make lemonade out of even the sourest of lemons; but the standards, as they currently exist, have hurt education. They have led some excellent teachers to retire earlier than they might have because they have found the new demands irreconcilable with their deepest held beliefs. These standards have caused many bright new teachers, who might have developed into a new generation of excellent educators, to quit after two or three years because they found the “brick-laying” method of teaching joyless and non-productive. And these standards hurt student learning because, even though many teachers do a valiant job to minimize their negative effects, the standards demand too much coverage and too little meaningful instruction.
As the Obama Administration begins to focus on changes in national educational policy, I hope parents and teachers will join together in calling for an end to the type of standards which stifle creativity and encourage superficiality. We must set higher standards for our standards.