Sunday, March 14, 2010

YAY! Another panacea!!

An editorial in the New York Times today praises the new national school standards proposed by the National Governors Association and state school superintendents.

The article states that:

The standards, based on intensive research, reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century. They are internationally benchmarked, which means that they emulate the expectations of high-performing school systems abroad.

This is not a call for a national curriculum. Rather, the proposed standards set out the skills that children should learn from kindergarten through high school. The proposals are writing-intensive and vertically aligned, building in complexity each year. The goal is to develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now customary.

By fifth grade, for example, students would be required to write essays in which they introduce, support and defend opinions, using specific facts and details. And by 12th grade, students would be expected to solve problems or answer questions by conducting focused research projects — and display skills generally associated today with the first year of college.

I know we live in Lake Wobegon, where all of our children are above average, but I wonder what is going to happen to our lower students once we implement higher standards.

If we, as a nation, decide that students cannot graduate until they can conduct focused research projects, our graduation rate will fall dramatically. DRAMATICALLY.

Here's an analogy. Let's say to make a baseball team, a player must hit .200. But we decide that we need better baseball teams, so we raise the standard to .250. Will that higher goal equal higher achievement? For some, yes. For most, no. Thus, the number of students who make teams will fall. Some players will be motivated to work harder, and they will reach goals they never thought they could, and that's great. But for some players, the problem is not motivation--it's capability. They just don't have the skills.

What do we intend to do with those kids without logical-mathematical skills? Our future electricians and mechanics? When are we going to develop a plan for them?

Yes, I believe we need high standards. But we must realize that the current emperor has no clothes, and that not all children, not even MOST of the children, can meet them. And that's OK. It's OK that a student can't complete a research paper. That's HARD. And no amount of remediation will teach that student that skill. Think of people you have known who have REALLY struggled with school. Now think: would any amount of extra attention have prepared them for the difficult work of writing a research paper, passing pre-calculus or memorizing the periodic table? We must acknowledge the fact that some of our kids, many of our kids, will never reach these high standards.

Of course, that does not mean we ignore these kids (which is what we're doing now). We need to have a plan for those kids who aren't very good at school, and who are going to be left behind in greater numbers once we set higher standards. Setting higher standards will not make every kid rise to them. In fact, it will mean more people will not reach them.

We have to figure out why kids aren't succeeding. Are they unmotivated or incapable? Of course, it's a little of both, but just setting higher standards simply assumes that the problem is motivation, not capability.

In sum, setting high standards is great. And when we set these high standards, fewer students will reach them, and that's fine too. But what plan do we have for these students?


Chris said...

Always an interesting dilemma…how do we maintain high standards while giving every student the opportunity to succeed?

You stated, “What do we intend to do with those kids without logical-mathematical skills? Our future electricians and mechanics?”

Are you saying our future electricians and mechanics are those kids without logical-mathematical skills? If you could clarify that would be great. I would not hire a electrician or a mechanic without logical-mathematical skills. Including but not limited to exceptional problem solving skills.

With regard to high standards I am all for them. Maybe the problem is we have limited the number of ways a student can demonstrate a high standard. For example problem solving, if a student shows proficiency in Pre-Calculus we can assume they have decent problem solving skills. But there are other ways to demonstrate logical-mathematical problem solving skills.

While it might be easy for me to solve a Pre-Calculus problem it could be difficult for me to diagnose a problem with a mechanical system and then have the spatial relation knowledge to devise a plan to solve the problem. Both of these tasks will require basic mathematical knowledge, but beyond basic knowledge is a higher standard that could be assessed in more than one way.

There must be other ways besides conducting a focused research project that students can demonstrate proficiency in whatever areas the research project is attempting to evaluate.

Of course there is a balance, but in general I do believe students will rise to the expectations that are placed on them. Take behavior for example, if a teacher has an expectation of a certain type of behavior in their classroom that is what they will get. If a teacher has no expectations of appropriate behavior, then that is what they will get.

You might be saying, “Behavior is a different thing than academic achievement. All students are capable of behaving in class (well most students). On the other hand not all students are capable of reaching high standards.”

What are students actually capable of? What competencies do we want to measure? Are we giving students multiple choices in the ways they can demonstrate any one competency?

Low standards, especially in math, do no one any favors, not the student, not the teacher, not our society. Keep high standards while developing new ways to measure them.

Anonymous said...

High standards are great. The problem lies with blaming the teacher when these standards are put in place across the board and they are teaching higher grades with students who have not yet been taught or subjected to these standards. The students are then expected to know the material and perform well on statewide/national tests according to these new standards. When they do not meet these expectations we are blamed! How am I supposed to play catch up with a high school student who has been passed from grade to grade by an entire different set of standards? It's ridiculous!