10 March 2009

Standard Rhetoric

In the not-too-distant future (i.e. around the end of the Legislative session next month), Washington state will have new science standards. They are being billed as a revision; however, they are a drastic departure in both content and format from the current/previous version. (If you're interested, you can see them here.) I know I'm just an old fart who doesn't like change, but I really don't like this new version. In my opinion, the old ones did a much better job of stating conceptual understanding and allowing for higher order thinking. I also have issues with some of the scientific inaccuracies (e.g. Explain that a balloon expands when you blow air into it because air fills up the container by pushing against the outside air.), but more importantly, several of the targets have nothing to do with academic concepts. Here are two examples from grades 4-5:
  • Work collaboratively with other students to carry out an investigation, selecting appropriate tools and demonstrating safe and careful use of equipment. (WTF? Are we endorsing group assessment instead of individual learning?)
  • Respond non-defensively to comments and questions about their investigation. (I don't even know where to begin with this one. Cultural bias? Ability to validly assess? I can't wait until some parent sues a school over this one.)
Setting this aside for the moment, it should be mentioned that these standards might not last very long...so perhaps I shouldn't get too worked up. The state supe has made some rumblings about looking at tossing our state's hat into the ring of national standards. According to Education Week, he isn't the only one:

Some schools deemed to be failing in one state would get passing grades in another under the No Child Left Behind law, a national study found.

The study underscores wide variation in academic standards from state to state. It was to be issued Thursday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The study comes as the Obama administration indicates it will encourage states to adopt common standards, an often controversial issue on which previous presidents have trod lightly.

"I know that talking about standards can make people nervous," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently.

"But the notion that we have 50 different goal posts doesn't make sense," Duncan said. "A high school diploma needs to mean something, no matter where it's from."

Every state, he said, needs standards that make kids college- and career-ready and are benchmarked against international standards.

The Fordham study measured test scores of 36 elementary and middle schools against accountability rules in 28 states.

It found the schools failed to meet yearly progress goals in states with more rigorous standards, such as Massachusetts. But they met yearly progress goals in states with lower standards, such as Arizona and Wisconsin.

No Child Left Behind is misleading, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the nonprofit Fordham Foundation.

"It misleads people into thinking that we have a semblance of a national accountability system for public schools, and we actually don't," Finn said. "And it's produced results I would call unfair from one state to the next."

No Child Left Behind was championed by President George W. Bush and passed with broad bipartisan support, though it has since become hugely unpopular.

The law prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It is up to states to set yearly progress goals — "annual yearly progress," or AYP — and each state has its own standards and tests.

It is unlikely the Obama administration or Congress will try to force states to adopt the same standards.

Rather, they favor a carrot-and-stick approach that offers states funding to develop new standards and tests or offers more flexibility under No Child Left Behind.

The House Education Committee chairman, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, called for incentives when Congress prepared to rewrite the law in 2007, an effort that subsequently stalled.

In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander pushed legislation that offered to waive the rigid annual yearly progress structure in exchange for raising standards to national or international benchmarks.

And in the newly enacted economic stimulus bill, there is a $5 billion incentive fund for Duncan to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests.

Several states are moving in that direction; for example, 16 of them working with Achieve, a nonprofit founded by governors and corporate leaders, have adopted common math and English standards.

Any effort toward common standards is likely to have support from teachers' unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, wrote an op-ed piece Monday in The Washington Post arguing for national standards.

Like Duncan, she used a football analogy, comparing the patchwork of standards to a Super Bowl where the Pittsburgh Steelers must move the ball a full 10 yards but the Arizona Cardinals must go only 7.

"Every other industrialized nation has national standards," Weingarten said in an interview. "When you start thinking about how are we going to create a school system throughout the United States that helps enable kids to be prepared for college, prepared for life and prepared for work, you have to start with common standards," she said.

Nancy Flanagan has already conducted an excellent Thought Experiment about the idea of national standards. As I have reviewed the new standards for science here, I have had the same question she poses: Will these really change anything? The fact is, I don't. When classroom instruction changes, perhaps we will see differences in student learning. Also, after my recent experiences with educational "experts" lending their voice to conversations about science instruction, I'm turned off by the idea that these same people would likely be the type to be invited for a national level conversation...while teachers would be left out.

Over at ASCD, there is quite the slew of comments over a post relating to national standards.
A topic that has been making noise lately is whether the United States should develop national standards so that all schools would have a common core curriculum. The National Governors Association issued a report saying that not only should the United States adopt national standards, but international curriculum should also be incorporated so that students can be globally competitive.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is also calling for national standards, saying that nations performing better than the United States have national standards. Weingarten cites Minnesota's and Massachusetts's high performance on international assessments as proof that a common, rigorous curriculum would be a boon to all states.

According to recent reports, having national standards in place would allow students to compete with the rest of the world and can help strengthen the economy (smarter and skilled workers have better paying jobs). Because the world rapidly evolves due to technology, it is naive to think that the United States can continue to educate students without a set curriculum that will allow U.S. students to excel in their studies and make them competitive after completing school.
I encourage you to go have a look at what people are posting...because I get the impression that this discussion isn't going to subside anytime soon. If anything, we're just at the beginning of this rhetoric...and perhaps not too far from words becoming actions.


Unknown said...

Those are pretty bad standards. . . more bad than pretty. A science teacher and I sat through and corrected the innaccuracies of our standards:

"Describe the three fundamental types of matter." What? Following this, "Explain how an element changes from one type of matter to another."

Okay, matter doesn't change from one matter to another. It has "stages" of matter and they are not necessarily "three."

On our AIMS test, they had a question about Pluto being a
a. satellite
b. planet
c. asteroid
d. comet

It was supposed to be a no-brainer, but our students chose (a) because they knew Pluto was no longer a real planet.

Joe said...

You have a "don't get your panties in a wad" standard. Lovely. Personally, I don't have an issue with national standards and Duncan's comments make sense. I just want to see standards that move away from rote memorization to application of knowledge. However, I can also imagine the nightmare we'll have on our hands of curriculum standards become political. Had we instituted them during the last administration we would all be teaching intelligent design right now. Which by the way, if that does become a standard I'll be finding a Canadian to marry.

The Science Goddess said...

I'm Canadian...and single...but not quite your type. :)

Hugh O'Donnell said...

National Education Standards: the homogenization of the American intellect...Group think. 1984.

Perhaps for a small country the size of an average American state, national standards would be as viable as US state standards. But for a large, vibrant, diverse, and individualistic country as the good old USA, national standards would spell the end of creativeness in education. (How would new ideas percolate to the top? We need smaller venues to try new ideas so we can see and critique the results, and take from them the lessons we need.)

National standards spook the hell out of me.

And 100% of students at grade level by 2014 is farcical. All popcorn kernels pop, but not all at the same rate. Same with students. Good grief.

I'm afraid our President and his Ed Sec'y are listening to the same old edu-political hacks. They need better info, fer sure.