In September, I mentioned that I'd been reading Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way, an exploration of the fervor toward standardization by the US in order to be more like China and India...while China and India are wanting their educational systems to be more like the US, valuing creativity and choice. I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking at a conference I would be at in November. I ultimately ended up missing the event due to a funeral; however, our state government station replayed the speech Friday evening and I found several points as food for thought.
Zhao shared a story about kindergartners in India...and his own kindergartner. Bob Compton of Two Million Minutes fame told Zhao that he was inspired to make the movie after asking kindergartners in India what they wanted to be when they grew up. Those five year olds said things like scientist, engineer, and doctor. Big dreams, indeed. Zhao said he wondered if he should be worried, because his own kindergarten daughter wanted to be an elephant. Does this indicate that American kindergartners are already behind in international comparisons? Zhao doesn't think so. He believes it is a luxury to be able to dream of being an elephant---to really think that you can be anything you want to be. I find this to be a rather refreshing viewpoint...and, unfortunately, unusual these days.
FYI, the Chinese kinder said she wanted to grow up to be "a corrupt government official." I kinda like the blend of whimsy and observation of public service.
The primary point that Zhao seemed to be making was that the US doesn't need Common Core Standards. In fact, education doesn't need standards at all. I don't want to get into all of his points here (go visit his blog or read his book). What I do want to share is that his twist on things really made me think. I've always viewed academic standards as basically a good thing in the sense that there are some knowledge and skill pieces that every child should have (e.g. how to read and understand what is being read). Children who leave the public school system without these elements are at a significant disadvantage for quality of life as adults. This is not a new problem...and Zhao wonders if lack of standards is a problem at all. The first TIMSS-like study was in 1963---and US students (13-year olds were tested for this international comparison) were third from the bottom. Those students are well into adulthood now and the US hasn't suffered in terms of innovation nor collapsed under the weight of the perceived stupidity of those students. We also don't need standards, according to Zhao, because of the varying developmental rates among children. Is it appropriate to state that every child will reach the same benchmarks at the same time---and then assign intervention after intervention simply because the child isn't "ready" yet? Zhao equates standards with testing/accountability---which I think is a mistake. There is no denying the connection, but there are very different issues afoot with each. Unbridled zealotry for assessment is not the same as a list of learning goals.
And yet here we are a breath away from national standards---and the whispers of national assessments are not far behind. A friend at work was recently wondering if Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning reassessment of the Tragedy of the Commons might not have implications for education. The basic idea is that people who have a direct stake in a resource are the best at managing it. Once you make an assumption that people will do the wrong thing and encourage privatization or government regulation, things pretty much go downhill. If our children are an important resource, then are we doing them a disservice in moving away from localized curriculum? Are the qualities of innovation and creativity that the US educational system has fostered for so many years about to become extinct in the name of nationalized standards?
If you're so inclined, you can watch Zhao's presentation on the TVW website. His part of the program starts about 30 minutes in and lasts for about 50 minutes. See what ideas are engendered for you about whether or not our window of opportunity to reverse the national trend is going...going...gone.