Tuesday, December 15, 2015

National Academic Standards – Turning Public Education into McSchools


America is obsessed with standardization.

Let’s make everything the same – neat and uniform.

It’s ironic coming from a country that’s always been so proud of its rugged individualism.

But look almost anywhere in the US of A, and you’ll see a strip mall with almost all of the same stores and fast food restaurants selling the same crusty burgers and fries left waiting for the consumer under a heat lamp.

Somehow this has become THE model for public education, as well. Corporations have convinced our lawmakers that the disposable franchise business schematic is perfect to increase student learning.

That’s where we got the idea for Common Core. All schools should teach the same things at the same times in the same ways.

It’s been a horrendous failure.

But this article isn’t about the Common Core per se. It isn’t about how the Core is unpopular, expensive, developmentally inappropriate, created by non-experts or illegal. It’s about the very idea of national academic standards. After all, if the Core is flawed, one might suggest we simply fix those flaws and institute a better set of national standards. I contend that this would be a failure, too.

The problem with standardization is that it forces us to make uniform choices. In situation A, we always do THIS. In Situation B, we always do THAT. There are some areas where this is a good thing, but education is not one of them.

For instance, we can all agree that children need to read books, but what kind of books? Should they read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Should books be limited by subjects or should they be chosen by interest?
 Should they be ebooks or hardcopies? Should they be organized by grade level or an individual’s reading level?

These are decisions that are best made in class by the teacher. However, when we write national standards, we’re taking away educators’ autonomy and giving it to some nameless government entity. This isn’t smart. Teachers are the scientists of the classroom. They can use their observational skills to determine what a child needs and how best to meet those needs. If we remove this, we’re forced to guess what hypothetical children will need in hypothetical situations. Even under the best of circumstances, guesses will not be as good as empiricism.

But, some will say, standards should be broad. They shouldn’t determine what children will learn in detail. They just set a framework. For instance, they’ll detail that all children should learn how to add and subtract. All children will learn how to read and write.

There is some truth to this. We can all agree to a basic framework of skills children need before graduation. However, if the framework is this broad, is it even necessary?

Do you really think there are any public schools in this country that don’t attempt to teach adding and subtracting? Are there any schools that don’t teach reading and writing?

I doubt such educational institutions exist, and even if they did, you wouldn’t need national academic standards to change them. By any definition, they would be cheating their students. If the community found out this was going on, voters would make sure things changed.

What about evolution, someone asks. This is a central scientific concept vital to a modern understanding of the field that in many places isn’t being taught in our public schools. Don’t we need national standards to ensure things like evolution are part of the curriculum?

The short answer is no.

For a moment, let me remove my ban on talking about Common Core – our current attempt at national standards. Some people defend the Core with this same argument. However, it should be noted that the Core has no science and history standards. It does nothing to ensure evolution is taught in schools.

But could we ever have standards that did ensure evolution was taught? Yes, we could.

Why don’t we? Why doesn’t Common Core explicitly address this? Because enacting such standards would take political power of a sort that doesn’t exist in this country. Too many voters oppose it. No state or federal legislature would be able to pass it.

But let’s assume for a moment that the political stars had aligned, and we could get lawmakers to vote for this. Why would they need to? This is a central theory to so many fields of science. Do we need an act of Congress to make sure all schools teach about gravity? Do we need one for Nuclear force? Friction?

You don’t need a Congressional order to teach science. If the community wants it, teachers will just do it. That’s their jobs. You can’t legislate that everyone believes in evolution. You have to convince people that it should be taught. National standards won’t change that. You can’t sneak it in under Newton’s laws of motion. We need to come to consensus as a society. As much as I truly believe evolution should be taught in schools, national standards are not going to make that happen.

Even if I were wrong, the cost would be far too high. We shouldn’t want all of our public schools to be uniform. When everyone teaches the same things, it means we leave out the same things. There is far too much to know in this world than can ever be taught or learned in one lifetime. Choices will always need to be made. The question is who should make them?

If we allow individuals to make different choices, it diversifies what people will know. Individuals will make decisions, which will become the impetus to learning, which will then become intrinsic and therefore valued. Then when you get ten people together from various parts of the country, they will each know different things but as a whole they will know so much more than any one member. If they all know the same things, as a group they are no stronger, no smarter than each separate cog. That is not good for society.

We certainly don’t want this ideal when going out to eat. We don’t want every restaurant to be the same. We certainly don’t want every restaurant to be McDonalds.

Imagine if every eatery was a burger joint. That means there would be no ethnic food. No Mexican. No Chinese. No Italian. There would be nothing that isn’t on that one limited menu. Moreover, it would all be prepared the same way. Fast food restaurants excel in consistency. A Big Mac at one McDonalds is much like a Big Mac at any other. This may be comforting but – in the long run – it would drive us insane. If our only choices to eat were on a McDonald’s Value Menu, we would all soon die of diabetes.

But this is what we seem to want of our public schools. Or do we?

There is a bait and switch going on in this argument for school standardization. When we talk about making all schools the same, we’re not talking about all schools. We’re only talking about traditional public schools. We’re not talking about charter schools, parochial schools or private schools.

How strange! The same people who champion this approach rarely send their own children to public schools. They want sameness for your children but something much different for their own.

I have never heard anyone say this approach should be applied to all schools across the board. That’s very telling. These folks want your kids to be limited to the McDonald’s Value Menu while their kids get to go to a variety of fancy restaurants and choose from a much daintier display.

If standardization were so great, why wouldn’t they want it for their own children? I think that proves how disingenuous this whole argument is. Standardization makes no one smarter. It only increases the differences between social classes.

The rich will get a diverse individualized education while the poor get the educational equivalent of a Happy Meal.

Think about it. Every generation of American that has ever gone to public school managed to get an excellent education without the need for national academic standards. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Carl Sagan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Spike Lee, Larry King, and Stan Lee along with 90% of the United States population went to public school. None of them needed national academic standards to succeed.

This is a solution in search of a problem. The only reason we’re being sold the need for these standards is because it makes it easier for corporations to profit off federal, state and local tax dollars set aside for education. New standards mean new text books, new tests, new test prep materials, new software, and new computers. In the case of Common Core, it also means failing as many children as possible to secure a never ending supply of the above and an open door to privatization.

We must wake up to the lies inherent in these sorts of policies. Yes, the Common Core is horrible, but the problem goes far beyond the Common Core.

National Academic Standards are a terrible idea propagated by the 1% to turn the rest of us into barely educated subhumans and boost the bottom line.

Do you want fries with that?

NOTE: This article was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

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