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Education Standards: A Question of Time?

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For the past two years the education and political communities have been rushing pell-mell to establish world-class standards in each of a half-dozen subject-matter areas--mathematics, science, English, geography, civics, and the arts.

While the need to establish such standards is almost indisputable, we may be headed for disaster unless we carefully plan for their use.

The potential problem became clear to me in late January when I attended a meeting of the advisory group for the National Geography Standards Project. What amazed me that day was that the project was focusing on teaching geography as a subject distinct and separate from art, economics, history, and the other disciplines. While a decided amateur in the field, I believe that you can't really learn about the geography of a nation unless you also understand the impact of its geography on history, culture, economics, language, and, yes, perhaps even science and math.

Conversely, it would be very difficult to understand a country's history unless you studied key elements of its geography, which of course will influence the country's economy, culture, and language. I could go on, but the point is clear: In real life, these subjects are not as clearly defined as the experts and advocates in a field might imagine or wish. This example will help serve to illustrate this point.

One of the content-based performance standards in geography for 4th graders is that a student should be able to explain a given location's similarities to and differences from other areas in terms of human and physical characteristics like "What is it like here?'' and the effect of a place's location on its layout and development.

How can you deal with these questions without discussing the culture, which has, certainly, been shaped by history, the nature of the local economy, and the language? How unfortunate if we teach a student one day--or even one period--about the physical characteristics of an area, then hours, weeks, or months later teach about the history and culture of that same area. Real life rarely is divided into neat little compartments, and we should not be teaching and testing our young people in ways that lead them to believe it is.

As standards in each of the disciplines are finalized and published, reality will hit and educators will realize what has happened and ask: "What does this mean to the average classroom teacher and that poor 4th grader in P.S. 999?''

Think about it. If teachers now have a hard time getting through the material they are expected to cover each year, what will happen when they are confronted with teaching the material required to bring all students to the level of world-class standards when the standards for each subject area have been created in splendid isolation from all other subject areas? One can imagine the theoretical school day growing to about 18 hours and the school year to about 500 days!

The standards are being prepared in the right way--experts in each field are working with representatives of business, higher education, and government. The issue will soon become who is going to rationalize all of this and how will it be done?

There are those who suggest that it be done by the National Education Goals Panel. That group is composed of political leaders who would, I suspect, not wish to undertake such a task--and are not especially qualified to do so.

There may soon be created by statute a National Education Standards and Assessment Council. While that council's mandate will be based on certification of the standards process and those which will be used to create assessments, it is conceivable that its mandate could be expanded, if its membership were also expanded.

There is also a National Education Commission on Time and Learning (on which I serve), which was created in 1991 to examine issues related to the length of the school day and year and how learning takes place. Consisting of only nine members, the commission does not have the resident expertise on these issues and is scheduled to terminate on Sept. 30, 1994, long before it can tackle this set of issues.

One option would be a model whereby all of the groups involved in developing subject-matter standards would come together to work out these issues. That presumes that each would be willing to cede some sovereignty, but how would disputes be resolved? And, of course, any mechanism would have to include a large number of classroom teachers to keep the process in touch with reality.

The issue is more than theoretical. The reform model developed and endorsed by governors, teachers, administrators, school boards, and corporate leaders assumes that the new standards will soon be translated into assessments to measure whether or not students have mastered the standards. In some states, the failure of students to master these standards will lead to consequences involving teachers, administrators, and, probably, school board members. Conversely, mastery of the standards may bring rewards, recognition, and re-election.

Let me be very clear. I favor national standards. I favor assessments that measure performance against these standards. I believe that without clear expectations, combined with indicators that show whether or not students have learned that material, we will never achieve a level of high performance from our young people. We must be certain, however, that what is done is thoroughly thought through so that the process produces improvement, not confusion and frustration. We owe that to the students and teachers who will live with the consequences of what others have wrought.

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