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Do National Standards Make Sense?

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I spent my summer break wandering far, far away from my teacher desk. The farther afield I traveled, the more I questioned my beliefs about how schools should run. Two places in particular struck me: Amidon, North Dakota, and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

In a car with friends, I passed through Amidon (pop. 26) in seconds. The remote town consists of a couple of intersections on Interstate 85, cushioned by about 30 miles of hilly space to the north and south. There's one restaurant—named, I think, Creeper's— and a small town hall-like structure. I was so amazed at the town's tininess that I wrenched myself around as we passed and saw the last building in town, which looked like a one-room structure with its back exterior wall covered by a large sign reading "SCHOOL." Then the treeless expanse again took over.

What goes on in the Amidon schoolhouse? How many people work there? What are they like? What resources do they use? Is there professional development? Do the Amidon students learn the way my urban students do? Do we need national standards to unite Amidon and Washington, D.C.?

I have no idea. I've taught in the Bronx, Manhattan, and in Southeast, D.C. I grew up in suburban Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I have clung to a belief in a common core of universal rhythms and needs of students and teachers, but when I passed the Amidon School, a feeling of cluelessness hit me. My ideas about what all students need have been informed by what I believe my students need and then reinforced by other teachers in comparable environments. I thought I had a grip on what education should look like, but this hamlet in North Dakota threw me for a loop. Amidon seemed so… other.

Encounters with Otherness

Subsequent Internet research only further confounded me. Eleven students attend school in Amidon. The town also holds the obscure honor of being the smallest county seat (Slope County, N.D.) in the country. In November 2005, a Web site selected it as "Ghost Town of the Month." I wish I’d stopped and chatted with someone there, but we were moving fast and the summer streets were empty.

My brief encounters with otherness were not finished. A couple weeks later I visited the Ramey School, a U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity school for dependents of service members in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. My niece Dylan—whose dad is in the Coast Guard—will be starting kindergarten there this week.

Our vehicle passed through a security checkpoint to enter the grounds of the large campus. The K-12 school was designed for sunny island weather: lots of individual buildings and outdoor walkways. We walked with Dylan around the grounds, checking out the theater, the art room, and a library packed with books. While searching for the kindergarten room, an administrator materialized and graciously showed us to the spot.

Mr. C., as he introduced himself, stuck around for about 30 minutes, answering all kinds of questions with reassuring confidence and a voice of experience. He'd been working in DoD schools for 10 years, and had been at Ramey for the past five. He talked extensively about the school's extracurricular offerings, special classes, low adult-student ratio, college preparation, and bilingual opportunities. It sounded like my ideal school.

Then he hit on a detail that hadn't occurred to me: Almost every student stays only three to five years. Then their parent is rotated to a different base and, presumably, the kid starts over at a different DoD school. This year, he said, approximately 20 percent of the student body at Ramey would be new. The culture of the school is very accepting and geared toward inevitable transience. ("But how?" I wanted to ask. "In my experience, students who move around a lot have very difficult schooling and social experiences.") Mr. C.'s warmth and energy were contagious, though; he loved Ramey, and I am excited for Dylan to start her school career there. "This place is my life," he said with a smile.

I don’t know what it's like to be a student at a school when you know every year a whole crop of your classmates will be rotated out, flung far across the map. One of the biggest challenges over the years at my D.C. school (grades 6-12) has been teacher retention; many older students feel a disconnection and cynicism for a school institution where virtually all of their middle school teachers have left by the time they reach the upper grades. Does that matter much at Ramey where it’s the students who disappear so regularly? What are the great needs at Ramey? What kind of accountability is fair considering how their kids come and go?

It was a wake-up call to realize that I don't know what makes the schools in Amidon and Aguadilla tick. Education in America is a broader and more diverse adventure than is often realized and getting out of my urban box this summer has shown me an iota of how much I just don’t know.

Personalizing Education

National standards are hot right now. The case for common standards is predicated on a bedrock belief that high school graduates in America must share a set of skills and proficiencies. For the basic subjects—reading, writing, and arithmetic— that sounds fine.

However, schools today are offering increasingly diversified panoplies of skills and experiences. "Specialty" charter schools, focusing on areas like the arts or languages, are in. Incorporating the use of new technologies (blogs, Web sites, PowerPoint) into the classroom is in vogue. Successful schools are expected to offer a broad array of extracurricular opportunities for burnishing college applications. American schools—like the communities they are parts of— are profoundly varied and rooted in local educational values and resources. Should Amidon and Ramey be evaluated like the specialized Stuyvesant High School in New York City or a community school in El Paso?

It's indisputable that many school communities in the country are not educating their students well enough, and that reforms are crucial. However, after visiting Amidon and Aguadilla, my ideological certainty that national education reforms need to be bound by a common, one-size-fits-all measure for success has been shaken.

Do we have a national consensus of education values beyond wanting all students to be literate and finish high school? I'm not so sure.

Mass-scale education is messy because it's both institutional and intensely personal. Teachers are humans and are therefore, all different, with different sets of priorities, communication skills, and beliefs about what is important. The same goes for students (and doctors, and judges, and every system that involves people). Should the teachers and students in Amidon be using the same curriculum or assessment system as the teachers and students in Aguadilla or Washington, D.C.? It's convenient to say "Yes!" and reach for the national standards. They are a check against the risk of incompetent educators teaching worthless stuff and running a school into the ground. But how big really is this risk? Is a risk-reduction worth a reduction in personalization, creativity, and empowerment? Perhaps boosting standardization is actually selecting statistical convenience over educational quality.

So what can we do with such a range of people and places in our country? Make it more personal. I think of empowered principals and teachers diagnosing their students' needs and responding accordingly, access to an array of authentic assessment tools, rigorous professional and curriculum development, intimate, personal learning environments, and expeditious means for dispensing with ineffective programs. It's antithetical to standardization, but give me a united school community that makes learning personal, and I think it can work in the wards of D.C. or in a one-room schoolhouse in the Plains. Such a supportive school could use bureaucratic standards, too—Ramey students with their disjointed experiences will rely on them for continuity— but my envisioned school wouldn't be straitjacketed by high-stakes tests based on them.

I think it can work. I don't know for sure. I don't know places like Amidon or Aguadilla. My summer travels have stripped me of the certitude that often wins policy arguments. But I'm okay with being racked by questions. After all, isn't this what education is all about—asking difficult questions and seeking answers through research and discourse? I hope this process will help when I seek again to unlock my students' worlds in September.

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