Andrew Ahlgren is the associate director of Project 2061.
Consider biological diversity: By maintaining as wide a range of species as possible, we maximize the chance that at least one will be suited to any circumstances that come along. Diversification in industry or in stock portfolios (they tell me) is likewise the best bet for survival. We don’t know what knowledge and skill the future will demand of the American people. But we estimate as best we can and construct a curriculum we imagine will foster that knowledge and skill. If we’re wrong and locked in by standards, we may end up ill-prepared for new conditions--in a dead end like the dinosaurs.
I like to think that the American diversity in curriculum, such as it is, protects us against the dead ends: No matter what the future may hold, somewhere in the United States there are children learning adequately the kinds of things that will make them successful in it. If there were a nationally prescribed curriculum, however wise the counsel and wide the consensus behind it, we would risk dead ends. Given that our wisdom is very limited to begin with, and our consensus is still dubious, why risk getting locked in?
Worse, we don’t yet have adequate assessment techniques to check on how well we are succeeding as we implement reforms. We are adept with the old assessment techniques, which are notoriously misleading, and still just experimenting with new techniques, which have unknown implications. In our hurry to support standard curriculum with standard assessment, we may find ourselves locked in to the worst aspects of both.
So should we keep curriculum and assessment as loose as we can? No, I don’t see any reasonable alternative to promoting the best wisdom and consensus that can be mustered at the time. But part of that wisdom has to be recognizing the tentativeness of what we envision as best. And part of the consensus should be to tolerate (or better, encourage)--alternative ways of reaching the consensus goals and alternative extensions of those goals. (The trick here is to define the basic goals modestly enough that there is room in the curriculum to pursue additional ones as well.) The current wisdom and current consensus is to see reform as a continuing enterprise and not a one-time fix.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: ‘Why Risk Getting Locked In?’