One the biggest scientific discoveries of the past two centuries was the theory that explains how species evolve over time. As we dive into a debate over the wisdom of national educational standards, I think we might have something to learn from the natural world.
The big idea that Darwin explained in his landmark book, On the Origin of Species, is that there exists within a population of any species a range of traits – later found to be encoded in the organisms’ DNA. He called this “variation.” In his book, Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne describes recent evidence for this process in wild mice. Most mice in the wild have dark brown fur, which helps them hide against the earth where they live. But not all mice have dark fur. There are some variants with lighter fur, which, under normal circumstances, do not survive as well as their darker cousins. However, change the earth, and this survival pattern changes. Mice living on the white sand dunes of Florida’s Gulf Coast are white with a faint brown stripe down their backs. Predators have captured a higher proportion of the darker mice, selecting the mice with genes for lighter fur to survive and reproduce.
This is not a predictable outcome. It is hard to know in advance which variations will be favored, because conditions and selective pressures change over time. Therefore variation in a population is a very healthy thing. Which variation out-competes its fellow organisms better really depends on the nature of the selective pressure. In a drought, the variety of giraffe with a long neck might survive better. Or perhaps a variation with a particular facility for digging for water, as elephants can do with their trunks in the riverbed. In a time when predators are evolving and attacking, variations that can run away may survive better, so speed may be favored. And different species evolve different adaptations, different strategies to respond to these various selective pressures. In response to pressure from predators, some species evolve to be fleet of foot, while others evolve spiny fur that causes injury to the predators, while another may evolve the ability to hide. But these adaptations emerge from the variations within the original populations of each species.
These ideas about the value of variation lead me to thinking about competition of a different sort. Right now we are in the midst of intense international competitive economic pressure. Increasingly, policymakers and educational reformers assert that we have an economic imperative to improve our educational system, or we will find ourselves left behind by our better-educated rivals in India or China. This line of reasoning began in the panic that followed the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and was renewed by the alarmist Nation at Risk report in 1983. The current push for national standards is being driven by similar fears.
National standards, it is suggested, will “raise the bar” across the US, creating a common base level of educational attainment, thus making us better able to compete with other nations. What will this look like? Currently each state has its own set of content standards in science, social studies, English, math and other subjects. In California, our science standards emphasize plate tectonics because of our frequent earthquakes. In the process to create one set of common standards, such variations will be eliminated as we must agree on what all students must learn coast to coast. There will presumably be some high level convocation, with representatives from each state, that will hash out this common set of standards. Then there will be tests created, aligned with these standards, that will allow us to arrive at a clear benchmark so we can compare how well students perform whether they are in Ketchikan or Kalamazoo.
We have seen where this will lead. I am in California, a state with the sort of “tough” standards that advocates of national standards seem to like. Schools that do not meet these standards are put on a sort of academic probation – which becomes a deathwatch, as the growth targets under NCLB are utterly impossible to meet. As has been widely documented, these schools narrow their curriculum to emphasize what they know will be on the tests. Subjects not emphasized on the tests, such as history and science, music, art and physical education, are all given short shrift. Extra hours of math and reading are poured on, and even there, instruction is mapped out to address discrete concepts and skills we know will be tested.
In addition to striving to eliminate variation between educational systems in different states or regions, we are trying to eliminate variation in our population of students. Some have become convinced that the only acceptable outcome for our students is graduation from a four-year college. Therefore we are making high school even more rigorous, so graduates meet the toughest university entry requirements. And since research shows that most students who succeed in completing the most demanding sequence of high school math courses took Algebra in grade 8, many schools and states are beginning to mandate that ALL students take Algebra in the 8th grade, whether or not they understand fractions or other basic math concepts.
I believe this entire drive takes us up a blind path. We are trying to make all states, schools and students alike, when in fact, we should be fostering greater variety.
This does not mean we make school less challenging. School should be immensely challenging. But there is nothing that says that each student will do best facing the same challenge.
Our students do best when they can discover and pursue their particular passion and skill. Just as in any population of living things, they come to us with a great deal of variation. Some are natural visual artists, while others excel at logic and mathematics. Why must we pound them all into the same shape?
Our economy has been driven into the ditch by highly educated people, most of whom make their money by moving money, rather than actually producing anything. Our current economic situation has many highly skilled people out of work wondering where the jobs are now, and without a clue where they might be a decade from now. The smart ones are looking ahead and seeing things like green technology and local agriculture. A four-year degree is a wonderful thing, but as many college graduates are discovering, there is nothing magical about it.
This future, going back to our story about natural selection, will favor a population with a wide variety of adaptable skills. I spoke recently with a building contractor. He said he cannot find young American-born people to work on the homes he remodels. He said, “The only Americans who know how to build things are forty or fifty years old! Instead, in our area, it is people from Mexico who can do this productive and necessary work.” We need people who can work with their hands as well as their minds, to build the technologies and tools of the future. A university education is not a bad thing, but it is not an end in itself.
Our students should not all be on the same path. They should have a greater say in the path they choose, and we should seek to develop a wider variety of challenging alternatives for them. There should be career-oriented institutes emerging from our high schools, linked to internships in the community.
Programs like the Engineering Academy at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland provide students with hands-on challenges connected to solving real-world problems, like the bridge-building competition shown here. The Buck Institute for Education has developed an exciting Problem-Based Learning approach that is proving successful in many settings. Around the country a number of high schools are starting green career technology programs.
Our students come to us with a variety of interests and abilities. Our role as educators should be to develop those interests into passions, and those abilities into real skills. For some reason this has become defined as a less “rigorous” approach by those who want everyone to achieve the same things at the same time. However, I believe this is actually a far more challenging path for all of us, and ultimately will yield a much more versatile and adaptable generation of students. Ironically, all this standardization may wind us making us LESS competitive in the long run.
What do you think? Are national standards useful? Or should we encourage greater variation rather than standardization?
Photo by Oakland Tech parent Rhita Williams, used by permission.
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