Curriculum Opinion

We Need Standards Without Standardizing

By Deborah Meier — October 21, 2014 5 min read
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Deborah Meier writes to Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute again today.

Dear Leo,

When discussing local vs. national it depends, doesn’t it, on whether we like the one vs. the other at any particular time. But we can, it’s true turn it into a principle or we can weigh each compromise separately. But then, there IS the Constitution. The argument for school desegregation and the many civil rights struggles we’ve engaged in was, in fact, that racism was unconstitutional. Furthermore, as we rediscovered, legal fights only get us so far. In the end we depend on persuading the locals. Laws can only take us so far--obeying laws depends largely on a kind of consensus that the laws make sense, that they are morally correct.

So, then the question is: can you persuade me that the Common Core State Standards are a tool for preparing people for living and nourishing and furthering the democratic ideal? Mandating it certainly goes against the Constitution—as do most of the recent ed reforms—including charters and testing. They are not merely federal suggestions. They were initiated from the top, are funded from the top, come with penalties from the top, etc. And they are mandates in terms of both pedagogy and curriculum (hard as these are to separate).

I wrote about this in the abstract some years ago. I think I made a good case for schools having standards—explicit and clear—without standardizing. We need, above all, to preserve the intellectual room for teachers and communities to learn from their own experience and to venture down different paths. (See my book Will Standards Save Public Education?, with responses from Jonathon Kozol, Abigail Thernstrom, Bob Chase, Gary Nash, Linda Nathan, Richard Murnane, William Ayers, and Ted Sizer.)

Even if I was persuaded about “close textual reading,” I wouldn’t want to impose it. As it happens, I don’t agree. Learning to “scan” (read fast) is probably more important to a good education in my opinion, even though there are times for close textual reading! But not until AFTER we have caught the readers’ bug. Knowing how to do something hardly competes with the habit of doing so, which in turn rests on catching the spirit. The capacity to open up new worlds, new possibilities, and new “what ifs” is what keeps me up late reading. Only then should we introduce the careful skeptical reading of text for its nuances, deceptions, etc

These are matters worth arguing about, but not mandating on a district, state, or national level. Ditto for one or another forms of learning to read. Even if “systematic phonics” was useful to 60 percent (a majority), it’s certainly demonstrably true that other methods work as well or better for 40 percent—and far more efficiently. This is where “majority wins” doesn’t fit. Why undermine the most natural and simple way to learn to read just because some need a more linear, step-by-step approach? Actually, I think there’s a curve—with systemic phonics at one end and “natural” whole language at the other and lots of in-between. What we need are classrooms where sensitive teachers can encourage all these differences. (Which in turn suggests the advantage of very small class sizes, of the kind rich people and schools think ordinary.)

Ditto re. the search for the one best way to teach math—grade by grade, etc.

If the “common core” were merely one of several suggested curricula I’d be quite content. Our textbooks have been giving us this for a century or more! We needn’t all reinvent the wheel. But to decide that all 1st grades should be teaching this or that part of world history or natural science is nonsense and doesn’t pick up on the special passions of teachers or their students or on work that flows from what’s happening in the world or in their own backyard. We studied snails at Mission Hill for several years (Stephen Jay Gould studied them his whole life) because there happened to be a plague of snails in our yard that year. All K-12ers spent the year of presidential elections studying the federal system and following all the logic behind electoral votes, big states vs. small states, and particular campaign issues. We started this curriculum the spring before and did a lot of statistical analysis at each stage.

I’m sure, Leo, that you are not happy with the high-stakes nature of the current common-core campaign—with all the built-in racial and class bias involved in any system of ranking. So I assume you have a pro-common core, but ... approach? I don’t think anyone will ever confuse us with the Tea Party. After all, I’m for individual liberty, even though it’s at the top of the conservative and Tea Party list of virtues. I’m against stifling bureaucracies, even though so was Ayn Rand. Our opposition to high-stakes standardized testing long precedes the Tea Party’s existence. We on the left have too often abandoned lofty slogans because they had been captured by the right. Rather, we need to contest the meaning of standards, liberty, and individualism—not abandon them.

What we need to rest our “bottom line” on is the critical importance of elevating human judgment, providing the tools for celebrating it rather than denigrating it. Agreeing, in short, to disagree. That surely means that teachers’ and parents’ judgment must be respected, but not subserviently. We need intellectually rebellious students, as well as intellectually clear-headed and knowledgeable teachers. Teaching “to” a prefabricated curriculum—whether in math or history or science or literature—and thus also to the test that comes along with it cannot lead to the kind of feistiness that a good school should be an exemplar of. Yes, there should be public exposure, both within the school and through various forms of external visitation. But aside from fiscal integrity, health, safety, and civil rights, we should be reluctant to intervene—if the school really can demonstrate that they operate on a democratic basis. (Maybe we could fund long-term local research on outcomes, designed to meet each community’s goals, with maybe a half-dozen common queries?)

It’s up to all of us to develop alternative options alongside criteria for what a democratic school and district or network “looks like.” Let’s put our heads together, roughly drafting these. (FairTest and the NYC Coalition have some great ideas to borrow from.) You first.


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