Over the past two years, there has been a movement to develop a set of common standards in mathematics and reading, and the Carnegie Corporation announced that they would be collaborating with the National Research Council to develop a conceptual framework for a “new generation” of science standards. Will these developments advance students understanding of science in the context of a liberal democracy?
One research report that sheds some light on this is a publication by the National Research Council entitiled Common Standards for K-12 Education?: Considering the Evidence: Summary of a Workshop Series. The book’s description is as follows:
Standards-based accountability has become a central feature of the public education system in each state and is a theme of national discussions about how achievement for all students can be improved and achievement gaps narrowed. Questions remain, however, about the implementation of standards and accountability systems and about whether their potential benefits have been fully realized. Each of the 50 states has adopted its own set of standards, and though there is overlap among them, there is also wide variation in the ways states have devised and implemented their systems. This variety may have both advantages and disadvantages, but it nevertheless raises a fundamental question: Is the establishment of common K-12 academic standards, which states could voluntarily adopt, the logical next step for standards-based reform?
First we must note that since the publication of this report (which I will comment on below), the National Governor’s Council (NGC) has led the effort to insist that each state adopt a set of “common standards” that they (the NGC) develop with a cadre of experts. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education has also demanded that States that apply for The Race to the Top Funds must be part of the Common Standards movement. All but 2 states have acquiesced (Texas & Alaska).
One of the important outcomes that was drawn in the National Research Council study of Common Standards, K-12, was the lack of documented effects of standards:
First, there seemed to be wide acknowledgment that standards are now an accepted part of the educational landscape and that they play multiple roles in public education. Moreover, standards are seen as very important—and the need to improve them is seen as critical—because they are viewed as a means of achieving educational equity. However, the discussion suggested that neither the precise role that standards play nor their effects have been adequately documented.
The ethos of standards in this country has a more than 30 year history, and the NRC concludes that that any results that the standards have shown are not adequately documented. In my own view, one positive result of this study is that the current system of standards is characterized by dramatic variation. A movement towards a common set of standards removes this characteristic.
Another conclusion drawn from the NRC study is that “assessment has become the principal driver of most states standards-based reform efforts. The result of this unintended development has a reduced focus on the broader goals of instruction and learning.”
Finally, the NRC cautions advocates of common standards in the following way:
Advocates of common standards would do well to consider the political landscape carefully. Many seemed to agree that a bottom-up, grassroots approach to common standards would be the most likely to succeed, but such an effort may take time. Others argue that a political window is opening now, and that moving forward even with an incomplete and imperfect approach would be preferable to missing that window, given urgent pressure to address the glaring inequities in educational opportunity in the United States.
The most basic political tension is that between the long-standing U.S. tradition of local control and the urge to tackle national problems with central solutions. NCLB has opened the door to a significantly heightened federal role, but states have been very resistant to many of its provisions.
One of the researchers (Andrew Isaacs, University of Chicago Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education) who participated in the NRC study described
as “wobbly” the proposition that “a more centralized national curriculum would lead to higher student achievement, and that higher student achievement in turn would lead to increased economic competitiveness.” He pointed out that the United States is one of only a handful of countries that does not have a national curriculum—and that not only countries that outperform it by whatever measure, but also most countries that perform less well, have a national curriculum.
If you listen to politicians talking about the state of education, and the proposition of implementing common standards, they use “war-terminology” to describe the state of public education. Governor Hunt, of North Carolina said, “I think this is so serious that the only analogy I can think of is World War II. Yet there is little to support their views. Indeed when politicians raise the economy card in these arguments, Isaacs argues that “the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank and other factors are likely to have far more significant effects on the nation’s economic performance than the nature of its standards and curricula.”
In a liberal democracy we need an educational system that is decentralized, and that puts into the hands of educators at the local level the responsibility to choose and develop curriculum and methods of teaching by able professional teachers. One of the hallmarks of liberal democracy has been the freedom accorded citizens to develop and express widely varying ideas and inventions. At the heart of this is creativity, and the development of life long aspirations for inquiry.
In a new book, The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris argues that there is a powerful connection between the rise of liberal democracies, and the evolution of science. In a New York Times review of Ferris’ book, Gary Rosen says this of the author’s ideas:
He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor. Thus, just as in his account of Smith’s free-market economics, Ferris finds in the United States Constitution the underlying principle that citizens should “be free to experiment, assess the results and conduct new experiments.” The American Republic might be compared to “a scientific laboratory,” he writes, because it is designed “not to guide society toward a specified goal, but to sustain the experimental process itself.”
According to Rosen, Ferris believes that, in general, the political influence on science has been liberalizing and progressive. I have argued in this weblog, that the political influence on education in general, and science education in particular should follow the same pathway. In my own view, the common standards movement does not support the degrees of freedom that will invigorate the environment in schools conducive to inquiry and humanistic science teaching. Science teaching needs to focus on the lived experiences of students, and engage them in inquiry and experimental ways of knowing that relate to their personal lives. Allowing common standards to determine what is taught, and how, is quite the opposite of a liberalizing and democratic approach to education.
Well, there you have it. Thoughts?