The Problem with Standards in Public K-12

I recently read ‘Measuring What Matters Most: Choice-Based Assessments for the Digital Age’ by Daniel L. Schwartz and Dylan Arena. It’s not about maker ed but its first degree cousin ‘game based learning’. One problem it touches on is the standards, which are also a significant hurdle for maker education in public K-12.

The compulsory nature of standards on public K-12 is a not so subtle reminder that there is no such thing as a free education. It sends a message that if you want to have a public education, then you must learn what the policy makers (disbursing the tax payers money) want you to learn. As a result, a disenfranchising dynamic is created across a broken phone gamut of messengers and middle people: administrators, staff, bureaucrats, and at odd ends, policymakers and students. Education should be freer, not only from the financial burden, but by bringing the student and family into the process of deciding what to learn. This means making choices about their learning and in the process (hopefully) learning to make better choices (a central topic of the reading).

One fundamental problem with standards is that they assume that every student should learn a fixed set of content knowledge, or at its best, a set of processes centered around a limited set of content (For example, in CC NGSS, life, physical and earth sciences are still emphasized over engineering, and in the engineering section, connection to those sciences is still given preference. There is no mention of electronics at all, and the computer is only included in high school). Pre-packed curricula does not generally allow for the inclusion of local diversity at its core and for students to choose what to learn or even what problems to solve.

What is missing?

As Schwartz explains in the book, standards have specific desired outcomes and the wide variety of ‘mandatory’ topics has led to a “mile wide and inch deep” curricula. A proposed solution is to re-dedicate a portion of the standards to include deep creative learning, making it a core goal of standards for students to jointly (with teachers and family) create their own learning goals, be part of the process and learn to make their own decisions about learning. A more diverse body of learning should be a desired outcome of education for the 21st century, as it would provide more flexibility and opportunities for students to meet their own future learning challenges.

4 comments on “The Problem with Standards in Public K-12”

  1. David – I feel like the only real space the system gives me at the moment is through advisory. This is where I get to become an educational counselor if you will. My pain point is that the system only gives this space versus giving me the tools to function as a edu. counselor effectively. Takes me back to this notion that our professional development is so disjointed and doesn’t really allow development. I wish admins or whoever would remember that as teachers we are learners as well and need to learn in the best ways possible too. Sorry for my rant!

    Really loved this ” It sends a message that if you want to have a public education, then you must learn what the policy makers (disbursing the tax payers money) want you to learn. ” Not only has this been the case for much of educations history as a compulsory institution but the way that history is taught definitely continues struggles of power and oppression among our youth.

  2. I agree with all of this, and yet I also fear total local control. Students as recently as the 1970s were forced into religion classes in public school (or they could sit at the back and just watch) because their local districts did not see this as a 1st amendment problem. Local standards and the work of the Daughters of the Confederacy have produced some of the worst curriculum ever on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I don’t want to be alarmist, but there is some value in a national discussion about what should and should not be part of the curriculum. That being said, you are right, what we have now is crazy. I have the luxury of teaching in a private school, and I can see all the advantages of a more open curriculum, I live them every day. How do we get there?

    1. Heather, thanks for the important historical precedent. I wouldn’t want K-12 to go down that slippery road. Note that what I proposed emphasizes freedom to choose a creative avenue along with their teacher, who could control for issues with church and state and provide feedback to vacuous goal setting.

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