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.