As I write this, I’m ducking behind my screen, ready to dodge virtual tomatoes. Please bear with me as I question some assumptions we are making with regards to standards and standardization.
We educators use terms and acronyms, assuming that all people have the same understanding. First, I will clarify terms. Then I will ask questions.
Clarification 1: Textbooks are not curriculum.
Most simply put, curriculum is a list of things students should know and be able to do. We call the list a list of standards because we hope that all students will be able to know and do these things when they leave school. Then we create benchmarks, clarifying what those standards “look like” at various grade levels.
I often hear teachers and other school leaders saying that they want to find a curriculum that teaches to the standards. What they’re really saying is this: They are looking for the “magic bullet” educational materials that will help student test scores improve.
I haven’t used textbooks in over ten years. What I learned from my Australian colleagues is this: Teachers can look at a list of standards and figure out the best way to teach to those standards.
So here are some questions: Are schools underestimating teachers? Are schools assuming that teachers cannot teach to standards unless they have the “right” materials?
Clarification 2: Standards are different than Standardization
If we understand curriculum as a list of standards describing what students should know and be able to do, we can differentiate between curriculum and instruction.
Curriculum is built on standards. Instruction may or may not be standardized.
The progression of assumptions goes something like this (my reaction in italics):
- We need to teach to the common core (standards). True.
- The district has purchased materials that align with the standards. Okay.
- If we all teach this curriculum (a misuse of the term), then [the company's] research suggests that students will test better. Here is training on how you should all use these materials… Hold the phone!!!!!
We have crossed a line at #3. We assume that, to hit standards, instruction must be standardized according to commercially-created materials.
My next question: Once companies have convinced us that they have the “right” materials, are we requiring all teachers to use those materials in the same way?
Clarification 3: If we agree that instructional standardization is unnecessary, we can maintain creativity and passion in a standards-based classroom.
But we need to make a few paradigm shifts.
- Look at the standards before we look textbooks or think of “thematic” activities. The unit on Spiders is no longer a list of activities. It is a list of standards first (classification, expository writing, research, health and safety), then activities.
- Use team meeting time to plan. Work together to compile activities and resources that will teach to the standards. Use textbooks and other materials as resources. Trust yourself to create new activities that teach to standards more authentically than pre-packaged materials.
- Maintain checklists of standards and keep track of students that have and have not met specific standards. Project-based learning is then tweaked to include the following instructions: Somewhere in your project, you need to show me that you understand the difference between insects and spiders. You need to tell me whether or not your spider is dangerous and how you can tell. When I come and talk to you, I will ask which books and websites you have been reading and how they helped you.
Clarification 4: There are some things that are just wrong.
Wrong: Awards and sanctions for schools, teachers, and students based on test scores. Household rewards and sanctions do not get kids to bed on time, nor is bedtime a single standard by which we judge parenting (thank heavens!). Let’s pay attention to the scores, but realize that tests will never tell us the full extent of student knowledge.
Wrong: Hours and hours of standardized testing. I’ve created assessments where students learn through the process of demonstrating, synthesizing, and evaluating their knowledge and skills. Students learn nothing when they fill in bubbles. A few hours per year is okay. Weeks? Wrong.
Wrong: Teaching all students the same way. The little Steve Jobses and Mark Zuckerbergs in your classroom (who probably test well), will withdraw or start programming social media when they should be underlining the topic sentence.
There are more wrong things, but those are the biggies.
Conclusion: Education is not doomed, unless we confuse standards with standardization.
As Yong Zhao Trim said, American education was “doomed” in the 1960s when the Russians beat us to space. American education was “doomed” according to the 1980s publication “A Nation At Risk.” NCLB was created because schools were failing.
Yes, we have work to do in education. But, we have innovative teachers who care about student passions and are capable of creating lessons that teach to standards. Accomplished teachers know their students and how they learn.
Let’s teach to the standards, but teach them in ways that are individualized, differentiated, and personalized.
My last question: What if we change the assumptions?
If the new assumptions are as follows…
- Teachers can teach to standards with or without specific, commercial materials.
- No one set of materials (commercially-created or otherwise) will help teachers teach all standards to all students.
- Standards can be taught and tracked in the midst of innovative, project-based classrooms.
- We fight government initiatives that are truly wrong while resolving to show the world that students learn through individualized, differentiated, and personalized instruction.
…how would schools look different?
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