On programming and standards, part 2

[The title of this post is losing its relevance, since I probably won't do much more than refer to programming, but if you read Part 1 hopefully it'll make a little more sense.]

As I argued in part 1 of this series, I believe that explicit standards actually prevent the type of learning most educators say they'd like to see in the classroom. Standards make educators think they have to explicitly cover that topic. What results might be a more uniform coverage of content, but it also lends itself to teacher-focused instruction, and a lack of overall creativity and risk-taking by teachers1.

Chris Lehmann has been known to describe standardized tests as the "coin of the [US educational] realm," and as such they shouldn't simply be ignored. If they're how our school system has decided to measure success, we can't just pretend the standards they cover don't exist (as much as I'd love to do just that). How then should our schools create standards?

Currently each state generates its own standards and all schools in the state are expected to follow the standards. Many big education-policy people in favor of national standards. I'm not. The more I think about this, the more I'm certain we should be heading away from state and national standards and more towards flexible standards set by every district and ideally every school. Locally created standards can be more responsive to the needs of the students. They can be more easily changed, rearranged, improved, and fit to local issues. Deborah Meier has long argued for similar arrangements- and indeed most of my thoughts in this area come from reading her thoughts2.

Instead of mandatory standards, states could generate general guidelines for each subject. For example, they might suggest students should study climate change, the evolution of the universe, plate tectonics, etc. before graduating from high school. Individual schools could then decide how and when to teach those concepts- or perhaps decide to ignore them in favor of something they see as being more important.

The current cycle of state standards then standardized testing is unlikely to change quickly, and it may seem silly to spend time thinking about it, especially since I have no voice in the world of education policy. However, the more discussions and more awareness that exists for these issues, the more likely it becomes that those who have the ability to influence education policy start considering alternative viewpoints. I also believe it's wise for all of us to consider what effect policies have upon the educational system, to suggest alternatives, and have lively debates about the future of education.

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  1. There's some research that suggests this. Liu and Szabo in their article, "Teachers’ attitudes toward technology integration in schools: A four-year study" (2009), note that educators feel pressure to prepare for state standardized tests and so were adverse to taking risks with using technology in the classroom (that was so not APA style).  (back)
  2. For a great article on Deborah Meier's views on standards, check out this article written for the Boston Review. (back)