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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

National standards, national curriculum dangerous

After a 2007 U.S. Department of Education (DoE) report indicated differences among the various states as to what constitutes academic “proficiency,” Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings sent a letter to The Washington Post to express her concerns that some people might be tempted to press for a national curriculum (2007c).

That would be “unprecedented and unwise,” Sec. Spellings wrote. Not only are national standards not necessarily “synonymous” with high standards, they might actually lower the standards while doing little “to address the persistent achievement gap.” Additionally, she noted, forcing one curriculum on all 50 states would contradict both tradition and the American Constitution, which places most responsibilities for education in the hands of state and local governments and administrators.

“They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills,” Sec. Spellings said. “Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.”

Ah, the irony. Some see NCLB as a “dictate” from “bureaucrats thousands of miles away.” But the comment got me thinking. Would national standards or curricula result in equity? Would they be good for students? Would they be good for the country?

A few years ago, Washington State administrators floated the possibility of developing statewide mathematics curricula. State legislators took the first step in 2007 by requiring the superintendent to choose math and science curricula that would align with the soon-to-be revised learning standards. The legislation reassured districts they wouldn’t be required to adopt the curricula, but it left the legal door open:

“However, the statewide accountability plan adopted by the state board of education … shall recommend conditions under which school districts should be required to use one of the recommended curricula. … ” (“Certification,” 2007, p.3-4).

Washington State’s standards rewrite and curricula assessments did go the way I wanted them to go – toward more traditional content. At the moment, as our children continue to choke on reform curricula, it’s tempting to wish that districts would be forced by law to adopt state-selected curricula. But the concept gives me pause.

What if the revised standards had instead continued to emphasize reform math? What if the state-selected curricula had all been reform? What if proponents of reform mathematics managed to fill every administrative and legislative seat and nothing was the way I wanted it to be? Reform could happen all over again. It probably will.

Districts must always be able to choose alternatives. Parents and students must always be able to compare procedures and results against something from the outside. Dissent is necessary to keeping any system honest and strong. That’s why I’m worried about current trends toward national education standards and a national curriculum.

National Standards:

In June 2009, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and the Council of Chief State School Officers – in partnership with Achieve, Inc.; ACT and the College Board – announced an initiative to develop national learning standards (“Forty-nine,” 2009). Washington State is one of 49 states and territories to have already signed on to this initiative – despite the $1.6 million Washington just spent revising its own K-12 mathematics standards.

This is purportedly a “grass-roots” initiative, but Sec. of Education Arne Duncan and the Department of Education reportedly support the initiative (Levine, 2009). How “grass-roots” can it possibly be?

Any concerns are already too late. Decisions have been made. People have been chosen. The initiative was formally announced June 1, 2009 -- along with plans to release “college and career ready standards” in July 2009. That’s either really fast work, or they’ve been on this for a while. Quietly. Behind the scenes. In secret. I’ve seen little about this in the media. I can find nothing about it on the DoE Web site. Washington State signed on to the initiative with barely a whisper to the public. This has not been a particularly public process.

Who are these people? I’d like to know their backgrounds and get a sense of their leanings. The NGA declined to give out names until July. The San Francisco Chronicle called that “a wise decision," adding that "A truly open process would result in the experts being lobbied by countless interest groups, and – given the still-controversial nature of national standards – it could torpedo the plan altogether.”

Wow. A newspaper is championing secrecy. So much for the fourth estate.

Perhaps a truly open process would result in people finding out which special interests are already lobbying these “experts,” or maybe it would uncover some inappropriate backgrounds for some of the “experts.” A truly open process could indeed torpedo the plan altogether, as perhaps it should.

The NGA press release says there will be an “expert validation committee” “composed of nationally and internationally recognized and trusted education experts who are neutral to – and independent of – the process.” The words sound so good. Expert, recognized, trusted, neutral, and independent. Then again, we always hear those sorts of words. In 1999, the DoE assured us that reform curricula were “exemplary,” chosen by a team of mathematics and education “experts.” Look how that turned out. I doubt many “education experts” are actually “neutral” or “independent.”

Hey, I have some questions. What happens if Washington’s learning standards are weakened again? How will parents know? Against what will we compare them? How will contrary philosophies and commercial products survive – competing as they’ll be with well-connected organizations and companies, exceptionally savvy marketers, and the U.S. Department of Education?

National Curriculum:

Reportedly, Sec. Duncan also supports a national education curriculum (Levine, 2009). Again, as of June 2009, I can find nothing about it on the DoE Web site, but in May, while touting Tough Choices and Tough Times (two pilot programs that could form the basis for a DoE program called Race to the Top), Sec. Duncan reportedly said that not having a national curriculum is “crazy.” Steven Levine of Business Week writes:

“Both Duncan and the Tough Choices members steer carefully around the phrase "national education" … Yet that’s clearly where the Administration is headed. Duncan wants to nudge the winning states toward agreeing on rigorous, shared curricula that could spread across the country. ‘The idea of 50 states doing their own thing I think is crazy,’ Duncan says. Race to the Top is a way ‘to say to a set of states, 'You lead the national conversation. You do this.'’”

Perhaps if I were the author or publisher of K-12 curricula, or I sold commercial products related to education, such as calculators, for example, I’d be watching these developments closely. I’d want to be involved behind the scenes, working with allies and friends to sway things to my best advantage. It would just be good business, right?

On the Texas Instruments (TI) Web site, I found multiple links to papers from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Coincidentally, the CCSSO is a partner in the aforementioned national standards initiative. The CCSSO and TI also have been partners for a while. One TI link is to a joint CCSSO/TI paper from 2005 titled “Standards-Based Foundations for Mathematics Education: Standards, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Mathematics.” The paper says:

“In an effort to explore new ways of improving mathematics education in middle and high schools, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Texas Instruments formed a Technology Research and Development Advisory Committee (“R&D Committee”) in the spring of 2004. This R&D Committee, consisting of state deputy superintendents or commissioners, district superintendents, and CCSSO staff, met in April 2004 to examine ways in which business and education can work together to build models that will enhance mathematical literacy” (Stumbo & Lusi, 2005a).

Another TI link is to a joint CCSSO/TI paper from 2005 titled “Why Isn’t the Mathematics We Learned Good Enough for Today’s Students?” The paper says:

“This partnership will investigate the influences on mathematics education and develop recommendations for effective state actions to lead to improved student performance in mathematics” (Stumbo & Lusi, 2005b).

Hmm. This national standards initiative is looking less “grass-roots” all of the time. I’m sad to tell you that’s not all. Remember the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)? This group ushered in the “Standards” on which reform math programs claim to be based. Its former presidents have written or helped develop several of the reform curricula we have now. In a June 2009 press release, the NCTM speaks glowingly about the prospect of national standards. It also speaks hopefully about a national curriculum.

(Oo. Just got a cold shiver.)

The NCTM takes care – as does the NGA – to specify that national initiatives would be “voluntary.” But there is very little about the standards and curricula we have in Spokane that’s “voluntary.” The only “voluntary” part is where parents can voluntarily leave the district if we don’t like it.

So far.

At the moment, parents have the right to reject any part of their state’s standards or district curriculum and teach their children at home. Occasionally, some folks try to take away parents’ right to do this. Sec. Duncan supports charter schools, but what if the push for national standards and curricula weakens parents’ right to choose other kinds of alternatives? What if the national support for one curriculum drives other curricula (perhaps curricula preferred by parents) out of business? Already the parent voice is weak – even at the district level. How strong could it be at a national level? Which of us could be heard over the clamor of well-heeled interests such as the NSF, the NCTM, the Dana Center, the NGA, Achieve, Texas Instruments, and the College Board?

I worry that, ultimately, standards, tests and curricula will become streamlined in a happy little U.S.-government-led, taxpayer-funded row. Pretend scores will rise, certain businesses will make tons of money, and administrators will be happy, happy, happy – but the devastating gaps in what our children know will just be better hidden from sight. Any time the doors close and shades are drawn, I start wondering: “Where is the Accountability?” Even if these shadowy faces manage to create perfect national standards and curricula that allow our children to rise to the top of the international food chain, they – and their creations – won’t last forever. What happens then? Once we have national standards and curricula, we will never ever get rid of them.

State, district and especially parent rights must be preserved – for the people. Our children depend on educators to provide them with a proper education, but their minds and their futures are our ultimate responsibility. Parents must take back the reins of their children’s education. They must go beyond the revolving door of standards and curricula, beyond the lame-duck standardized tests, beyond the parsed and handpicked statistics. They must go beyond the teachers, beyond administrators and beyond the useless school boards. They must find a way to determine what their children should know versus what they do know, take steps to fill in the gaps, and stay on top of things until their children graduate.

Based on what I’ve seen and heard, an increasing number of parents are doing exactly that.


Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (June, 2009). "National standards, national curriculum dangerous." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:
http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/



This article was published June 11, 2009, on EducationNews.org at http://ednews.org/articles/national-standards-national-curriculum-dangerous.html


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it wonderful to know the person in charge of writing/developing the national math standards has a degree in English. With that we should all rest easy about the future math education of students all across the country. Not!

If the person in charge of the math standards has a degree in English, does the person in charge of the language/english/reading standards have a degree in math?

concerned said...

If you believe that Americans deserve transparency and accountability in the standards writing process, please write to the following two gentlemen:

Mr. Ray Scheppach
Executive Director
National Governors Association
Hall of the States
444 North Capitol Street
Suite 267
Washington, DC 20001-1512

Mr. Gene Wilhoit
Executive Director
Council of Chief State School Officers
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001-1431

Anonymous said...

In some sense you already have a national curriculum established. This was done over a decade ago with the DOE's formal recommendation of 14 promising and exemplary math curriculum which consequently receives funding for 'research?' from the NSF. Now we can see for ourselves what a massive fraud and undertaking this really was.

Another major flaw in the ointment is that we actually have two 'national' standards written by two private institutions, the America Diploma Project and NCTM. Neither entity is doing a very good job of promoting academics in the US.

State standards do little to define or control curriculum, since all submitted textbooks, supposedly follow the state frameworks. Publishers do not have to guarantee their products, only that they satisfy the legal requirements.

If we analyze the results - what do students gain by attending twelve or so years of public schooling? And the evidence is abundant, whether our policy makers will admit it or not, enrollments and success rates stink, especially in our high poverty and marginalized communities.

As children progress through the lower tracks in school, they spend gradually less time learning and more time socializing.

What has happenned?
Our government and its leaders have only succeeded in disenfranchising the majority of Americans.

So far they have done an excellent job of convincing voters that their leaders do not care about educating all Americans.

When will our government grow up? When will we ever learn how to run our country?

Anonymous said...

"Spellman noted, forcing one curriculum on all 50 states would contradict both tradition and the American Constitution, which places most responsibilities for education in the hands of state and local governments and administrators."

The burden of proving discrimination is a federal concern. Communities that unwisely discriminate against children by knowingly choosing poor curriculum (computational based instruction with graphing calculators) are using a loophole in the law.

While it might serve to 'whiten' communities, the consequences are a disaster academically and socially.

Failing schools are not the feds responsibility. If a community chooses to self-destruct that is their own business. Why should the feds build a better standard? It doesn't create better textbooks.

In other countries the process is reversed. When you buy a textbook, you are buying a curriculum (standards, textbook, and assessment). Schools in other countries don't promote people socially - instead students must matriculate. Students enjoy learning because the textbooks are readable and challenge their ability to reason.

US schools promote students because schools 'remediate' students - this has nothing to do with achievement.

What it boils down to, is this, that most kids dislike school because schools spend more time reteaching and less time preparing them academically. US education is a gross failure and largely the failure boils down to textbooks.

The feds have very little to contribute positively toward school and I expect they will say less in the future. NCLB is a nothing piece of self-serving legislation that will only drive more students out of school.

This is a pathetic government that squanders more on Iraq per capita than on its own people. Why should they go out of their way to serve the people?

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. We pulled our kids out of our local public schools and put them in Montessori, and our public school was one of the "best," whatever that means. Totally focused on socializing the kids and marginalizing the bright kids and any parents who didn't happen to embrace the "fuzziness" & "group think." One had been in Montessori prior, the other wanted to try it. I have to say that the freedom to be bright & motivated & an individual who can work at whatever pace is so absolutely thrilling for them and for our family, after battling the system and realizing it was wrong, we weren't, and we were huge supporters of our local schools. I am always amazed that people think our national standards are "high" and that the Montessori kids will not "catch up." We had practically no math at all, a total focus on reading, teachers who couldn't even spell. Crazy! I wish the teachers could just teach, the kids could be individuals, that it was ok to be gifted, and that scholarship was embraced over socialization. We've dumbed down our schools since the Fed got involved, time to take back our local power & save education.