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Are Standards Failing Students?

John Turano


Are Standards Failing Students?I had a conversation recently with a colleague of mine who asked one of her AP Biology students why they didn't seem to care about passing the class. The surprising response is an indictment of what we're doing to our kids in today's "high-stakes" public school environment. This student said that he doesn't care because somebody's got to flip burgers.

Someone has got to flip burgers. What a sad commentary for a high school student to make. Here's a student who sees the futility of his schooling. Here's a student who is so disconnected from the fantasy of public education to the reality of the world. Maybe he's lucky that he "gets it" in that he knows that public school is never going to give him the tools to meet the challenges facing him after graduation. Maybe he already knows that what you learn in school has no relationship to what you need after graduation. And I know he's not in the minority.

Too many of our kids find school mind numbing with little connection to their lives. Far too many of our kids are conditioned like Pavlovian dogs to take state mandated tests based on state mandated curricula that have little or no value after graduation. And then we complain that high school graduates have lost the ability to do critical thinking.

The Root of Our Standards

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Science from the 1950's

The foundations of what we teach in science classrooms today were established towards the end of the 1950's when the Soviet Union had the temerity to successfully launch the worlds first artificial satellite. In the years that followed, while the U.S. played "catch-up", the Soviets continued with their firsts. The first man into space, the first man to orbit the Earth and the first woman in space. And America overhauled science education so we could beat the Soviets to the moon.

As a result of America's apparently deficient science education programs, millions of dollars were spent to reform science education. While the new programs were effective, funding them could not be sustained long term by school districts in the hard economic times of the recession years in the 1970‘s and they were eventually abandoned. But the "standards" were not totally abandoned but were modified over the years. Every evaluation of new science curricula today is measured against those early "standards".

What's Wrong with Our Science Standards?

But in these evaluations are questions about real necessity asked? Are questions about what Americans really need to know about science asked? They are, of course, but not with the answers that we think are relevant. How much detailed science does the average American really need in order to make sound, reasoned decisions about science? Is it important to teach a massive amount of science knowledge without true understanding or a lesser amount with much deeper understanding. Ask that question to a group of science teachers and you'll never get consensus on an answer. That's how ingrained the original standards of what is good science education should be are.

The Trend of Standardization Hits

Everything changed again in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The book criticized public education as being ineffective and warned of dire consequences for America if we lost our economic edge in the world marketplace because we couldn't produce better educated people. With over 50,000 school districts scattered around the country, the federal government could do little to mandate changes in curricula. But movement towards standardized curricula and standardized testing continued.

By the 1990's the buzz words of standards, state mandated standardized tests, and teacher accountability were heard more and more in the hallowed halls of our schools. International test scores showed the U.S. lagging behind many countries in math and science and many states passed legislation that would mandate student achievement for the newly developed state standards.

Enter state-mandated testing. Very slowly we began to migrate away from content testing to standards testing. And as more legislation was passed by states and the federal government, the more control we lost over content. Local communities were losing control over making decisions about what they thought was important to teach. State governments were making those decisions instead.

Arriving at 21st Century Standards

In the early years of the 21st century, the crowning glory of all modern educational legislation was passed with the No Child Left Behind Act. Now the federal government has the tools to affect change and influence control through funding. So even states are now losing control over their curricula as more and more state standards are being aligned with the appropriate national standards.

By extension, an argument can be made that the federal government has taken control over what should be taught in our public schools. That prospect is not met with great enthusiasm by many teachers. After all, you don't need to look too far to see the wonders the federal government has done for the medical profession with recent medicare cuts and the new health insurance legislation.

So where does this leave us? Well, the old saying about letting the camel's nose under the tent is true here. The federal government is embedded in local public education and we'll never get rid of it. As increased pressure is placed on districts to improve student performance (get the test scores up), we will continue to produce graduates who are ill-prepared for college, the workplace, and the military. We will continue to add standards to science curricula that have little or no meaning to no one except maybe the test designers.

Education is notoriously slow in making meaningful changes quickly. It's too mired down in bureaucratic nonsense that doesn't allow for necessary changes to occur in anything that resembles timeliness. If we have students who think that it's okay to fail because somebody needs to flip burgers and if we do not do something to change that mindset, then we are indeed in serious trouble.

What Students Need: Open Dialogue

Our society has to have more open dialogue between parents, teachers, students, school officials, community leaders, business leaders and legislators. No one entity can have near total control over what our kids need to know to prepare them for their future.

And yet that's exactly what we have allowed to happen. How can we as a society possibly prepare our kids for the future based on legislative mandates established by a handful of politicians using educational practices developed in the 19th century?

What Students Need: Collaborative Community

All segments of the community need to collaborate on a local level in establishing the criteria for what we want our kids to know so they can face the future much better prepared than they are now. Isn't that the whole idea behind school? To give the kids the tools they need to decide the future they want, not the future the government says they can have based on test scores?

Think about this the next time you buy a burger and see the kids in the back flipping them over for you. Are they there to earn some money or are they there because somebody's got to flip burgers.

What is your opinion on the US education standards? Share in the comments section!

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