Standards, Curriculum, Educational Products, and the Demise of the Teaching Profession
Over the past couple of months, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time examining state and national standards, as well as school district curricular documents. I was doing this while helping a fledgling educational technology company prepare materials to support their products. It has been an enlightening experience, although quite depressing in many ways.
The company and its products are actually quite good and could provide exciting approaches to teaching science, technology, mathematics, and just about every other subject matter area. But, what I’ve been seeing is the interaction of needing to sell products (or go out of business) with state and national standards and with the administrative level of schooling. The business has to sell products, but they also have a deep sense of making a difference in teaching and children’s learning. As a fledgling company this binary of selling vs. making a difference can lead to a difficult double bind.
Underlying the efforts of the business is a sense of desperation. Even though they have a great product, it takes time for educational sales to reach fruition. Typically, school purchases are made in the summer. But, the company is finding itself needing money immediately. And, then to just add some spice to the developing double bind, the sales manager says that one superintendent said they had too much subject matter content, which was then interpreted as “schools don’t want the content.” Up to that point, the curriculum people were developing content rich materials to support the technology. At the same time, the curriculum team played off of state and local standards, but did not necessarily align everything to the standards. But, the superintendent also said he wanted to see that the standards were being addressed. This is a tricky double bind in itself…. address standards, but don’t include content. I’ve seen this sort of double bind before, where the superintendent said in one breath that he wanted all elementary teachers to teach science through inquiry. In the next breath, he said he wanted all students to score above average on the state tests. Teachers saw this as a no-win situation.
The double binds have been signed, sealed, and delivered. The company, with the best of intentions, is now caught trying to do something that can’t really be done. To navigate this situation requires intensive thought and creativity, which are difficult to do, if one is operating out of desperation and from within one or more double binds. You just can’t think clearly or be creative in such situations without explicitly identifying the problems and making a concerted effort to reduce the emotional impact on the problem solving process.
This situation is a work in progress. I hope the company makes it, and that it finds a way to make a difference. But, it’s a toss-up.
However, my work with them allowed me to catch glimpses of the dark side of standards and school curricula. I’ve talked elsewhere in my blog about issues with standards, but a few of the issues I found more recently include:
- Incorrect conceptual information
- Grossly incomplete conceptual information
- Superficial conceptual information
- Listing things as concepts that aren’t concepts at all
- Introducing activities that are supposed to address concepts and do not
It was shocking to me that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) present incomplete conceptual information. In one such instance, NGSS has a set of standards for learning about the states of matter.
- “Gases and liquids are made of molecules or inert atoms that are moving about relative to each other. (MS-PS1-4)
- “In a liquid, the molecules are constantly in contact with others; in a gas, they are widely spaced except when they happen to collide. In a solid, atoms are closely spaced and may vibrate in position but do not change relative locations. (MS-PS1-4)
- “Solids may be formed from molecules, or they may be extended structures with repeating subunits (e.g., crystals). (MS-PS1-1)”
There is no mention of the 4th state of matter, plasma, which was discovered over a hundred years ago. One might say,”well, that is just something that isn’t that common and isn’t part of children’s everyday experiences” (as if much of what is presented in science classes are part of one’s everyday experiences). But, plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe. Stars are primarily plasma. However, plasma also is a lot closer to home. If you have fluorescent light bulbs in your home, the gas inside these tubes is excited into the plasma state when turned on. Lightning is plasma. A welder’s arc is plasma, as well. So, who chose not to include plasma? Why? Did they not know or did they think it insignificant?
A school district’s treatment of Pluto as a dwarf planet said that the criteria for changing Pluto’s status was its size. Yes, Pluto is small – 2,360 kilometers in diameter, while Mercury is about twice as large, but is still small at about 4,879 kilometers in diameter. However, from my understanding, the real issue in downgrading poor Pluto, was that its orbit crossed another planet’s orbit (Neptune’s), which is a no-no for any upstanding planet.
The standards are riddled with all sorts of problems. At the core, they are all biases towards the corporate sector. The Common Core is a prime example in that the whole enterprise was staffed by lawyers and corporate people. The NGSS seems to be a sell out to the corporate sector. And, all of the states have bought in, as well. But, some of the biggest problems aside from this core issue, have to do with falling back into factual mode, where authentic inquiry, place-based, and project-based approaches are downplayed. Under the guise of integrating the sciences with technology and engineering, the NGSS pushes so much at teachers that they will never be able to address all of the “pieces.” Either big parts will be omitted or they will resort to teaching for rote memory or some of both. And, then there are areas that receive superficial treatment in lieu of giving much greater emphasis to technology and engineering. Although they refer to “environmental” concepts, they have moved this conceptual area from what should be the major focus throughout schooling to technology and engineering concerns. I don’t think they quite get the double bind that is embedded here (technology and engineering have created the environmental mess in which we are living, yet they think that technology and engineering will save us from the very thing that is The problem).
All of the standards and politicization have created another mentality in schools, as well. The issue of “time” has been around for a long time in schooling. But, it has reached its pinnacle. What the sale manager in the company I’ve been discussing says, is that elementary teachers typically have 30 minutes twice a week for science and social studies. The have on the order of 2 hours a day for literacy and somewhat less for mathematics. Superintendents want teachers to cover everything as quickly as possible. Efficiency is the name of the game. Deficiency is the result. Children learn to read through phonics. You sure can pronounce those words, but forget about comprehension, not to mention reading speed or the joy of reading. But, we’ll spend 2 hours a day on it. Math is done by memorizing algorithms. And, never let a child figure out an alternative way to solve a math problem or do a problem without a pencil or pen (and never a calculator).
Our children should have time to engage with important and interesting topics. They need time to play with ideas and with “stuff.” They need time to develop richly and deeply interconnected ideas. They need the time to explore. They need time to develop multiple identities as artists, scientists, poets, writers, musicians, mathematicians, and so on. But, time is squeezed until the whole of schooling becomes claustrophobic. Children and teachers turn into zombies (those who stumble along and who can’t think). They can hardly breathe for being squeezed so tightly.