Friday, December 6, 2013

Tougher education standards don’t undercut local control

The business community’s support for more rigorous education standards is motivated by a desire to ensure that tomorrow’s economy has the talented workforce available that is necessary to keep the nation competitive. It is not about whether schoolchildren should be learning cursive handwriting. Stories continue to pop up about how the standards, known in our state as the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, are injecting politics into elementary school grammar lessons or are edging out the teaching of quality literature.

The truth is that the Standards themselves do not have the power to do any of these things. Certain critics who oppose the fact that Arizona collaborated with other states and experts to redesign our inadequate standards continue to confuse education standards- a set of learning goals by academic subject- with curriculum- the materials and lesson plans teachers use to help students reach these goals.
Education standards are and always have been a set of learning goals to measure students’ progress and ensure they remain on track to be college or career ready upon graduation from high school. The standards are set by the state, and enacted by local schools.

In some states, schools are denied the ability to choose the curriculum they prefer because the state controls all textbook and curriculum decisions.

Not in Arizona.

Here, we have long valued local control and therefore only the local school boards and teachers have the discretion to determine which textbooks, curricula and other materials are used in their schools. These materials are required to be adopted in public meetings, to allow for community involvement and input on what is appropriate for use in the classroom. Local school boards are, however, precluded by state law from adopting any materials or curricula that are of a sectarian or partisan nature, or which advocate for the overthrow of the government.  

Some critics of the Standards have misleadingly labeled instructional materials or lessons as mandated by the standards themselves. While this is not accurate, we should also not be so quick to criticize some of these materials.

The reason Arizona adopted these new Standards is to improve what students learn by teaching critical-thinking, problem solving and effective communication skills. Upon careful consideration, some of the lessons under attack in the recent dust up appear to do exactly that.

Take, for example a recent lesson that was derided by The Weekly Standard as undermining the teaching of U.S. history by instructing teachers to “[r]efrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset…This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text…and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.”

On further inspection, the lesson in its entirety is deeper and probably more memorable than most U.S. history lessons in our schools today. By avoiding context at the outset, students learn how to gain knowledge from the text itself. Once they have taken all they can from reading the text and any knowledge they bring to the reading, the teacher adds in context and challenges the students to understand exactly what Lincoln was trying to say, up to and including reading through several versions of the speech that Lincoln drafted.

I’m not a teacher, so I really cannot say definitively whether the lesson in question is truly the best way to teach Lincoln’s greatest speech. But the lesson explores the address more rigorously than I recall being taught.

We will continue to hear examples of less-than-great lesson plans, curricula that are irrelevant or classes that promote ideals contrary to those of most Americans. But that was also the case long before the College and Career Ready Standards. When parents and community leaders encounter such issues, they can and should be addressed locally at the governing board level.

Arizona adopted new standards because our policymakers recognized that our previous standards weren’t cutting it in a fast-paced, rapidly changing economy. This in no way undercuts the local control over curriculum that Arizona has always valued. We should encourage our local school boards, parents and community members to critically examine and adopt curricula that are aligned with the new standards and encourage this richer, deeper learning.

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