Drowning in the Shallows

In my first post, I used the words “appropriate, meaningful and relevant” to describe the education that we should (and often fail to) provide for our students. But what does that mean? It’s clear that teaching to the test isn’t the answer, but even if we were freed from the pressures of testing, there are other systemic problems in the nation’s current approach.

I have discussed the most obvious reason throughout my posts. The fundamental structure of our current system of education was intentionally modeled after the assembly line, with the express intent of readying a generation of workers for actual assembly lines. The system was predicated on the assumption that each group of kids was essentially homogenous, and that you could present each group with the same curriculum and move them along the line, with a bell on the wall to signal the start and end times of the work periods. There were problems from this model from the beginning, most obvious among them that it did not take into the account the range of ability, interests and backgrounds of each group of students. However, it was efficient (i.e. cheap, since one teacher could “deliver” curriculum to many students), and at least its goals were relevant to the country’s economy at the time.

Since its inception, the factory model has seen countless revisions, tweaks, and reforms. But at its core, it remains a model based on the assumption of homogeneity, which is a major problem in an era where our classrooms are as heterogeneous as ever. Even worse, the most recent and sweeping so-called reforms have come in the form of the standards movement, which has had the effect of emphasizing the cookie cutter approach even more.

The basic idea doesn’t sound that bad. Schools should have standards, right? All schools, at least in a given state, should know what to teach and when to teach it. In this way, students will learn all they need to know, regardless of where they go to school. Groups of students entering middle schools from different elementary schools will all have the same base knowledge, and students transferring between schools will not have to repeat or miss out on important topics. There is definitely a good argument for some degree of uniformity and consistency throughout the system.

The standards movement did not stop at a simple scope and sequence of key themes and concepts, however. The state standards were created by committee, and as far as I can tell it was mostly a summative process. In other words, the great fear of the standards committees must have been that they might be criticized for leaving something out. I’m not as familiar with the standards of other states, but in California they take the form of exhaustive lists of specific and detailed skills and facts. For some subjects the standards make sense, and are more or less developmentally appropriate for the average student, in others they are quite inappropriate. But even if all the standards were perfectly aligned with the average developmental stage of each age group, it would be ridiculous to expect that they should represent the exact course of study for every individual student. There are sure to be students in every class who have already mastered most of them, and who deserve a more appropriate and challenging curriculum, and there are sure to be students whose background knowledge and core skills leave them unprepared to succeed with the “grade level” curriculum.

But there is an even more fundamental flaw in the standards. The very presumption that the goal of education is to transfer specific bits of information from textbooks into children’s minds represents the greatest failure of the standards movement, and its supporters. Back in the industrial revolution, it may have made sense to try to load students up with all the essential information that they would need to be moderately successful in their careers, and moderately enlightened as participants in their democracy. But the world has changed in profound ways since then, and the information revolution, along with globalization and the rapid acceleration of science and technology have made it simply impractical and foolhardy to focus on wrote memorization. There is simply too much information out there to cram into our brains, and it easier than ever to access it in real time, as it is needed.

What our students will really need when they graduate is a set of skills that aren’t even minimally reflected on our core state standards. Workers in the 21st century need to be able to research effectively, filtering and evaluating information with regards to credibility and possible bias of the sources. They need to be able to solve complex problems with innovative solutions, learning from their mistakes as they work. They need to know how to work as part of a team, collaborating, compromising and communicating effectively. In short, our goal needs to be graduating students who can think critically and work well with others, rather than students who know everything.

Obviously, there are still basic skills and concepts that need to be memorized, and information that students need to have at the ready as part of their preparation for higher order thinking. But the obsession with “mastery” of standards has pushed everything else to the side. The primary goal of most districts seems to be covering every standard, which means getting through every chapter of every book. Pacing guides are handed out at the beginning of the year, and teachers are evaluated on their “fidelity” to those pacing guides, even reprimanded for using any materials outside of the adopted programs. To give you an idea of what it would mean to cover every chapter in every book, here is the breakdown of state adopted, standards aligned textbooks in my classroom, not counting all the reference material in the back:

Math: 645 pages

Reading: 673 pages

Social Studies: 584 pages

Science: 458 pages

That’s 2,360 pages in total. Most districts are in session about 180 days a year, which means a teacher would need to plough through 13 pages a day if they were really going to cover everything, not accounting for curriculum based assessment, district assessments, field trips, assemblies, or heaven forbid, reading an actual novel from cover to cover. Though most districts do not actually set a goal of 100% coverage of each textbook, there is a sense in many (if not most) public schools of a relentless march through the curriculum, regardless of how well it fits with the actually needs of the students in the classroom, or whether they understood what came before. This focus on breadth of coverage, rather than depth of understanding is to me one of the most fundamental shortcomings of the standards movement, and I fear its consequences have been profound. Our kids drown in the shallows of excess information, even as many of them fail to grasp the most fundamental concepts.

The new common core standards definitely signal a step in the right direction, with more of an emphasis on process and less exhaustive mandates for specific content. But for us to truly reform our approach to education, all stakeholders need to make sure to make their priorities clear. Our students need to have an educational experience that emphasizes depth over breadth, problem solving over memorization, relevant work and social skills over test-taking strategies. Such an overhaul will not come easily, and it will not come all at once. The complexity of our challenge, and the entrenchment of the systems, institutions and ideas behind the current reform movement ensure that it will be a slow turnaround. In the meantime, we can mark our progress by the occasions when we see our students reengage with a truly relevant and engaging curriculum, expand their capacity to create, and learn how to solve problems as part a team. Creating these kinds of opportunities, though harder than ever, is our best hope to provide future generations with all they deserve, and all we have promised them.

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About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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6 Responses to Drowning in the Shallows

  1. Nellie says:

    Hi Mitch, Enjoying your essays and curious about your personal experience with school growing up ( regular public school? Alternative school?)and how it helped you form your opinions? Do you think most teachers today would agree with your posts? Thanks, Nellie

    • maestromitch says:

      Hi Nellie. Thanks for your comment. I attended public schools all the way through UCSC. As a teacher, I worked as a sub for three years in public schools and then had a one year position in a public school in Watsonville. From there I worked in private school (Jewish Day Schools) for eleven years, before returning to public schools a year and half ago. The contrast between teaching in public and private is pretty dramatic, and I am sure it accounts for a lot of my opinions. The main difference I have to say is the level of variety and independence that you see among teachers in private (or independent, as they prefer to be called) schools. It was more build into the culture of those schools that different teachers can teach in different ways and still be effective. As far as other teachers, I’ve had pretty positive feedback and have definitely hit a lot of nerves.

  2. “But there is an even more fundamental flaw in the standards. The very presumption that the goal of education is to transfer specific bits of information from textbooks into children’s minds represents the greatest failure of the standards movement, and its supporters.”

    Pretty sure you hit the nail square on the head with that one. By the way, I love reading these and then printing them to leave in my staff room. Keep up the great posts!

  3. Jesse says:

    Well put sir! I passed on yr blog to someone I just met here in Denver who’s getting her PhD in education (reform)! Cheerio..

  4. elisa says:

    “Drowning in the shallows” is so appropriate. I think about how my children are going to be almost assaulted with information and information technology in their lives. To me this is both wonderful (choice, access, connection) and overwhelming. It seems like, more than ever before, they will need skills to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thanks for stepping up and shaking the status quo.

  5. Brian Cronin says:

    You address a concern I have dead on. For a century that requires knowledge workers who innovate and come up with new ideas is our assembly line teaching paradigm going to fail our children and our economy?

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