Whose Standards Count?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the history and the future of public education, and more specifically the shaping of that future. It’s clear that testing and accountability are driving the current reform movement, and standards are the latest vehicle, but whose standards are at the wheel? A few months ago I applied and was selected for a state committee to rewrite Oklahoma’s science standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I thought it might be valuable to help shape those standards for several reasons, not the least of which is the knowledge I’ll gain.

I was placed on the Grade 9-12 Life Science team with seven others from around Oklahoma. We’re a cohesive group, in that each of us on the team seems to be like-minded about what principles represent the best in biology instruction. We’re unlike, however, in our specific roles. Some are from large urban areas; some are from smaller or rural districts. One is a district science curriculum coordinator, two are employed by different educational groups at state universities, three are biology or AP biology instructors, one is a former biology teacher who represents the parents’ perspective, and then there is me. I teach seven different subjects, on a very small campus (50 students) in a large suburban district (16,000+ students). I have a biology class of six students—not exactly the norm.

I’ve been reluctant to voice my opinions at our team meetings, partly because several other members seem to know immediately what to say, and I’m a reflective thinker who takes time to process my thoughts. My classroom situation is also unique and, I sometimes think, irrelevant. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with our team’s work and I’ve gained some valuable insights. What looms large now is how our recommendations will fare as they’re introduced in the state legislature for approval.

Perhaps as a result of this committee work, I’ve done some reading recently about strategies for education reform. I’m dismayed to realize how vulnerable public schools are to fickle political systems and public opinion. According to Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, public education has long been in peril. Her conclusions about the effects of high-stakes testing, No Child Left Behind, and choice are logically presented and thought-provoking. Her presentation of 20th and 21st century education reform efforts is somewhat frightening in that none of them has succeeded in fulfilling expectations, yet all have been carried out with deep conviction and at great expense.

On the other hand, Charles Murray proposes in his book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality that school choice could be the salvation of public education. He maintains that because some students are more capable than others, we should be providing more challenging—and separate—educational opportunities for them. While I found several observations in his book that I could agree with, I was not impressed with his logic—his simple truths seemed somewhat simplistic.

What’s most clear from reading both these books is that while research evidence abounds in the areas of pedagogy, educational philosophy, and school environments, there’s no clear consensus about how the evidence should shape public education. It’s important that we figure it out, though. Like Ravitch, I believe that our future as a democratic nation depends on our ability to provide public education for all citizens.

My service on the state standards committee will end soon. We meet again this week, and will have one final meeting at the end of the month before our recommendations are published for public comment. The next step is legislature approval. As a result of this experience, I’ll have a better understanding of the new Oklahoma standards than most science teachers across the state, and that’s no small matter. Whether or not all of our recommended standards survive, I’ll value the part I played in shaping them.

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