I guess it’s clear from the title of this blog that I have a love/hate relationship with the standards movement. Breaking down curricular content areas into grade level objectives -- in 3rd grade students in Texas are expected, among 40+ other math standards, to “use fraction names and symbols to describe fractional parts of whole objects or sets of objects” -- have done much for clarifying expectations for what students should know when. Enforcing these standards on a state, or even national, level insures that all students should be receiving a rigorous education. Classrooms, schools, states, and the nation can test students on their mastery of these objectives to identify where the instructional system is faltering. Curriculum developers and publishers can create instructional materials to support the expectations. When the system works, it should be beautiful.
Unfortunately, the reality rarely matches the plan. In fact, in some ways, the standards movement may have been more harmful than helpful. Part of the difficulty rests with the lack of a common national standard. It’s expensive to maintain a different set of standards for each state, along with different high quality assessments matched to those standards. Local control (and local standards) is not a bad idea, so long as the funding is available at each local level for successful implementation and support. It’s not particularly efficient for each state or district to develop standards, the particular assessment items to evaluate the acquisition of those standards, and the training and curriculum materials to support the implementation of those objectives. Funding shortages lead to short cuts and misalignments between what we say we expect and what we actually test.
But there’s another important problem with the current standards movement; it has led to the atomization of content and instruction. The list of grade level standards has become just that, a list to be checked off lesson-by-lesson. Instructional lessons carry a list of the individual standards they address. Check, check, check. Next lesson. The coherence that connects and makes sense of the path through the standards gets sacrificed in the urgent need to cover each individual objective. The learning expectation above about fractions cannot be taught successfully in isolation. Students need a coherent understanding of fractions and of number that unites the individual ideas, concepts, and skills described in the standards. Jumping from number lines for whole numbers to pizzas for fractions to place value grids for decimals may meet individual math objectives, but it can leave students feeling that each number form is a different number system. We’re just setting them up for later confusion. Standards are great but not at the expense of the path connecting them.
Good news. NCTM has recognized that 40 to 60 individual, equally-valued math objectives per grade level is a recipe for speed teaching. Each standard on the list gets 5-minutes. Better pay attention. The organization’s Curriculum Focal Points document attempts to identify the core standards upon which others are built. The Report of the National Math Panel reiterated the need to focus on the critical ideas and to build coherent curricula. Last year’s National Research Council report on science education moved in a similar direction. Hopefully, we can sustain the momentum, but there’s plenty of work to do to reconcile my rocky relationships with standards.