Standards and a Peculiarly 'American' Problem
“Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican who represents western Michigan's culturally cohesive Dutch Calvinist communities, opposed NCLB from the start because he thought it would 'tear apart the bond between the schools and the local communities'… He thinks accountability belongs at the local level," notes conservative writer George Will in The Washington Post's Dec 9th issue. Peter and George and I agree.
That’s the first part of my answer to your query, Diane. I am not in favor of arriving at a single definition of being well-educated. And while we could agree on some minimal competencies, that’s hardly what we want to set forth as “standards”—which I view as an aspirational noun, our flag of high hopes.
Anther way to think about it is noted in an amazing little piece in Educational Horizons (Fall 2007) by Fritz Mosher, Susan Fuhrman and David Cohen. They suggest that we have an inadequate conception of the goal of education which results in a discussion of outcomes that “takes place in an empirical vacuum.” Amen.
But equally surprising is a second argument—which is at the core of your letter: your confidence that we could arrive at a consensus! It is so instantly clear to me that it would be either divisive or silly for us to try! As the Northwest Lab once noted, it would take another eight years simply to cover what’s in most state curriculum guides—or what we now call standards. Could we narrow them down? Sure. It could be based on what I see as the critical turning points in history, for example; the books that I see as having that right combination of appeal and importance; to what I see as what’s at the heart and soul of science (the experimental mindset?); and the mathematical competency that can’t be done on a computer and which every citizen must wrestle with. In short, my standard is indeed related to my aspirations for citizenry—what I wish everyone knew before I got up on the speaker’s rostrum to make my argument in favor of x or y or z. But I know it’s absurd! Because people whose expertise and honesty I very much admire disagree with me! Like you. Or George Will.
But even then I’d have to take into account a third dilemma: the political biases of the citizens who send their kids to my school or classroom, not to mention their particular situation, local circumstances, recent history. In a democracy I am, within some bounds, accountable to my community, even if simply in order to be effective with their kids. It’s not enough to have "the law" on my side, I need the actual kids on my side, too.
And then, fourth…I’d have to keep an eye on what is likely to appear on some test for college admissions, SATs or the like, and squeeze that in.
Not to mention, fifth, realizing that each individual student is, hopefully, going to learn more in the 60 years after s/he gets his/her high school diploma than the 12 years before that. My most important contribution requires keeping my eye on that long future stretch of time and how and what my classroom or school did to ignite interest, passion, curiosity, along with a conviction that it’s all important and worthwhile. And do-able.
So even if we could arrive at a consensus, which might be possible if you didn’t let folks like me in the room while you decide, the rest are problematic. This is, to some degree a peculiarly “American” problem—our “melting pot” or “quilt” dilemma. But it’s also related to our size and sense of who “we” are. But finally it’s because we have a far more layperson conception of education—and a healthy distrust (in my opinion) for all elites. There is no American Academy that can pass final judgment on what all kids should speak like. Even prestigious scholars disagree. Even if one side “wins” the political battle for preeminence for a time, the other side doesn’t just give up, but fights on, upsetting the apple cart for the next generation.
At best maybe what we need, in Gerald Graff’s words in a book called "Clueless in Academe," is to view academics as a place to debate, show off, try out, both old and new ideas, over and over, making them in the process “ours”. Ideas come in the form of projects, art works, architectural wonders, inventions, information, as well as a new take on an old subject. It’s the “having of wonderful ideas” that all children have a right to, ideas powerful enough to shape their own futures. It’s not something to be put off until graduate school—it starts at birth, and good schools keep it going day in and day out thereafter.
P.S. For more on this, see my short chapter in Profession 2007, the Modern Language Association’s annual journal of opinion. (Subscription or fee required.)