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What If Standards Are Not the Problem?

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The New York State Governor appointed a committee on Friday to advise him on how to fix the failed implementation. After a series of disastrous public hearings in the fall, the legislature threatened to act if the Regents didn't. Parents, principals, teachers and others kept pressure on.  The Commissioner laid out a 19 point plan to slow implementation down. Yesterday, the Regents adopted most of it. Immediately, the Governor questioned the capacity and performance of the Regents and indicated their action was "too little, too late". The unions acknowledged the movement but criticized that the changes 'only skimmed the surface". So, there is reform, New York State style. Meanwhile we are leading in the trenches. Reform doesn't come easy.

In a news release on February 10th, Commissioner King said,

The implementation of the higher standards has been uneven, and these changes will help strengthen the important work happening in schools throughout the state. As challenging as implementation has been, we have to remember one important fact: the old standards were not adequate. Every year, despite our state's many excellent districts and schools, 140,000 students leave high school without the skills they need for college and career success. We have to stay focused on giving all of our students the preparation they need to succeed after high school. (Bolding is ours)

So amidst the rhetoric, here's a thought...what if it isn't the old standards that are the problem?  What if it isn't an issue of standards at all?  Then all of this work and disagreement, polarization, frustration, and exhaustion might have been for no sensible reason.  What if there wasn't enough time spent on analyzing the problem and identifying its source before deciding on a solution?  Perhaps that is the source of the frustration from the educators in the field.

What if, instead of the No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core Standards, Washington had made a commitment to the basic educational understanding that schools are places where children learn.  Learning is the foundation of everything done in schools.  Learning.  And who are our students?  Who makes up those 140,000 students in New York State?  Without looking at the statistics, we wager that any educator reading this post knows who they are.  We also wager that most teachers and school leaders have exhausted their capacities to address those challenges. It is not for lack of trying.  But we are in a place where trying harder, or throwing more money at the problem won't work.  We needed to shift the system.   

No educator wants to leave a child behind. We do not need more programs, subjects, policies, or tests.  Have you seen the recent TV commercial where preschoolers keep saying they "want more"? Well, that's the problem. We don't need more...we need different. 

Addressing how children learn and shifting our focus, system-wide, to meet their learning needs may be what these changes intended, but we think they missed the mark entirely. STEM is the shift that can engage those learners and give rise to learning in new and invigorating ways.  STEM is capable of embracing every student's strengths. If a child's interests lean toward drama, or art or music, those become the vehicle for learning integrated with mathematics, science and technology. A well-designed STEM program offers the learner the opportunity to obtain understanding of the different subjects through his or her strengths and provides natural development of capability and confidence.  

So, from this point of view, STEM is not just a program, it is a real change. It is often misunderstood as a high school curriculum for those students who do well in science and math. Instead, STEM is a way of learning...and should begin in the early years.  But no matter where a system begins the shift, results, particularly for the less academically strong student, become noticeable.

Elementary students learn coding as they begin their journey through graphing, designing sets for their plays, creating solutions to local problems, working together with professionals from the fields in which their problems arise...that is STEM.  Secondary students comparing historical events by imagining different technologies affecting different outcomes, working with real engineers and scientists, business people and actors, custodians, and mechanics, as they grow and develop their previously named 'subjects'; this, too, is STEM.

The real problem with education is we need to shift into this century.  We have been trying to do it for years, through hard work and effort, through legislation and mandate.  It all has resulted in a tinkered with ailing system that is struggling along with phenomenal teachers and leaders who are exhausted from trying.  The problem may not be our standards were not adequate; after all, many graduates are successful in college and career.  But, while we were doing that, other challenges arose. 

Children with different abilities, from different countries, with different home lives, and with different values entered our schools.  Technology and social media sped up our world beyond anyone's imagination.  Instead of exhausting us with 'adequate' standards, let's push ahead and talk about a shift in our schools that will accomplish what they want, in a way that is better for our learners.  This is not a simple shift, but well planned, can do the job...while exciting the system with new thinking and learning. We chose education as a career. We are learners, too, and want to be excited again.  It can bring the results that they want in a way that we know is good for all students.  Maybe then New York will reduce the number (140,000) of students not prepared for college or career.  And, maybe then our attention can return to the exciting and dynamic learning environments we create newly.

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