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Will National Standards Become the Operating System for our Schools?

Prior to taking up education reform as his hobby, Bill Gates was known primarily for achieving a virtual monopoly over the operating systems running computers around the world. Microsoft Windows runs on well over 90% of the computers, and software applications must be written in alignment with it. This provides some great efficiencies. Windows works reasonably well, and once one has learned to use it, one can now use any other computer similarly equipped.

We are now several years into a process that Mr. Gates has been funding to create Common Core (national) standards. I wonder if these standards are analogous to the Windows operating system? Once in place, all curriculum (software) will need to be written in alignment to these standards. Then, a carefully developed set of tests will measure how well students have mastered the curriculum, providing irrefutable evidence of their accomplishments and the effectiveness of their teachers. We can then incentivize performance by students and teachers alike, and make sure that the best are rewarded, and held up to be emulated by others.

This is a technocrat's dream of the perfect system. But for several reasons it fills me with dread.

We have here a perfect means of replicating the status quo. In fact, the very definition of success is that one has mastered the canon embodied in the core standards. I have read the standards, and many of them are unobjectionable. However, once the die is cast, the curriculum defined and assessments created, the process has reached the end of its creative life. Excellence, once defined, is a captured bird. It immediately begins to age and whither.

Others, such as Yong Zhao, have written of the economic impact standardization is likely to have on our vitality and capacity to innovate. I look at this issue from the perspective of the classroom teacher. For me, what made my classroom an exciting place was not the efficiency with which I covered a great many standards. It was the pursuit of the topical, the intriguing, the unknown. The year after I spent a summer in the rain forests of Ecuador when my students learned about adaptation and biodiversity. Our exploration of dry ice - in far more depth than would have been allowed by any District timeline. I want the opportunity, as a teacher, to be able to focus my class on whatever particular aspect of science emerges as most relevant and engaging for my students. I want to be able to seize upon teachable moments, and string as many of them together as possible - to create instruction that actively engages and excites my students.

I do not object to some basic standards. As a science teacher, I believe it is my task to make sure that my students understand how to ask good questions, and conduct careful experiments. In Earth Science, we must understand the nature of plate tectonics, the history of the Earth, the cycles of the seasons and the systems of weather and climate that rule our planet. But most sets of standards prescribe lists of facts and concepts that must be mastered - this is all part of "raising the bar." They do this in order to ensure we have what is defined as "rigor," which has come to mean a large quantity of facts and concepts that can be measured by an inexpensive multiple choice test.

I think that in this case I am looking at this from the bottom up, and as usual, find myself seeing things very differently from those looking from the top down. As a teacher, I want to have some agency in what I choose to focus upon. I want the freedom to collaborate with colleagues at my site to create thematic units, or spend a semester investigating the local food supply. When Daniel Pink investigated motivation for complex tasks such as teaching, he found that one of the most important features was what he called autonomy - the ability to govern one's own work.

Students best learn critical thinking and problem-solving when it is actively modeled for them by their teachers.
That means their teachers must stretch themselves into the unknown - try new things, be creative. If the classroom becomes a place where everyone, from the teacher down, is going through a predetermined course of actions, it becomes intellectually lifeless, and students begin to view school as merely preparation for the next set of exams, instead of an open-ended pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Our world is changing so fast, our students need to be prepared for problems we cannot even anticipate. More than ever, they need to be able to think for themselves.

Under the technocratic model Gates and Duncan are pursuing I see my role as a teacher shifting away from that of an autonomous professional entrusted with crafting engaging but occasionally idiosyncratic lessons, and towards a standardized, curriculum-centered enterprise, in which videotaped lessons show us the most effective mode of delivery, and our practice is in turn videotaped to evaluate our use of the prescribed methods.

I can understand how Bill Gates arrived at this vision. It worked so well with computers! But our classrooms are run by millions of thinking, autonomous teachers. They will do far better if we ask them to do more thinking rather than less, even if the students we produce are a bit less uniform. I do not want common core standards and assessments to become the new operating system for our schools. I believe an open source model will serve our students much better.

What do you think? Are national standards going to become our new operating system? Will this be good for our students?

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