Tag Archives: Standards Based Education

Standardized Control

24 Sep

“He had been educated only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man but kept a child.” [1] Henry David Thoreau’s description of his visitor at Walden’s pond seems a likely description of the result of standards based education and testing. Known derisively as “test and punish” education, standards based education is a behaviorist theory. This is a philosophy that is antithetical to human growth and development; to the development of capable actors in a democratic society.

Education is a social science. Societies are so complex that cause and effect relationships are obscured. Therefore, education theories are not provable in the same way as physics theories. Our beliefs about education are necessarily driven more by philosophy than experimental result. Of course skilled social scientists observe pedagogy in action and share their observations, but it’s still only good guidance and not a proven principle like buoyancy.

During graduate school at UCSD, my chemistry buddy and I would marvel at the kind of weak evidence that was offered as proof for education theories. In my previous career, I had seen theories with substantial evidence supporting them – obliterated. There used to be a theory that the paramagnetic limit for the amount of information that could be magnetically stored was 20 gigabits in a square inch. I was on a team that demonstrated 78 gigabits in a square inch. That breakthrough has led to today’s cheap terabyte hard-drives and the abandonment of a popular theory. In social science, theories are never so clearly defeated.

Today, education is rife with unproven assertions which are often not tested at all. Such as: standards based education is good, a national curriculum is needed, common core standards are internationally bench-marked, college and career readiness standards must be implemented, international testing is producing important data proving the failure of US schools, standards based testing is meaningful, teacher evaluations should include value added measures, no-excuses charter schools are good pedagogy, public schools are failing, private business can do education better and cheaper, teachers and their unions are the biggest obstacles to improved education. The list of assertions without proof in education is seemingly endless.

It is how we think about human value that is the prism by which we must construct our education programs. Last year, two German writers, Sija Graupe and Jochen Krautz, wrote an article about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) “From Yardstick to Hegemony.” They tell us that “ the OECD which – as initiator of the PISA assessment process – has since the 1960s and on its own account “become central, providing indicators of educational performance that not only evaluate but also help shape public policy.”

Gaupe and Krautz make their point through quoting OECD documents:

“The OECD program has declared war on the established plurality of educational goals and discourses (which have consistently reflected and renewed these goals) in order to replace it with a single novel concept: ‘Schools should lay the very foundation for the attitudes, desires and expectations motivating a nation to pursue progress and to think and act economically.’

“The OECD Conference documentation of 1961 declares unequivocally: ‘It goes without saying that the educational system must be an aggregate of the economy, it is just as necessary to prepare people for the economy as real assets and machines. The educational system is now equal to highways, steel works and chemical fertilizers”. Thus the claim can be made “without blushing and with good economic conscience that the accumulation of intellectual capital is comparable to the accumulation of real capital – and in the long range may outmatch it.'”

The OECD has it philosophically backward and that leads directly to behaviorism and dehumanized education. The OECD views citizens as state assets instead of seeing the state as existing for the benefit of its citizens. From Yardstick to Hegemony contains this clear analysis of the situation:

“The environment to which pupils and students are to adapt is not the economy of real experience but rather a mere ideal concept generated by mainstream economists, particularly those of the Chicago School of Economics who, in their pursuit of ‘economic imperialism’, have applied it to education: Its concept of a market is a purely abstract super-conscious price and coordination mechanism according to which all human activity must be aligned. What this unrealistic worldview setting in turn impedes is any critique or will to change because rather than being understood by the public as a theoretical construct it is, according to the neoliberal economist August Hayek, accepted by most as an immediately evident truth. Whether they are true or false, economic theories and all assessments based on these (such as PISA) determine reality. Those who choose criteria as a yardstick for everything else establish an arbitrary point of standardization where verification need not be feared. These ungrounded criteria then become – untested and without further thought – the defining norm for all further actions. As long as people believe having more PISA points is better than less in order to be successful economically they will, of course, do everything they can to acquire more. Education is then forced to uncritically yield to the pressure of comparative assessment, even if it is based on pure assertion.

In 1891, the National Education Association met in Toronto, Canada. It was at this meeting that James H. Baker’s committee made its report on the need for standardizing education. It’s a natural tendency that as a movement matures people will appear who want to standardize it. The main argument for needed standardization was the difficulty high schools were having creating classes that prepared students for entry requirements at Universities because the requirements were so varied. The Baker Committee report led to the establishment of the Committee of Ten and the first curricular standards in the United States in 1894.

I wanted to read the Baker Report myself and while looking for it I found a wonderful essay called “The School of the Future” by Francis W. Parker from the Cook County Normal School, Chicago, Illinois. He was writing about the common school movement (page 82):

“It was the inspired conviction of our forefathers that common education is as essential to democratic government and growth as air is to life. Our forefathers had an inspiration and a belief; they had no prescribed plan, or no precedent for that plan. They did not have the least conception of the mighty growth of the seed which they planted.

“The common school furnishes the essential principles in the development and perpetuation of a democracy, and its growth and progress has been purely democratic; it has been and is, “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” The common school had its birth in the New England school district; and the New England school district with the town is the root from which sprung all the democratic forms of government which have developed in our country. In a word, the spirit and nourishment of the common-school system has always depended, and depends today, entirely upon the will of the majority. State and national officials are given little more than advisory influences.

“There has been no active attempt at centralization. It is exceedingly difficult for our foreign friends and critics to understand our so-called school system. They are accustomed to look upon public schools from the standpoint of centralization, which produces uniformity, conformity and evenness, so that the endless variety, the total lack of uniformity, the innumerable differences which our schools present, is to them almost incomprehensible.

“Each and every school district has a pronounced individuality. Every state and stage of progress, from the early nebulous formative period to the highest products of Oswego and Bridgewater, may now be found in adjoining districts.

“The soul seeking peace and comfort under the dominance and permanence of fixed ideals shrinks with dismay from the inevitable blunders, stupidity, ignorance and calamities that invariably accompany all democratic growth. The short road of centralization seems to reach in a day that which takes years to accomplish under the patient waiting for that slow dawning of intelligence which leads to right action on the part of democratic communities.

“Our foreign critics mistake variety and honest individual striving for chaos. That which has its birth in the desires and intelligences of the people, and is applied by the will of the people, becomes an organic, permanent factor in the progress of civilization of that people. It is rooted and grounded upon the people-‘Vox populi. Vox dei.’ But that which is imposed upon a people by any authority below heaven breaks into atoms when the intelligence and power of a people can reach and control it.

“Centralized power may be a necessity for infancy, but manhood sheds it off for the strong wings of freedom.”

The renowned historian, Arnold Toynbee established criteria for judging whether a civilization was in a stage of growth or decline. He wrote:

“We must ask whether, as we look back over the ground we have traversed, we can discern any master tendency at work, and we do in fact unmistakably decry a tendency towards standardization and uniformity: a tendency which is correlative and opposite of the tendency towards differentiation and diversity which we have found to be the mark of the growth stage of civilizations.”[2]

I believe there is a superior way. Both John Dewey and the Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi counseled against standardized education. Dewey stated “Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional.”[3] And Makiguchi theorized that “Education integrated into the life of society will yield benefits of well-planned living, without the undesirable effect of mechanical uniformity an inherent danger in standardized education.”[4]

In 1894, when the Committee of Ten was doing its work, very few teachers were well educated. Many only had high school diplomas. It is understandable that education leaders felt the need to provide teachers with detailed curricular guidance. Today that is not the case.

Salesmen trying to advance their charter schools might claim that they are innovative but they are not. The no-excuses charter schools are little more than behaviorist test preparation institutions. It is regressive education that borders on child abuse. The charter school movement which was originally viewed as an innovation incubator, but it has devolved into a blatant scheme to enhance corporate profits at the expense of tax payers.

There is an alternative. In 2015, there is scarcely a school district that does not have multiple professionals in education with doctorates and masters degrees on staff. Our public schools are perfectly positioned to lead American education to new heights and they do not need imposed standards. We have the intellectual and human resources needed for unlimited advancement, but they are being stymied by politicians and billionaire dilettantes that have no understanding of what good education is.

Stop all this imposing standards and testing baloney and allow our highly educated, dedicated and skillful national teaching corps to once again dazzle the world. Preserve our amazing public education system and protect it from voracious profiteers and their schemes to steal public funding for education.

  1. Thoreau Henry David, Walden, Thomas Y. Crowell Company (Apollo Edition, 1966) © 1961. Page 196
  2. Arnold Toynbee (DC Somervell), “A study of History” abridgement Volume 1 – VI, Oxford University Press, 1946, page 555
  3. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
  4. Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press. 2001 Page 18

New ESEA Continues “Reign of Error”

16 Aug

In September both the house and senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) are scheduled for a conference committee. Since 1965, title I of this law has provided money to schools with children living in poverty. That provision is beneficial, but it has unfortunately become the lever that congress uses to wrestle control of schools away from local communities and parents. Both proposed versions of this rewrite do exactly that.

The new ESEA should be blown up in conference and any legislator who supports the federalization of public schools should be thrown from office.

Many people I agree with most of the time say about the new ESEA proposal, “It is not perfect but it is an improvement over NCLB and it limits the power of the secretary of education.” That is all true but the proposed law still arrogates unwarranted power to the federal government; putting curricular choice and education theory in the hands of politicians and their patrons.

We already have a generation of teachers that have never seen education without standards and what Peter Greene calls the “Big Test.” This legislation ordering testing and standards will continue the real damage being done to our schools and children.

My title that says the new ESEA continues the “Reign of Error” is a tip of the hat to Diane Ravitch’s latest book. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane recounts her journey from being an architect of standards based education and accountability as Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration to her present strong opposition to these ideas.

Diane tells of reviewing 20 years of work materials and coming to a new understanding. On page 13, she says:

“Before long, I found that I was reverting to my once familiar pattern as a friend and supporter of public education. Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation.”

Now, Diane’s old boss, former Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, is the chairman of the senate education committee. He is still very much enamored with standards and accountability. His version of the new ESEA states the purpose of title I:

“The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for postsecondary education or the workforce, without the need for postsecondary remediation, and to close educational achievement gaps.”

Sounds wonderful but then the senators threaten to take away all federal money to schools with children at or below the poverty line unless they adopt the senate’s edicts on education. The house does the same.

Since more than 20% of children in the US live at or below the federal guidelines for poverty, state education budgets will be devastated if they do not comply with federal authority. States became dependent on these monies when it was originally offered in 1965 without the federal mandates about how to teach, what to teach and how to evaluate teaching.

The meat of federal control in the senate version of the new ESEA starts in section 1111. Here, senators transform local school boards into tax collectors who enact authoritarian mandates from federal and state bureaucrats. Parents and educators no longer have significant input into their own school’s policies.

From the senate bill:

Section 1111 paragraph “(B) describes how the State will implement evidence-based strategies for improving student achievement under this title and disseminate that information to local educational agencies.”

“(1) CHALLENGING STATE ACADEMIC STANDARDS.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State shall provide an assurance that the State has adopted challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards (referred to in this Act as ‘challenging State academic standards’), which achievement standards shall include not less than 3 levels of achievement, that will be used by the State, its local educational agencies, and its schools to carry out this part. A State shall not be required to submit such challenging State academic standards to the Secretary.

(C) SUBJECTS.—The State shall have such standards in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science, and any other subjects as determined by the State, which shall include the same knowledge, skills, and levels of achievement expected of all public school students in the State.”

“(2) ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—Each State plan shall demonstrate that the State educational agency, in consultation with local educational agencies, has implemented a set of high-quality statewide academic assessments that—
(i) includes, at a minimum, academic statewide assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science; and”

This language that mandates standardized education held accountable by testing goes on for many pages. Then section 1114 describes mandated intervention strategies for schools that do poorly on the “Big Test.”

The ESEA rewrite in both houses of congress orders a behaviorist approach to education driven by the terrible pedagogical theory known as standards based education. It is a mechanized approach. The problem is that young humans are not mechanisms.

Even if standards were to be adopted they should be adopted by the local communities not amateur educators serving in the United States congress who have the power to impose their will on local communities that they have never seen.

Federal control of schools by forced testing is based on the belief that the “Big Test” accurately identifies learning or teaching. It absolutely does no such thing. The “Big Test” does reflect the condition of the neighborhood from which a school’s students are drawn; however, these conditions completely mask any test derived information about the quality of the school or its teachers.

Jessica Holloway-Libell and Audrey Amrein-Beardsley released a meta-study this July which cites overwhelming evidence that schemes like Value Added Measures (VAM) are completely unsupported by research. It is the latest paper in a long string of papers that show that evaluating schools and teachers by standards based testing is folly. It does not give any information about the quality of education. The “Big Test” is USELESS as a tool to evaluate teacher or school performance.

I recently wrote a response to my congressman, Scott Peters about his involvement in the house version of the ESEA rewrite. I wrote:

“The best school accountability is performed by regional accrediting agencies which send in teams of current educators who spend a week or more evaluating each school. They interview; administrators, teachers, students, non-certified staff and parents. They visit every class room and analyze all school documents including action plans. Finally they give useful feedback with a clear idea of what they expect in the way of improvement going forward.”

The path of success in American education which has led to our great democratic social success and world leadership in: science, mathematics, literature, the arts and economics is local control. If education theories are good they will propagate. If they are bogus theories like accountability and standards which have never been adopted without coercion, they will die a natural death.

Authoritarian models always fail because they eventually adopt bogus theories by compulsion. The US congress cannot succeed as school board of America. Reject the new ESEA and its unwise usurpation of local school governance.

No to the ESEA Re-authorization

3 Aug

By T. Ultican 8/3/2015

Whether it is the senate’s “Every Child Achieves Act” or the house’s “Students Success Act”, local control of schools is being dangerously arrogated to the federal government. The United States Congress has lost its way. They are turning local school boards into powerless tax collecting agencies that implement authoritarian mandates.

Many people that I admire say the Senate bill is an improvement over NCLB (the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)). Saying we will never get perfect; they council embracing the improvement. These new re-authorization bills do limit the power of the Secretary of Education, but both versions continue grabbing power away from communities and assigning it to federal bureaucracies. I say it would be wiser to live with the clearly flawed NCLB and work for a better law next year than accepting 5 years of mandated bad education theory and extreme testing.

Historically, it has been difficult to institute quick national change in education. That is how American public education achieved a greatness that is envied worldwide. It was only by their own volition that local educators adopted policies and those policies became widely implemented by dint of classroom testing and approval. Education policy was informed by the wisdom of the national education community. Harmful policies were identified and shunned.

When fads like “new math”, “phonics only” or “whole word” came along, they infected many jurisdictions but not a majority of the country. As their weaknesses manifested and were identified, these fads were abandoned or the remediated before serious damage occurred.

The latest fad is standards based education and assessment. Even though graduates of American education have dominated academia, the arts and the sciences for the past century, there exists a constant constituency favoring a more behaviorist philosophy of pedagogy i.e. standards and testing. Business leaders are particularly enamored with behaviorism and the odd idea that schools should be run like businesses.

Standards based education is seductive to the uninformed. Its associated drill and skill pedagogy to ready students for high stakes testing is widely embraced by those who have no practical knowledge of good pedagogy. Although this education ideology has existed for centuries, it never appealed widely enough to spread across America. That only changed when federal lawmakers realized they could use the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to exert federal control over local schools.

In 1978, Congressman Ronald Mottl D-Ohio 23 who trained in law at Notre Dame introduce a bill promoting education standards. It was the first time a bill was proposed that amended ESEA to promote a particular theory of education. Mottl’s bill went nowhere like bill (H.R.371) introduced the next year by his colleague who also had no education background, Tennyson Guyer R-Ohio 4.

In 1983, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of Education, Ted Bell went rogue and established a blue ribbon committee consisting of primarily business executives to report on education. They produced the infamous “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”. It was a polemic that was neither factually nor pedagogically well founded. Serious academic research has consistently shown this non-peer reviewed writing to be a misguided amateurish analysis of a national strength. It was an ill-conceived politicization of public education and it opened the door for today’s federal takeover of education.

The Department of Education under Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, was very pro-standards and testing. They facilitated a growing momentum for standards based education inside the beltway. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the first bill providing federal money to research and promote standards. This amendment to ESEA was called the Education Council Act of 1991 and was sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman D-NM.

Within a week of her husband Bill being elected President in 1992, Hillary Clinton received a screed of social engineering from Marc Tucker known as the “Hillary Letter.” Republican Congressman Bob Schafer from Colorado was so disturbed by the contents of this letter that he had it read into the congressional record. The federalization of public education was a central thesis of the eighteen page letter.

Among Tucker’s proposals was:

“Clear national standards of performance in general education (the knowledge and skills that everyone is expected to hold in common) are set to the level of the best achieving nations in the world for students of 16, and public schools are expected to bring all but the most severely handicapped up to that standard. Students get a certificate when they meet this standard, allowing them to go on to the next stage of their education. Though the standards are set to international benchmarks, they are distinctly American, reflecting our needs and values.”

Two years later, Bill Clinton signed the 1994 re-authorization of ESEA that required states receiving title-I money to develop education standards and standards based testing. This became the legal push and financial incentive for states to develop high school exit exams. When Liz Chaney loudly objected to proposed history standards, Clinton retreated from his all out push for standards.

By 2001, there was a substantial bipartisan agreement that the federal government should be in charge of education and furthermore, standards and high stakes testing were the path to education nirvana. Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller D-California 11, and George H. W. Bush finalized the federal take-over of education with NCLB.

Maybe I am wrong and the politicians are right. Maybe John Dewey did not know what he was talking about when it came to effective education and we should ignore his warning against standards based education.[1] Maybe the great Japanese education thinker, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was completely misguided when he warned about the deleterious effects of mechanized education and testing hell.[2] On the other hand, why don’t we test these ideas contradicting the pedagogy of beltway politicians and bureaucrats in the American way? Let local school districts, teachers and parents decide which philosophy of education is best for their communities.

1) Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
2) Bethel, Dayle M. Makiguchi – The Value Creator. New York: Weatherhill, 1973

Trekkie Standards for Science – The Framework

17 Jun

The administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both supported “Outcome Based Education” and national standards which set the stage for the authoritarian model of education enacted by the George W. Bush administration. This new federally led model of education was also supported by many Democrats. Contemporaneously, many corporations both for profit and non-profit including the Carnegie Corporation, the National Academy of Science (NAS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) launched a political campaign advocating new national science standards.

It is odd that organizations comprised of world renowned scientists proposed adopting new science standards without thorough vetting or testing. When did scientists become reckless?

The development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) followed the example set by the untested and extraordinarily rapid adoption of the common core math and English standards. As soon as the principal writer of the framework for the NGSS was finished, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) gave its full throated support.

NSTA reported that “The NGSS is based on A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Framework; NRC 2012) and is intended to reflect a new vision for science education.” Well new is not necessarily improved, top down is a bad theory of government in a democracy and instituting the untried NGSS nationwide is foolhardy!

The idea of a set of national standards in education is hardly new. In 1891, a committee of the National Council of Education gave us a recommendation for national standards.

“At the meeting of the National Council of Education in 1891, a Committee appointed at a previous meeting made a valuable report through their Chairman, Mr. James H. Balder, then principal of the Denver High School, on the general subject of uniformity in school programmes and in requirements for admission to college. The Committee was continued, and was authorized to procure a Conference on the subject of uniformity during the meeting of the National Council in 1892, the Conference to consist of representatives of leading colleges and secondary schools in different parts of the country.”

The result was the Committee of Ten Report of 1894, a set of national standards for 9 domains of learning published by the National Education Association (NEA). This first set of national education standards could be equated to the 1966 science fiction TV show Star Trek with its NCC-1701, the starship Enterprise. Now, the NGSS with its framework designated NRC 2012could be equated to the 1987 TV show, Star Trek the Next Generation, featuring NCC-1701-D, the new galaxy class starship also named Enterprise. Is that where the name Next Generation Science Standards came from? Is the naming of the new science standards more about marketing than good pedagogy?

Maybe the development of NGSS should have been led by Captain Picard instead of The Carnegie Corporation. Never the less Carnegie “has taken a leadership role to ensure that the development of common science standards proceeds and is of the highest quality by funding a two-step process: first, the development of this framework by the National Research Council (NRC) and, second, the development of a next generation of science standards based on the framework led by Achieve, Inc.”

Carnegie not only took on leadership in developing the standards, they also helped motivate the idea of new science standards. In 2009, the Carnegie-Institute for Advanced Studies Commission on Mathematics and Science Education wrote a paper, “Opportunity Equation”, in which they summed up the work of several recently published papers and called for new science standards. The papers cited were all from well funded entities that are known for leading education “reform” in America:

McKinsey & Company, National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers- Achieve, National Science Foundation Task Force on Cyberlearning, National Mathematics Advisory Panel, Achieve Inc., National Governors Association, ACT, National Research Council, and National Center on Education and the Economy.

 In “Opportunity Equation”, Carnegie Corporation says we need new science standards that “Build high expectations for student achievement in mathematics and science into school culture and operations as a pathway to college and careers. Enhance systemic capacity to support strong schools and act strategically to turn around or replace ineffective schools.” These ineffective schools will be identified by assessing the achievement of standards with national normative testing.

Private money from the Carnegie Corporation was used to pay the National Research Council (NRC) which is a sub-group of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to write the framework. Although NAS was incorporated by Abraham Lincoln to do research for the US government, it is still a private corporation working on a contract basis. About 85% of its contracts come from the federal government, but some of its contracts are like this one.

The framework states this goal:

“The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.”

In a blog titled “The Next Generation Not-So-Scientific Standards” Jennifer Helms, PhD, writes “Notice the words or phrases “appreciation,” “possess sufficient knowledge…to engage in public discussions,” “consumers,” “able to continue to learn.” These are science appreciation standards, not science learning/understanding/synthesizing standards.” Maybe Jennifer is wrong but she has a point. The Framework does deemphasize knowledge and emphasizes practice. This may be an improvement in science teaching and it may not. We don’t know. It has not been tested.

I have two main criticisms of the Framework itself. In one of its three dimensions of science, instead of calling simply for science practices; the dimension is expanded to science and engineering practices. Adding engineering practices is not useful. Also, the Framework is overly complex and difficult to synthesize.

There is no need to introduce engineering practice in the K-12 system. At the next level there is very little differentiation between physics or chemistry majors and engineering majors until they reach third year. Science and engineering majors need to learn basic science before they are expected to apply it. Pretending that adolescent children are ready to study the nuanced differences between scientists and engineers is a distraction from learning the fundamentals of science.

In addition to shooting educators in the foot with unneeded leaning goals, the framework is a Rube Goldberg contraption. Three core dimensions are promulgated; (1) science and engineering practices, (2) crosscutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields and (3) core ideas in four disciplinary areas: physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering. There are eight practices, seven crosscutting concepts and thirteen core ideas to apply. The framework defines all of these and gives guidance on how each should be instituted at different grade levels thus ensuring that the standards based on the framework will be an unwieldy and unreadable monsters.

The framework that the NRC produced reminds me of something Michio Kaku says in one of his educational videos about the search for the Higgs Boson. He states that the current standard model of the atom was so messy, “only a mother could love it.” This framework is so messy and overly complex; maybe even a mother couldn’t love it?

The framework has some first rate ideas enshrined in it and many reasonable sounding teaching principles. After all, some genuine geniuses were contributors. I thought while reading it that science-teacher education programs could find real value in studying this document. The fundamental weakness is that it was produced by corporate entities in a pseudo open environment and is being instituted in an authoritarian manor.

From the framework: “The committee recognized early in the process that obtaining feedback from a broad range of stakeholders and experts would be crucial to the framework’s success. For this reason, we secured permission from the National Research Council (NRC) to release a draft version of the framework for public comment. The draft underwent an expedited NRC review in early July 2010 and was posted online on July 12 for a 3-week period.”

I was one of the 2000 people that sent feedback, but I certainly did not do a David Coleman “close read” of this more than three hundred page document, nor did I have the opportunity to discuss what I read with anyone else who had read it. Educators and others were given three weeks to read, digest and comment on this major change to science education that is intended to be adopted nationwide. That feedback period’s only value was that it allowed NRC to claim public inclusion in the process.

I have concentrated on the NGSS framework here and will write a second piece on the resulting standards. This is not how change should come to education in a democratic country. The science framework is not an idea that was published and then by dint of its brilliance adopted by America’s science educators. Instead it is an authoritarian mandate that is being instituted before being thoroughly evaluated by education professionals. I have written before about my conviction that standards based education is bad education but this untested science framework forced on the nation by financial and political power is education malpractice.

Standards Based Education is Bad Education Theory

30 Mar

By Thomas Ultican 3/10/2015

While discussing a student’s next class schedule with an outstanding student counselor, I learned my colleague had become dependent on testing data to place her students. That is not a surprise; it is one of the fundamental errors permeating education globally. Standards based testing is a fraud; a mirage that falsely projects an aura of objective analysis. As soon as high stakes are tied to these tests, their validity is undermined.

The learning standards upon which high stakes testing is based come from a mistaken philosophy of pedagogy that posits: a standardized learning rate, standardized interests, linear learning progression, developmental alignment, etc. Humans are not standard. Some learn to speak at 16 months and some don’t acquire that skill until 72 months. Some are short, others are tall. Some are fast, other are not. A child from urban Chicago has different perceptions and interests than a child from Winnemucca, Nevada. A global curriculum will not meet the needs of an endlessly diverse population. One size truly does not fit all. Even if it did, it would still be a bad idea to have political entities in centers of power deciding what that curriculum should be.

About 500 BC, the ancient Pythagoreans were a mathematically based cult. One of their beliefs (mathematical standard) was that there was no such thing as an irrational number. An irrational number is a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two numbers such as ½. The most famous irrational number is the ratio of the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter which is expressed as π (≈3.14). The writer, Morris Kline, claims that the man credited with the discovery of irrational numbers was a Pythagorean named Hippasus who had the bad sense to announce his discovery while at sea. He was thrown overboard for his heretical thinking![1] This story may be apocryphal but it does delightfully illustrate the danger associated with ossifying thinking with standards.

The longest most sustained use of standards and standardized testing arose in China more than 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty. It was an attempt to select government official based on some sort of meritocracy rather than feudal family station. However, local Lords were able to subvert the testing criteria and maintain the power of appointment. Starting in about 200 AD, China entered a 400 year long warring states period of instability.

In 581 AD, the new Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty achieved a coup over his employer the Northern Zhao and then militarily unified China. Emperor Wen believed he needed to protect himself from the power of feudal lords, so he reintroduced the ‘keju’ or testing system to select government bureaucrats. Meritocracy based on test results became the sole path to a government position. University of Oregon’s dean of global education and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Yong Zhao, recently wrote about the ‘keju’ system:

“The emperor’s biggest concern was keeping China unified under his family’s rule. Learning from his own example, he realized he needed a way to weaken the hereditary power of certain families and tribes. Thus, he needed to find people who could help govern the country without relying on the existing ruling class. He also needed a way to prevent capable talents from rising against the empire and reinforce among his subjects the need to obey the rightful rule of the Son of Heaven.

We can’t know how much Emperor Wen planned and strategized, but the establishment of keju accomplished every one of the goals.”[2]

The ‘keju’ exams focused on memorization of the Confucian cannon and interpretive expository writing about the cannon and current political affairs. By far the most prestigious position in pre-industrial China was a government appointment obtained by success in these exams. This testing became the focus of education for virtually everyone living in the most advanced civilization on the planet.

It has been estimated that in 600 AD, China had at least a 400-year scientific lead on the rest of the world. So why didn’t the industrial revolution occur in China? Former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, Justin Yifu Lin posits:

“I believe the real reason of the absence of scientific revolution was not due to the adverse political environment that prohibited the creativity of Chinese intellectuals, but due to the special incentives provided by the civil-service examination system. Because of this examination system, curious geniuses were diverted from learning mathematics and conducting controllable experiments. Because of this system, the geniuses could not accumulate crucial human capital that was essential for the scientific revolution. As a result, the discoveries of natural phenomena could only be based on sporadic observations, and could not be upgraded into modern science which was built upon mathematics and controlled experiments.”[3]

 In China’s case the test became the education standard and that has been an ironclad law of standards and standards based testing ever since. Even David Coleman, the man who sold the Common Core to Bill Gates and then directed their development, knows that the tests become the real standards that will be taught. In a speech, he said:

“It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, and ‘They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.’”[4]

For America the first large scale standards movement was led by the Committee of Ten which published its report in 1894. Prepared under the auspices of the National Educational Association, this report was first published by the Bureau of Education, at Washington DC. The Committee of Ten was led by Harvard University President, Charles W. Elliot. The ten members supervised the development of standards for 9 different subjects. Nine subcommittees of ten members each worked in various locations around the country on their particular field of expertise.

There was an attempt to insure that the subcommittees were constituted by members representing diverse geographical locations. The committees were dominated by college staff and administrators but there were one or two classroom teachers on most of the committees, but the largest group of educators in America appears to have been ignored. There were no women on any of the committees.[5]

Two of the published standards – and there are many more – illustrate the innate problem with codified standards:

“They recommend ‘that the course in arithmetic be at once abridged and enriched; abridged by omitting entirely those subjects which perplex and exhaust the pupil without affording any really valuable mental discipline, and enriched by a greater number of exercises in simple calculation, and in the solution of concrete problems.’”[6]

So in mathematics, the committee called for more drill and skill which is exactly the kind of teaching Benjamin Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’ called into question. The following comes from the science standards:

“As regards Resolutions 3, 4, and 5, it should be said that the order recommended for the study of Chemistry and Physics is plainly not the logical one, but all the members with one exception voted for Resolution 3 because they felt that the pupils should have as much mathematical knowledge as possible to enable them to deal satisfactorily with Physics, while they could profitably take up elementary Chemistry at an earlier stage.”[7]

This decision is why to this day we teach biology then chemistry then physics. This order is exactly backwards. To read a biology book a student needs knowledge of chemistry and to understand the forces that drive chemical reactions the principles of energy from physics is needed. San Diego Unified School District tried to rectify this order but they abandoned their expensive effort. The district was unfairly punished when their 9th grade physics student test scores did no compare well with the scores of mainly 11th and 12th grade students from across California on mandated standardized testing.

Mark Silver of John Hopkins reports,

“The standards movement has its roots in curriculum content and skills. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) was one of the first national professional organizations to publish national curriculum standards and goals.”[8]

These standards were guiding documents for the development of the California math standards which are widely considered superior to the common core standards. The common complaint I heard from fellow teachers implementing the California math standards was that they were “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These standards took us from “uncovering” mathematical principles to “covering” the material. Constructivist approaches like problem based learning were completely undermined and math instruction was pushed back to 1894’s drill and skill model. The high stakes involved made success on a narrow range of tested material paramount.

Since the inception of the California math standards, ossified standards have existed; for example rationalizing denominators. This procedure insures that there are no square-root factors in a denominator. Before calculators, rationalizing denominators significantly eased difficult arithmetic, but after calculators dividing by radicals became no more difficult than dividing by sums. Still the California teachers were compelled to drill their students on an antiquated algorithm.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan and China reacted differently to being behind the West scientifically and technically. China maintained its education culture and purchased technology. Japan completely changed its approach to education and engaged in a strenuous effort to catch the West in science, mathematics and manufacturing. The hallmark of Japan’s approach was authoritarianism. The goals of education became modernizing and producing loyal disciples for the Emperor. These purposes were to be insured by tested education standards. The education reformer, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, criticized both the goals and the methods. He denounced standards based education as mechanized education and agonized over putting children through “testing hell”.

With authoritarian standards based education, Japan became both a world power and a menace. China’s equally authoritarian standards based education led to weakness and vulnerability. Both countries were on a path of ruin.

The renowned historian, Arnold Toynbee established a criteria for judging whether a civilization was in a stage of growth or decline. He wrote:

“We must ask whether, as we look back over the ground we have traversed, we can discern any master tendency at work, and we do in fact unmistakably decry a tendency towards standardization and uniformity: a tendency which is correlative and opposite of the tendency towards differentiation and diversity which we have found to be the mark of the growth stage of civilizations.”[9]

Both John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi counseled against standardized education. Dewey stated “Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional.”[10] And Makiguchi theorized that “Education integrated into the life of society will yield benefits of well-planned living, without the undesirable effect of mechanical uniformity an inherent danger in standardized education.”[11]

What is the root of the persistent and two millennial old tendency for politicians with minimal knowledge of education creating education standards and mandating testing accountability? It originates in a deep rooted innate and evil desire in humans to control other humans. If we do not fight this tendency, we are doomed to live in an authoritarian society where political elites ensure subservience by controlling education standards enforced by standardized testing.

A better path forward is the development of consensus about the purposes of education through continual dialogue. Then allow professional educators to create curricular guidance by a process of peer reviewed research. Community schools should use that curricular guidance in the best way they see fit and should be encouraged to experiment. Statistical sampling identical to the National Assessment of Education Progress should be used to assess progress and provide information for the purposes of continued dialogue, research and further progress. It should be an ongoing process with no shortcuts; no silver bullets and no miracles.

As for my colleague’s concern about guidance in student class placement, teacher grades and recommendations along with input from the student and their parents is a far more reliable method of placement than relying on dubious standardized testing scores.

  1. Morris Kline (1990), Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, page 32. Oxford University Press
  2. Yong Zhao (2014), Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Page 38
  3. http://www.uq.edu.au/economics/cepa/docs/seminar/papers-nov2006/Lin-Paper.pdf
  4. http://atthechalkface.com/2013/12/23/this-is-the-common-core-you-support/
  5. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7129384M/Report_of_the_Committee_of_ten_on_secondary_school_studies
  6. https://archive.org/stream/reportofcomtens00natirich#page/105/mode/1up
  7. https://archive.org/stream/reportofcomtens00natirich#page/119/mode/1up
  8. http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Transforming%20Education/Articles/Trends%20in%20School%20Reform/
  9. Arnold Toynbee (DC Somervell), “A study of History” abridgement Volume 1 – VI, Oxford University Press, 1946, page 555
  10. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
  11. Ikeda, Daisaku. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press. 2001 Page 18