U.S. National Curriculum Standards – for the future of the Nation

Liquid Density

Science is science, anywhere in the Nation.

The following is a blog post from Luke Laurie’s Blog: Teacher Blog.

http://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

In this post, I explore reasons why implementing a National Curriculum is a vital piece for future educational and economic policy. I also discuss some of the guiding principals that must be adhered to in order to make a National Curriculum functional and applicable.

Why National?

The vastly different expectations for students in each of the fifty States is archaic and parochial. The technological, scientific, and ethical challenges our nation faces are not regional, they are universal. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This is an issue of national security.

We need to look beyond the old notions of townships community schools serving the needs of the local community. The vast majority of our students won’t be working on the family farm or taking over the mom & pop. They will be out there, in the world. They will move to where the work is. They need concrete knowledge of a complex world, and preparation for a workforce in an uncertain future.

What do we say by NOT having National Standards?

By not establishing and implementing clear national guidelines for curricula, we have tacitly accepted that what we teach our children really isn’t that important, and that States and localities are equally qualified to determine what form of education is best suited to the future of the United States of America.

By clinging tightly to the totem pole of local control, we are denying pursuit of progress that’s in everyone’s best interest. Ironically, by passing the buck to lower tiers such as school districts to develop curricula, we impose undo burdens on these resource-strapped institutions. This blessing of local control becomes a curse of endless cycles of trial and error in curriculum development in small, isolated geographic regions. Some districts have found success, only to see their work destroyed by another cycle of textbook adoptions. Others continue to find a cohesive program that works, and would welcome a functional curriculum structure. In scattered schools and districts across the U.S., we’ve invented and destroyed the metaphorical wheel, thousands of times over, and we still can’t make it roll.

A balanced approach to National Standards would take away some of the guesswork in designing instructional programs, and save the time and effort of education professionals for the more innovative and creative tasks associated with delivering instruction. How many creative educators have spent years designing units, programs, or courses, only to see them swept away by changes in policy, funding, or curriculum? A national curriculum could provide the stable foundation that educators need on which to create innovations in education.

Every day we hear policy makers and academics talk about how to improve America’s schools and the “school system.” But until we have a common framework between states, we have no real “system” to improve. That framework should begin by deciding what should be taught. What we have now is a failure to decide.

No Unified Vision on Which to Base a National Curriculum

If we are to implement a National Curriculum, we need a clear set of guidelines for what education is really for. The curriculum should fit the larger vision eduction vision, and the education vision should, in turn, fit the national vision. But foresight is not an American value, and it’s certainly not a defining property of our public policy.

The following quote comes from Clyde Prestowitz, President of the Economic Strategy Institute, who served as counselor to the Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration. From his Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission from 2005:

America needs to recognize that many of the assumptions guiding its economic policy are at odds with the realities of today’s global economy. Its performance in a broad range of areas—including saving, education, energy and water conservation, critical infrastructure, R&D investment, and workforce upskilling—is far below the standard of many other nations. America needs to understand that its refusal to have a broad competitiveness policy is, in fact, a policy. And it gives leading U.S. CEOs no choice but to play into the strategies of other countries. This policy, according to its proponents, leaves decisions to the unseen hand of the market. Actually, however, it leaves them to the highly visible hands of lobbyists and foreign policymakers. It is a policy that ultimately leads to impoverishment.

In other words, our failure to modernize education and to make an effective tool in encouraging scientific and technical innovations, and to create a capable and appropriate workforce leaves U.S. industries and finances in a reactive position. In the immortal words of Rush (the band, with lyrics by Neil Peart, not the talk-radio windbag) “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

I don’t typically chime in on the scare tactics of xenophobia, but in this realm, the U.S. is completely vulnerable to the whims and intentions of other, more deliberate nations. There’s no invisible hand in China. Nor should we trust the invisible hand to fix our most valuable institutions.We don’t need to fear China and other rising economic powers, we should fear ourselves for the lack of backbone, commitment, and foresight to lead us to create national policies that will enable the U.S. to survive and thrive in the future. 90% of Americans attend public school for a large portion of their lives. There is no other institution so clearly capable of shaping the future of the nation.

A National Curriculum must be based on a national vision for public schools. Agreeing on such a vision has been avoided by policy makers throughout the history of public schools, because of the existence of so many differing viewpoints on the matter, and the acknowledgement that we have designated schools as the catch-all social institution. Schools are tasked not only with academic education, but are also responsible for health and well-being, drug, alcohol, and disease prevention, and fostering cultural changes; i.e. tolerance education, sexual harassment prevention, and dealing with any issue that is not be addressed in the homes and communities of students.

Some believe our schools exist to make good citizens of a democracy, others say to achieve individual economic potential, and still others claim that public schools are the great equalizer, fulfilling a civil rights role. Learning is inevitably part of each vision, but agreeing on the primary purposes for the learning will influence how we go about teaching. Teachers themselves, possess different philosophies on their role and purpose, and consequently approach their work in different ways. In addition, various policies and legislation have added additional tasks, often well-meaning, but overreaching the limits of resources and time. Note that I am not arguing the virtue of these goals, they are all valid societal objectives. The issue here is that we have created an undo burden on a single public institution.

Consequently, we arrive at a situation where schools have been tasked with seemingly impossible goals. They exist to educate all students academically, while simultaneously overcoming any shortcomings of the family, community, or the nation. They are to do so with extremely limited resources. And even when they succeed in some areas, they will inevitably neglect others. It’s not just the raised bar that makes schools “fail”, it’s that there are hundreds of hurdles, and no one can even keep track of all of them.

In essence, schools have the function of providing for nearly every need, for nearly everyone, until they reach the age of adulthood. The inability of any adult to function in society or to have requisite employment skills always reflects back on their education.

Where to Start: A National Vision

A National Vision for Education needs to acknowledge that schools will inevitably serve a variety of purposes, but these goals must be carried out within the context of serving a unified national purpose. Education should be by design, not just a result of historical peculiarities. Developing such a vision will not be easy, and is most certainly not the work of a single individual or organization.

So what is this vision? What does it include? How different is what we should do from what we are doing? What new topics must be addressed? What historical baggage must we shed in order to evolve?

(See also my previous post on National Curriculum Standards: http://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/national-curriculum-standards/)

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One Response

  1. It is even more likely in the future than now, that people will work and live in communities other than the ones they attended school in. It seems like the leaders on the local level need to stop thinking that their community’s history is so special or that their needs are so important that they trump greater national values and goals.

    Fixating on the uniqueness of your own community can result in myopic vision that prevents an expansion of knowledge, exposure to novel and global issues, and ultimately stagnates the imagination. An example of this is the outcome of the remodel of the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. It seems the planning committee wanted to recreate the wonderful aspects of SLO in miniature for the community’s children to interact with on an “imaginative” level. So they replaced the many unique exhibits with a mural of Bishop’s Peak, a miniature farmer’s market, and the miniature trolley. The planners were so in love with the image of their community that they failed to remember that children could actually experience hiking the real Bishop’s Peak, shop at the real farmer’s market, or ride the real trolley through downtown San Luis Obispo. Gone are the glow-in-the-dark outer space room, the music room, the airplane cockpit, the huge human-sized bubble blower, the real fire engine, and the giant ant slide, exhibits that showed children what could exist outside their immediate world and peaked their curiosity to learn about new things. Instead children get to experience a replica of a very limited world. I know someone will say that the virtual soccer goal kicking exhibit is new and innovative. Sort of. Until you remember that most kids in SLO either play real soccer or experience virtual sports on home gaming systems.

    In effect this is an analogy to how local education can run the risk of implementing a limited vision reflective only of their immediate surroundings and thereby leave children stagnated in their growth and capacity to function in environments that demand a broader range of knowledge or skills.

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