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.

https://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: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/national-curriculum-standards/)

National Curriculum Standards

I have a newer post on this topic: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/u-s-national-curriculum-standards-for-the-future-of-the-nation/

National Curriculum Standards- TNLI Discussion for May
Luke Laurie
Santa Barbara County, California

(Update 12-09: This Post is the 7th hit on Google for the search term “National Curriculum Standards.” I hope you give the post some consideration, and feel free to leave comments. I’m interested in your viewpoints.)

I want to thank my colleague, Kristen Anderson, for bringing the topic of National Standards to our discussion. The problems associated with implementing National Standards highlight the difficulties related to creating any unified education policy in the United States.

Arguments Against National Standards
While I believe that there are compelling arguments against creating and implementing national curriculum standards, most of these arguments relate to the structural and political issues, and not, necessarily, what is best for the Nation; nor are they sufficiently compelling that we should disregard the notion of exploring the concept. These arguments include the historical separation between the roles of the Federal government and States in education policy, the concept of States rights, and the sense that local control is always best. In fact, without significant changes in law or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, creating mandatory standards or assessments could even be illegal or unconstitutional.

Benefits of National Standards
I agree with my colleague Linda Edwards on this topic, in that national standards could greatly increase the efficiency by which curricula and assessments are developed, by eliminating the obligation of States to carry out this process independently. Costs could be reduced and safeguards could simultaneously be put in place to prevent a monopoly by large publishers to develop curriculum materials. A door could potentially be opened to small publishers who might be able to compete at a national level playing field, rather than forcing small publishers to target particular regional markets and unable to meet the current requirements for adoption in multiple States. Comparisons between States would obviously make more sense, with regards to uniformity in assessments. In addition, it could become easier to compare practices in different regions with a common assessment.

By nationalizing standards, and increasing the degree of efficiency in assessment, there could also be the possibility that we could develop national systems for better assessments. Perhaps we could be looking at more logical longitudinal data, and assessments that go beyond multiple choice.

Goals for National Standards
National standards could serve us best if they set standards that could be considered our collective national goals. The trouble with local control, is that it allows abrogation of responsibility, and potentially relies on inadequate local resources. Education allows for the success of our economy, our innovations in science, medicine, and the arts, and the preparation of our citizens to be contributing members of society and participants in democracy. These are not local or regional issues. By creating comprehensive national educational goals, we would not only be answering the timeless question of what schools are for, but we would also enable the targeting of national resources where they are needed to help regions achieve the goals that are good for the Nation as a whole. Formula grants and competitive grants are nice, but they don’t necessarily meet the true needs of all schools and all children.

Math and Science First
Changing all subjects at once in a short time period would be unwise, both logistically and politically. While the governors are recommending Math and English a la NCLB, I would suggest implementing Math and Science standards first. There are bills already on the books to create national standards in these subjects. There is little (but some) disagreement amongst professionals about the content that should be included in Math and Science, and tremendous political will. Business groups, education professionals, and the scientific community have been issuing recommendations on the need to unify and improve our instruction in these areas both for the benefit of improved college preparation, and for the “competitiveness” or “innovation” agenda; which see a growing need for more competent and creative professionals in technical and scientific fields.

Potential Problems
It may sound un-American for the Federal government to tell you what to teach in your classroom. Yet, our current lack of a true national education policy leaves us in a situation where some regions, some communities, and some states provide curricula to our youth that may be inadequate or misdirected for serving our greater national interest.

I don’t believe that regional differences should necessitate different standards or expectations in most curricular areas. These regional differences may necessitate different approaches, and may require different resources. But to say that the math required in Kansas should be different than California because of regional differences is ridiculous.

Limits of National Standards
With History and Social Sciences, we could get ourselves into serious political and ideological debates. Any attempt at national standards in social sciences would undoubtedly invoke the ire of groups of people; cultural, racial, religious, or otherwise, who would likely protest omission, misrepresentation, or vilification of their group. Any attempt at being all-inclusive and comprehensive would run the risk of being too unwieldy to be viable. If there were a curricular subject for which national standards might be too difficult to implement, it would be History-Social Sciences.

After all, if we learn history well, what are we going to repeat?

STEM Education: Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education

teachinginclass

In 2007, I testified at a field hearing on the issues facing science education in the NCLB influenced standards-based era. In light of a forum taking place this weekend at Cal Poly, I am reposting this testimony.

Testimony of Luke Laurie

Science Teacher, El Camino Junior High, Santa Maria, CA

Director: RoboChallenge

mrlaurie@mac.com

given to the

SELECT COMMITTEE ON

SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITY

Senator Tom Torlakson, Chair

October 30, 2007

Cal Poly, Keck Laboratory

San Luis Obispo

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for allowing me to speak today on the critical issues of learning environments and science education equipment needs for California’s classrooms.

My name is Luke Laurie. I am a science teacher at El Camino Junior High in Santa Maria, California. I have ten years of experience teaching and running after school programs in robotics and engineering. I am a recipient of the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence, and a graduate of Cal Poly.

Last year, as a recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, I worked as a legislative assistant in the United States House of Representatives for Congressman Mike Honda, of Silicon Valley, a Member of the Appropriations and Science Committees, and a former science teacher himself. In the House, I worked on education, environmental policy, and appropriations. I worked with Congressman Honda on the Global Warming Education Act, and to end the narrowing of the curriculum, language for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to require all schools to provide a comprehensive curriculum to all students.

The school where I teach is not unlike many in California, serving an almost exclusively, low-income Hispanic population, more than half of which are English Language Learners. The opportunities for our students to encounter science and technology professionals in their communities are few, as are the opportunities for them to engage in meaningful science and technical experiences. That said, if we, as educators, do not provide meaningful scientific and technical experiences for students, with hands-on, minds-on learning, they won’t get them.

My time in Washington D.C. last year exposed me to the incredible bipartisan push at the Federal level to enhance science research and STEM education. Members of Congress, scholars, and business leaders agree that STEM education in the U.S. is in dire need of improvement.

Unfortunately, my time in D.C. also exposed me to the great disconnect between the federal infrastructure that provides guidance for public schools, and the framework that has been tasked with improving science education. Funds for improving K-12 science are appropriated to dozens of programs in NASA, NOAA, NSF, The Department of Energy, EPA, and the Department of Education. Rather than going directly to the schools with the greatest needs, these funds largely go to universities for outreach efforts. The results of outreach are often very good, creating amazing programs and providing unique opportunities for children, but they are also frequently short-lived, and directly affect only a small fraction of schools. The result creates a long and windy road for federal funds to science classrooms, and the trickle down effect often leaves some schools dry.

With frequent reports on the lack of science and technical literacy of American students, the concerns over global competitiveness, and the specter of global warming, one would think that science at all levels would see increased attention, increased funding, and especially, increased time devoted to science. Working down in the trenches, I can tell you from experience, that such is not the case.

Standards-based instruction and high stakes testing, the cornerstones of California education policy and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have indirectly harmed science education, as well as education in the myriad of subjects beyond Language Arts and Mathematics.

The emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts in testing and evaluation have created circumstances where well-meaning local administrators have issued directives or modified curricula that effectively discourage science instruction, and reduce or eliminate the time that would otherwise have been devoted to science. They are gaming the system; because they can, and because they believe they need to. In effect, the climate is such that there is no penalty for schools where science isn’t taught at all. The same could be said for other subjects, such as PE, health and nutrition, fine and performing arts, industrial arts, and technical education. The very subjects that may determine our future economic stability are seen as impediments to schools chasing the ever elusive AYP or API, in spite of their cultural and economic value, and in spite of their role in retaining students and preventing drop-outs. The current climate encourages short term gains, even when the trade-off is long term losses.

In the district in which I teach, a block schedule was implemented which provides junior high students with Math and Language Arts courses every day, but PE, Science, and Social Studies, meet every other day or for only half the year. Some English Language Learners have no science at all, or are given one quarter of science, while they are placed in a reading intervention class that is in addition to their language arts class- that’s 160 minutes of language arts in a day. There are only 3 full time science teachers in my school, serving a population of over 600 students.

In some schools, the precious time they have to teach science is taken up with weekly math review, or extra reading time. The time is taken out of science as it is considered a non-essential course.

Some of the greatest impact have been on elementary science instruction. Many elementary teachers I have spoken to who are passionate about science education have been forced to reduce their time spent on science. Some express great frustration, because of drill and kill tactics and extended time on Math and Language arts, they are unable to implement the science units they used to teach, which integrated mathematics, reading, writing, and vocabulary development, and used these skills in context.

Don’t get me wrong, literacy, acquiring English, and mathematics are vital skills, however, the overemphasis on these subjects has been harmful, because science is less frequently used as the context for language development, and context for application of mathematics. The common defense for this overemphasis is that while deferring these subjects, we are providing students with a stronger framework for future coursework. Such could be tested, however, there is a tendency, especially for students in English Language Learner programs to defer science year, after year, after year. It is a disservice to these students to remove them from the courses in which the language is universal, the minds will be engaged, and students will be able to experience success. At the junior high level we are not seeing students more prepared for science instruction because of their work in mathematics and language arts. In fact, we’re seeing fewer students able to apply mathematics skills to real situations, such as the ability to measure or estimate, and we’re seeing less in the way of prior science knowledge. They are likely to have strongly-embedded misconceptions about ordinary phenomena, and they are less prepared to learn science.

Fortunately, in spite of these policies and trends, the programs that I personally work on have been strongly supported by my site administration, and we’re fighting to keep science alive. We have been able to channel grant funds and awards into strengthening my Robotics Science Course for 8th grade students, and we’ve been able to maintain strong participation in MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement).

But all of the grant funds we have acquired have provided little other than equity with wealthier California schools. We need 5000 dollars in grants each year just to keep pace. The lack of equity in funding requires teachers in schools such as mine to beg and borrow- just to get what may be provided in the next zip code.

With what we have, we have converted some regular classrooms into what you might call labs. We even have a single room designated as “science lab” on our school map. But this old classroom doesn’t have hot water, is poorly lit, has no access to gas for Bunsen burners, and if we plug in too many hot plates, it will blow out the low-amperage circuits. We make it work. Is it  a science lab? I’m not sure.

This brings me to a concept I call “Faith-Based” education. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense. What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize or require instruction that all students must definitely have. Instead, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by omissions of policy or shortages of funding. We see this in the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, and the lone elementary teacher who will still take kids on science field trip, or teach their unit on whales, or growing plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the day. Or the elementary teacher who still goes out to teach PE- every day. We see this in the teachers who are working in my program, RoboChallenge, having students learn language and mathematics skills while designing and programming their own robots.

We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum including robust science is being taught in public schools in California. With one of the largest economies in the world, a world-class university system, and the wealth of corporate resources, California should have a world class K-12 education system, and world class learning environments for all students. Increased investment in K-12 science is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits we will reap from a strong workforce, our ability to curtail and adapt to climate change, and the cultural and technological benefits that will arise from tomorrow’s innovators.