A plan worth considering

Published 9:20 am Saturday, August 23, 2014

by Clay Scott

Most people intuitively understand that standards can never be more than minimum performance levels. Some believe that raising standards will push students to learn more or push schools to teach more, which will improve education generally. This line of thought is not only erroneous, it is dangerous. If anyone tells you this, then that person is either deceived or attempting to deceive you. As I pointed out last week, standardization decreases learning. If an education standard truly is a minimum performance level then, by definition, it would be low. The tests would be periodic checks rather than annual rites of passage. The higher a standard gets, the more it dictates the content of the course. The only conceivable purpose for such a standard would be to create uniform thought in our children. That would be a worthy goal in Nazi Germany, the old USSR, or any other government striving to maintain centrally concentrated power. Those regimes believe in government for the people, but we boldly declare that we also believe in government of the people and by the people. This means that we trust the people to make good decisions and we have the stomach to handle life when they do not.

Lest anyone misunderstand, I am not promoting low standards, though low standards would be preferable to the tyranny that we currently endure. If we are actually talking about minimum performance levels, then high standards can be positive, provided they are accompanied by high flexibility. It would be a lengthy project, but we could have standards that ensure high levels of education while leaving schools and districts the freedom to teach content grounded in something real. Imagine for a moment we could have progressive schools, classical schools, arts-based schools, multiple-intelligences schools, project-based schools, and the list could go on and on.

Leveraging technology would allow students to demonstrate knowledge on the topics covered while not punishing them for topics omitted. The concept is actually quite simple. State standards would become more like a menu. To illustrate, consider the History and Social Studies SOL section on “famous Americans.”

As it is written, approximately five important American figures are studied each year. That list could be expanded nearly infinitely. For our purposes, let’s say that it grows to 20. When the time comes to test students, some representative from the school could go online and select 5 of the 20 options from the menu for that standard. This process would be repeated for each of the standards for that test. The SOL tests would then be measuring rather than dictating what is taught.

The result would be a test that is customized to the needs and values of the school. Sure, it would require some work up front, but once it is done it would not have to be redone unless the curriculum is changed. The state wins because it could make sure that tax dollars invested in education are being spent wisely. Educators win because they are empowered to do what they do best — teach kids. Kids win because their education is more meaningful and personal. Parents win because they would have real choices as there would be real differences between schools.

This plan is a good step because it is a step toward freedom in education, but it is not perfect. Deciding what content is approved for each menu option could turn into a lengthy process. It is the type of decision that often comes with a lot of red tape. Worse than that, it does nothing to diminish the burden taxpayers carry by supporting the enormous bureaucracy that is our education system. It may even add to that burden. Nevertheless, there would be more immediate winners than losers, which makes it a plan worth considering.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and doctoral candidate at The George Washington University. He can be reached at teliosacademies@gmail.com.