A standard for school standards - Granite Grok

A standard for school standards

Recently, I sat listening to a speaker talk about the need for ‘better standards’ in schools.  He talked a lot about what students need to know when they graduate from high school, with a lot of emphasis on literacy, mathematics, and what he called ‘general knowledge’.

Hard to argue with that, but as I listened, I noticed that two crucial requirements were missing.  And as far as I can tell, they are missing from every school standard or subject standard that I’ve ever seen.  They are (1) priority, and (2) independence.

By ‘priority’ I just mean that some things are more fundamental than others, and must be dealt with first.  If you’re in a course on American history, but your reading skills are below proficiency, then you should be working on reading instead of listening to someone explain the subject to you.  If you’re not rock solid on your arithmetic skills, you certainly shouldn’t be taking algebra… but you also shouldn’t be taking courses in, say, fashion merchandising.

By ‘independence’ I just mean that the single most important thing that you should be learning is how to direct your own learning, how to become your own teacher, so that you can learn whatever you want to later on.  Nothing else even approaches this in importance.

That is, any standard that isn’t just a wish list must require students to develop foundational skills first, and then require them to use those skills to learn to teach themselves.  By the time a student is ready to graduate, his teachers should be acting mostly in an advisory role.

To put that a different way, no matter how much a student knows at the moment, if he’s still depending on his teachers to learn new material, then he’s not ready to graduate.

Given a standard like this, here’s what a ‘course’ in civics or history would look like:  You read the federal and state constitutions, decide (perhaps with advice from a teacher) which supplementary materials might help answer your questions or concerns, and then read (or view, or listen to, or work through) those.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Having said that, it’s still worth considering what subject matter would be most consistent with the rationalization put forth in Claremont by the state supreme court as to why it’s your responsibility to pay to educate someone else’s kids:

[A] free government is dependent for its survival on citizens who are able to participate intelligently in the political, economic, and social functions of our system.

And it occurs to me that there is a simple way to operationalize what this means:

By the time you graduate, it should be exceedingly difficult to lie to you.

Note that to meet this standard, you’d have to learn all the things we claim we want kids to learn:

  • They would need to be literate — not just able to read, but having read widely.
  • They would need to understand enough math to be evaluate the merits of an argument based on statistics.
  • They would need to have a sufficient grasp of both logic and rhetoric to be able to  recognize and short-circuit attempts to manipulate them based on common fallacies, and appeals to emotion.
  • They would need to have a reasonable amount of what the speaker called ‘general knowledge’ — enough to be able to understand the cultural, historical, and scientific references that people often use to persuade each other.
  • They would need to be able to assimilate new knowledge quickly, in order to avoid being cowed or misled by whatever ‘latest research’ is being cited to justify sweeping political or economic changes.

Aren’t these abilities exactly what we want — what we need — in our citizens?  Aren’t they what every parent wants for his children?

As the goings-on in Washington and Concord (and lately, Croydon) become increasingly surreal, I find myself asking whether, if we had a nation of citizens with these abilities, whether all those goings-on would even be possible.  I think they wouldn’t.

All that craziness is made possible by school systems, and school standards, that practically guarantee that citizens can be jerked around like trout by politicians and pundits, by judges and journalists, by corporations and con artists.

Which is why a standard like the one I’m proposing won’t ever be supported by anyone in power.  But if we’re ever ready to get serious about education — to focus on mission, rather than on money — this is the kind of standard we’ll need.