Thoughts on National Education Standards

There has recently been a movement among national and state-level public education leaders towards creating and adopting national standards for English language arts and mathematics. Concern comes from the fact that American school youth don’t test as well on standardized language (English in our case) and math tests as their European and Asian peers. Even President Obama has jumped on that bandwagon.

We already have voluminous state educational content standards that now mandate maybe 80 to 90% of what kids learn in school. All that mandated “what” to learn generally has the added state mandate of “when” it must be learned, having nothing to do when the student is ready, but only when the state is ready to do it’s standardized testing. And now, more and more, with mandated methodologies like Open Court, even the “how” of student learning is state mandated, down to five minute blocks on any given school day.

It’s absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety; indeed it cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present much the same way television does… (Former NY Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto)

I am actually okay with creating educational standards, national, state and otherwise; with one huge caveat… they shouldn’t be mandatory, only advisory. There are many families that are happy that their progeny are receiving an education that is based on the best thinking of panels of experts designated by their elected representatives. There are many other families (like mine) that feel that their kids should have the opportunity to spend their time learning things of interest to them and pursuing their unique gifts and talents.

The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and only he knows the key to his own secret. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Particularly for families that do not have the privileges of race or class, or with limited economic opportunities, a pre-designed K through 12 education based on best practice as determined by a panel of experts can be a compelling path to a good paying career and a better life. Imagine a conventional instructional public school with classrooms full of kids who want to be there and are ready to learn the “best practice” curriculum, and teachers relaxed and happy that they don’t have to teach the other kids who do not want or are not best served by this standardized curriculum.

People cannot learn by having information pressed into their brains. Knowledge has to be sucked into the brain, not pushed in. First, one must create a state of mind that craves knowledge, interest and wonder. You can teach only by creating an urge to know. (Physicist Victor Weisskopf)

My partner Sally and I were blessed with the resources to have the option of homeschooling our kids, which we did for most of their high school years. Adopting an “unschooling” approach to their education, we (after some fits and starts) allowed them to simply lead their lives and pursue the things of interest to them in an enriched environment including a number of thoughtful and caring adults to engage with, a circle of other youth to explore life and community skills with, access to the Internet, cable TV and wonderful books.

We also have a growing public charter school movement in our country, which has the opportunity to offer alternatives to the conventional public school. But that movement is severely constrained by the current mandatory educational standards which mandate maybe 80 to 90% of what needs to be taught and when it needs to be taught. Add to that the reductionist multiple-choice high-stakes testing that inevitably pushes all schools to measure up to a standard that discriminates against any public school offering an alternative educational venue to families (like mine) who feel that is the best learning path for their kids.

Imagination is more important than knowledge…

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education (Albert Einstein)

So President Obama and all the rest of you with visions of that one best-practice education, keep up your good work strengthening that educational path for those families that want it. Just let us parents, citizens that we are with the right to life and the pursuit of happiness, also have the liberty to choose to accept (or not) your educational wisdom.

I believe the successful path forward for our country and the entire world is to acknowledge and embrace that there are “many paths” to enlightenment and success in all endeavors, spiritual journeys and religious practice, addressing the world’s more material needs in the marketplace, as well as the path for our youth from birth to functional adulthood.

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