National Standards - A Critic’s Perspective, Email #1
The following is the first email sent to us by a critic of our policy on national standards.
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I’m a high school student who’s been reading your solutions. I don’t really know enough to have a strong opinion on the charter schools or vocational programs or the Joplin plan, so I won’t comment on them.
What worries me is the focus you guys have on standards - for example, you recommend using standardized tests as a way of measuring teacher performance. There are two main problems I have with this.
Firstly, any increased focus on standards comes with an increased amount of “teaching to the test” and therefore a decrease in actual education (more on “actual education” later.) Suppose we do institute national standards - then, either there is some incentive for teachers/states/schools to follow them, or there isn’t. If there’s no incentive, then the national standards are worthless and have no effect.
But suppose we do include an incentive. How is this incentive then carried out? The only way to measure success at meeting standards is through a standardized test. So if teachers have an incentive to increase standardized test scores, they have an incentive to “teach to the test.” I hope you can agree with me that this is a bad thing.
A much deeper problem with this is that without a complete overthrow of our current system of standards (and I mean creating a system of national standards that looks absolutely nothing like anything in any current state’s system), these standards aren’t actually benefitting education at all.
The subject I know most about, and thus can best argue this case for, is in math. As a two-time USA Math Olympiad competitor and having completed the undergraduate curriculum in math, I think I have as much of a right as anybody to argue for what math is and what skills from math are important. Quite frankly, (and literally every math person with similar credentials I’ve talked to agrees with this), the standards-based system of teaching math is completely worthless - and my friends with passions in other fields assure me that this is the case in other forms of education as well.
Let me explain why. (For a more in-depth explanation of the problems with standards-based math education, see http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf). The goal of mathematics education should be to teach students to be creative, critical thinkers. Students should be taught to think logically while learning how to approach problems they don’t already know how to solve - these are skills that matter in the “real world.” But how does one go about making standards that represent this? Do standards read “students learn to approach problems they don’t know how to solve”? Of course not, because such a standard is inherently impossible to measure. The same goes for asking students to be creative or critical or free-thinking - you can’t measure these skills, even though they’re the ultimate goal of education.
So what sort of things do standards include? They include things like knowing how to solve linear equations or to integrate by parts. Notice, of course, that these skills are completely useless on their own. Most students will never use math again, and those that do will take advantage of tools such as Wolfram Alpha to do the “grunt work” for them. Notice furthermore that every one of these tools is a form of rote memorization. The only value that comes from learning these skills is when a student makes creative connections and insights about these skills, which builds the student’s mind, making them more intelligent, analytical, creative people.
Therefore, we see that a balance exists in education (and not just in math) between rote memorization and real intellectual development. The rote memorization of certain things is necessary to intellectual growth to occur, but is not an end in and of itself. Therefore by trying to establish more rigorous standards and/or incentivize teachers to follow these standards, we increase the amount of rote memorization occurring in our classrooms, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to be increasing.
You guys want “to deliver a new generation of thinkers, innovators, and leaders” – people who can make connections that other people don’t necessarily see. Innovation is a skill that can be fostered, but it doesn’t work in a stifling environment of standards and standardized tests. You guys are doing a lot of great things, but I’m really scared that you’re going down the wrong path here.