The Gardener Effect: Common Standards are Unfair and Exclusive
One of the selling points of common academic standards for all states in the US is that they will ensure equity and fairness in the education a child receives, wherever he or she lives. But this is false advertisement.
First, the quality of education a child receives depends on the quality of his teachers, his school leaders, his friends, his family, and his neighborhood. If a school does not have high quality staff and leaders, no matter how high the bar is set at, the student will not receive the same kind of education as his peers in a school with high quality staff because his teachers won’t be able to implement the standards. Common academic standards don’t ensure that the poor schools will receive high-quality staff. In fact, common standards distract us from addressing the real problem of education inequality–poverty.
Second, common standards are actually unfair because they are based on the wishful thinking that all children are the same and they all want to receive instruction in the same content. If a child, for whatever reason (natural tendency or environmental or both), does not come to school ready to learn what is prescribed for his age by the common standards, she will be labeled at risk and put in remedial courses, thus being deprived of other learning opportunities. Such actions can lead to seriously damages on the student’s self-esteem. Or the student will be put in the same class but not learning anything because she is not ready.
A popular political rhetoric of common standards proponents is all children deserve the same high-quality education. They often ask “who are you decide this child cannot learn advanced Algebra?” But they forget to ask another question: who are you to decide whether this child can, wish to, or need to learn advanced Algebra?
Third, common standards are exclusive. By including certain subjects, they exclude others. This is what I call the “Gardener Effect.” The Chinese like to praise teachers as gardeners because they labor to cultivate flowers. But we seldom look at the “cruel” side of gardeners. They make selections—while they cultivate flowers, they also take out weeds. Weeds and flowers are all plants, just with different qualities. Whether a plant is cultivated or weeded out is dependent on the gardener’s view. Similarly, by establishing common standards in only math and English, the U.S. is essentially declaring that these two subjects are flowers and need to be cultivated, thus favoring those students who are stronger in these subjects and excluding other who are not, but who may be strong in other areas.
In order to enforce the standards, high-stakes testing seems necessary. When student performance on tests in math and English is used to judge the performance of teachers and schools, they are more than likely to focus on these two subjects, thus reducing time and efforts for other subjects.
The Gardner Effect has been well evidenced by the consequences of No Child Left Behind(NCLB). Studies by the Center on Education Policy found that as a result of NCLB a majority of schools increased time for math or English while cut time for other areas such as arts, music, and even lunch and recess.
An even more telling example is the consequences of the national curriculum movement in England. England replaced a largely locally controlled curriculum with a national curriculum in the early 1990s. The curriculum is broader than math and literacy, including many other subjects (thus in a sense more broadly construed than the current American two subjects standards movement). But according to a recent report that has received heavy media coverage, the national curriculum has essentially deprived English children of a real education. The report, titled The Cambridge Primary Review, summarizes the problems of the national curriculum, among them:
- The supplanting of long-term educational goals by short-term targets of attainment.
- The real or perceived problem of curriculum overload, in the sense that many teachers believe that far too much is prescribed for the time available.
- The loss, for whatever reason, of the principle of children’s entitlement to a broad, balanced and rich curriculum, and the marginalisation, in particular, of the arts, the humanities and – latterly – science.
- The test-induced regression to a valuing of memorisation and recall over understanding and enquiry, and to a pedagogy which rates transmission more important than the pursuit of knowledge in its wider sense.
- The use of a narrow spectrum of the curriculum as a proxy for the quality of the whole, and the loss of breadth and balance across and within subjects as a result of the pressures of testing, especially at the upper end of the primary school.
- The continuing and demonstrably mistaken assumption that high standards in ‘the basics’ can be achieved only by marginalising much of the rest of the curriculum.