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Sesame vs. Watermelon: What is Missing in the National Standard Debate

19 January 2010 16,646 5 Comments

Sesame vs. Watermelon: What is Missing in the National Standard Debate

“When you picked up a sesame seed, you have lost the watermelon.” This simple Chinese saying can serve as a good reminder for advocates of national standards, who are lured by the potential benefits of common curriculum standards may just be going after a sesame seed while ignoring the watermelon that is running away.

A recent article by Education Week reporter Sean Cavanagh published with the 2010 Quality Counts provides an overview of the national debate about common standards. It begins with “the incontrovertible” logic for establishing national or common academic standards for students in the United States:

Why should students in one state be introduced to a topic such as fractions as 1st graders, to cite a common example, when their peers in other states won’t cover that mathematics topic until later? More broadly, why does the United States—a mobile society in a globally competitive era—maintain an education system that tests students, trains teachers, and churns out textbooks and classroom materials based on the myriad and often idiosyncratic demands of different states?

The article then cites American students standing in international tests as further evidence in favor of national standards: “In several higher-performing nations, a single set of national academic standards guides all or most of those decisions.”

The article lists the “persistent” obstacles to establishing national standards: concerns that national standards may threat the US federal education system and concerns about the quality of national standards.

But the article fails to point out a bigger concern shared by many educators: the cost of national or common standards.

By cost I do not mean the money, time, and effort needed to develop national curriculum standards. Rather, I mean the lost opportunities for our children to receive a real education.

A curriculum standard, such as the one the NGA and CCSSO has been working on, defines what students should know in a subject at a certain point of their school career. If thoughtfully developed and provided as a guide for teachers, students, parents, and curriculum/textbook developers, a curriculum standard can be a useful professional tool. However, when the standard becomes national or common across all states and high stakes tests are used to enforce its implementation across the nation, problems arise.

First, what is tested is what is taught. As the past 8 years of NCLB have shown, schools will work very hard to teach only the subjects that matter in mandated state tests. Thus, if we only have two subjects that have national standards and tests, we can expect that American schools will narrow education to the teaching of these subjects. As a result, our children’s education experience will be reduced to the learning of these two subjects.

Second, by the same logic, teachers, especially when their income is dependent on student test scores, will work very hard to teach to the tests that matter. And as a result, our children will be trained to become expert test takers in the subjects with national standards, enforced through high stakes testing.

Third, those children who do not perform well on the tests to meet the grade level expectations prescribed by the standards will be deemed “at risk” and put in remedial sessions and thus deprived of the opportunity to participate in other education opportunities, regardless of their reasons. In other words, those children who come disadvantaged communities and families can be further disadvantaged by being labeled “at risk.” Those who may have strengths in areas other than the tested subjects with national standards will not have the opportunity to develop their strengths.

Thus, even if national standards have the benefit of equalizing expectations and improving test scores in the subject areas with standards, which by the way is not necessarily the case judging from research (read an article I wrote a while back), the cost of real educational opportunities is too high. We may raise our standing on international math and literacy tests, but we risk the loss of what really matters (read my book).

The debate about national standards should really be a debate about what education is, what kind of skills and knowledge should be taught, and what truly are essential for our children to succeed in the 21st century. We cannot simply look at what is taught in a subject area. We must consider the meaning of education. After all, what we want is the big watermelon, not the tiny sesame seed.

Alfie Kohn’s commentary “Debunking the Case for National Standards” included in the same issue of Ed Week presents another powerful argument against national standards.

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  • Greg Limperis said:

    In the district where I teach, you see these point stated above happening. Teachers are teaching to the test. In some parts, students are not being taught whole subjects such as Social Studies or Science all in an effort to have more time on task in Reading and Math. This is done in an effort to help raise test scores on standard tests. How they will do on these tests consumes our year, when students are tested 2-3 times a year in Math and Reading using the NWEA testing program in order to obtain MAP testing results so whe can gauge where they will be come testing time. During this time, learning is disrupted in order to get all students into two labs all day for testing.

  • Haisen Zhang said:

    Dr. Zhao’s point of view, in my view, can easily crack the nutshell of the weakness of the “national standards.” I’m sure it will go like a stone dropping into water, which will make more splashes and water ripples,

    “The meaning of education” is rooted in the heart of every aspiring citizen. However, which bureaucrat will care about it when they seek immediate benefits? This may be true everywhere in the world?! Sometimes, people do pick up the tiny sesame seed when they desire a watermelon. (Thanks for reading)

  • Common Core Confusion « InterACT said:

    […] on this front puts me in good company.  Professor Yong Zhao has written eloquently about the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization.  Zhao gets to the heart of my concerns when he writes, If thoughtfully developed and provided as […]

  • Common Core Confusion – ASCD Edition « InterACT said:

    […] subject, I quoted and linked some other opinions on the issue, including Professor Yong Zhao on the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization, and this Alfie Kohn commentary in Education […]

  • China: Independent candidates busy building up support · Global Voices said:

    […] He: Well, there's no need for that. The people who warn me about the dangers involved probably mean well. But they may also have overlooked the fact that “constitutional democracy” is at the center of resolving people's livelihood issues. Either that or their understanding of the civic participation in elections trend is simply that the grassroots are gaining a voice for the common person by becoming part of the system. In fact, the greatest significance in taking part in the elections is that it tells people that by valuing the votes which we hold in our hands, we can gradually bring some balance to certain interests. It's like the sesame seed vs. the watermelon. […]

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