The Chinese Fire Drill

Monday, November 1, 2010

Those Annoying State Standards

Nearly twenty years ago, after my third year teaching, our English department met to update and revise curriculum. The process was time-consuming, and we harangued and bickered in the way any group will when philosophical influences clash with uniform goals, but it was nonetheless an elegant and simple process. We basically decided, in a nutshell, the following things for each class we offered:
  1. What major assignments (usually large papers/essays, etc) will each course require?
  2. What textbooks and novels, etc. will each course use?
  3. At what point in the year (broadly speaking) will the key assignments be completed?
  4. At what point in the year (again, broadly speaking) will important chapters and/or novels be completed?
Not that hard. A pretty basic concept. The amazing thing is that it actually worked very well. First, the decision-making, while challenging due to the personal biases and territorial attitudes that are common in teaching, was otherwise simple. Second, once the decisions were made, we produced a simple, readable, understandable document that any teacher (veteran or rookie) could grasp and use immediately. Finally, both the task and the document it produced served a purpose. It showed us who was doing what and when, and it helped us avoid situations where three different English classes read To Kill a Mockingbird while none of them taught students how to write Cause and Effect Papers.

Naturally, since the process was so functional, the "powers that be" saw the need to step in and screw it all up.

It all began about a decade ago when my state (Indiana) produced an inch-thick binder of “state standards” for all major “testable” subjects. In English, these standards were arranged according to grade level, and each of those grades listed seven core standards that teachers had to meet in the school year. Within each of the seven standards were “indicators” (some of us liked to call them “sub-standards”) complete with examples showing how they should be applied to classroom instruction.

On the surface, this actually seems like a good idea: Rather than simply list all the materials and papers we’re going to teach, let’s shift the focus to the skills that we want students to learn and master. Who can argue with that? As it turned out, no one could, so the standards became the norm.

Then it was time to implement them.

During the 2000-2001 school year, I was ordered to plan for a substitute, take a day out of the classroom, and report to my Central Office so I could “write curriculum” for the next school year. I had already done this twice in my career, so I expected it to work much as I described in the paragraphs above. However, on this day my then Assistant Superintendent (she has long since left the school system) dropped a copy of the state standards along with a flip chart listing Bloom’s Taxonomy on the table in front of me.

“We need a curriculum for the advanced English classes,” she said.

With no other guidance, I relied on past experience with curriculum, and I proceeded to list the various papers I would have my honors students write; the novels, plays, poems, and stories we would cover; and when we would do these during the year.

“No,” my boss said, “you’re not getting it.”

She then opened the Bloom’s flip chart and pointed to sample verb in English 12, Standard 1, Indicator 1, Goal 1 which read:

Standard 12.1.1
Vocabulary and Concept Development:
Understand unfamiliar words that refer to characters or themes in literature or history. (Core Standard)
Example: Understand the meaning of words like Dickensian (like characters and behaviors created by Charles Dickens), quisling (a traitor to his country like Vidkun Quisling who helped the Nazis conquer Norway), or Draconian (like severe laws made by Athenian lawmaker Draco).

My job was to take the verb “understand” and move to the next level up on Bloom’s chart. Therefore, using an ink pen, I crossed out “understand” and wrote “apply” above it.

“Good,” my boss said beaming. “Now you get it.”

I proceeded to repeat this process for the remainder of the day until I had crossed out every verb in the standards and “leveled up.” Once I had finished that, I then scribbled “Honors” after the already printed label “English Grade 12.” And, once each of us had completed the same task for all our respective grades, as a school corporation, we crossed out the word “Indiana” and typed in the name of our school corporation.  We had officially “written” our new curriculum.

For this, I gave up a day in the classroom.

What I didn't realize at the time was the massive paradigm shift that was taking place under my feet: We were shifting the focus from content skills. Not surprisingly everyone interpreted the change differently.

  • Some assumed that each standard had to be covered equally, and actually went through the entire year going from one standard to the next.
  • Some thought the examples listed in the standards were actual requirements, so they actually used each example in class…out of context…piecemeal…hit and miss.
  • Most of us (like me) looked at the standards; realized we were already doing them anyway; and simply slapped the standard numbers onto lessons plans, handouts, overheads (anything and everything) so that the state Education Department would smile approvingly.
  • And our rookies…? Without any guidance in terms of what materials to teach, what kinds of papers to assign, and when to do these things, they were lost. We tried to break them free of the standards and get them to think independently…as they had been trained to do in college. But that was not an easy task.
Recently, I found out that our Governor and his State Superintendent of Public Instruction have taken those years-old standards and re-packaged them in a new volume. Now they are broken down according to quarterly timelines in which ALL schools and ALL teachers will follow.

And I find myself asking the same basic question: what did all of this improve? We spent a great amount of time and money statewide and locally and all we did was take what was already going on in an intuitive, abstract sense and box it in and neatly frame it in a concrete form.

Did it do anything to make weak teachers step up and start utilizing class time more effectively? Of course not. Did it provide any sort of assistance to the elite teachers? No. Not only that, it effectively constrained them, limiting their impact on students.

Meanwhile, the hard questions we need to ask remain decidedly UNASKED and the real reform remains where it has always been: in the individual classroom and in the hands of the teacher who happens to hold the keys to the door.

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