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Topic: [ncsm-members] A radical idea to transform what kids learn in school
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] A radical idea to transform what kids learn in school
Posted: May 15, 2012 8:02 PM
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From The Washington Post, Tuesday, May 15, 2012.
A radical idea to transform what kids learn in school

From The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss --
This was written by Marion Brady, veteran
teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and

By Marion Brady

Exxon-Mobil is airing education-reform television
ads. In the one I've seen most often, implicit
and explicit messages are simple and clear: (a)
We live in a dangerous, technologically complex
world. (b) Our lives, liberties, and happiness
hinge on our ability to cope with that world. (c)
Coping requires mastery of math. (d) On
standardized math tests, America ranks 25th in
the world
]. (e) Be ashamed and afraid. (f) Get behind
corporate education reform efforts.

I've no confidence in the standardized tests
] that produced that ranking or the ranking
itself. Scores on tests that can't measure the
qualities of mind and spirit upon which survival
depend are useless. And oversimplifying
statistics to support an ideology-driven agenda
is inexcusable.

I agree, however, that America needs good mathematicians.

How many? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
says, "Employment of mathematicians is expected
to increase by 16 percent from 2010 to 2020Š.
There will be competition for jobs because of the
small number of openings in this occupation."

Take math teachers out of the mix, and the number
of mathematicians America needs is tiny. If one
kid in each high school in the country became a
professional mathematician, it would glut the

So, what's now different in math education as a
consequence of corporate pressures? Math
requirements have been boosted for every kid.
School days and years have been lengthened to
expand math instruction time. Recess, art, music
- even other academic subjects - have been
dropped or scaled back to allow more time for
math drill. Math courses have been moved down a
grade level to make them tougher. Reading
instruction has been refocused to emphasize
"informational text" of the sort mathematicians
might use. Constant testing monitors math
performance, and failing a single high-stakes
math test can keep even an honors student from
getting a high school diploma

Stupid. Running every kid in America through the
math gauntlet to get a handful of mathematicians
is like buying a bakery to get a loaf of bread.
But even if thousands were needed, it makes no
sense to force everybody to line up and run that
gauntlet. Putting a kid with superior math
ability and potential in a class with thirty-plus
other kids will either hold her or him back or
drag the thirty-plus forward at a rate beyond
their ability to cope. How smart is that?

What the reformers have done in math they want to
do across the board - push every kid through the
same narrow standardizing hole in every subject
]. It can't be done, and it shouldn't be done,
but it's being tried on a monumental, nationwide

And when it doesn't work, instead of blaming THE
SYSTEM, teachers and kids are punished.

Shaping THE SYSTEM, of course, is the belief that
studying a mix of pre-selected, required subjects
provides a comprehensive, well-rounded education.
That's an admirable aim, but it's never even come
close to being met. When, long ago, big guns in
education policymaking sat down around a
conference table to decide what courses students
had to pass to get a high school diploma, they
didn't start from scratch and look at all
possible options. They chose from an existing,
much shorter list set by custom, reinforced by
familiarity, unsupported by research or an
articulated philosophy.

Over time, that list of school subjects has
acquired an extremely powerful label. It's called
"the core curriculum," and the assumption that it
does indeed provide a comprehensive, well-rounded
education is simply taken for granted. So firm is
the place "the core" holds in the public mind,
there wasn't a peep from the mainstream media
when the National Governors Association and the
Council of Chief State School Officers rammed
through something they called "The Common Core
States Standards Initiative."

Disregard the word "States" in that title. For
all practical purposes, the core is now America's
national curriculum. The governors and school
officers who pushed the Initiative think that
standardizing the curriculum provides "a
consistent, clear understanding of what students
are expected to learnŠ" Corporate interests also
think it's a good thing, but for a different
reason: It standardizes the education market,
thereby significantly upping profit potential.

The secretive, long-running, organized,
well-financed campaign to centralize,
standardize, and privatize American education is
on track. To follow the campaign, follow the

Standardized or not, there are at least two dozen
reasons why faith in the core curriculum is
] Here are three:

(1) Humankind's hope for the future lies, as it
always has, in the richness of human variability.
We differ in experience, situation, aspirations,
attitudes, abilities, interests, motivations,
emotions, life chances, prospects, potential, and
luck. To survive and prosper, these differences
need to be exploited to the maximum. The core
curriculum minimizes them.

(2) Knowledge is exploding at an
ever-accelerating rate. Whole new fields of study
unimagined even a few years ago are emerging. The
explosion isn't just going to continue, it's
going to accelerate. Thinking we know enough to
lock ANY curriculum in place - much less one
that's more than a hundred years old - is either
naïve or malicious.

(3) The future is unknowable. Period. Even if it
were possible to standardize and program kids, we
don't know - NOBODY knows - what they'll need to
know next week, much less for the rest of their
lives. They may need technical skills no one now
has, or the ability to survive on edible weeds
and a quart of water a day. Neither the Common
Core nor the tests that manufacturers are able to
write can take adequate account of an unknown

What's an alternative to today's mandated,
standardized curriculum? An elective curriculum.

By "elective," I don't mean offering kids a
couple of options if they pass all their math,
science, language arts and social studies
courses, or are willing to stick around after
hours. I mean that, starting no later than middle
school, kids set their own schedules, going in
whatever directions their interests, abilities,
and respect for parental and teacher opinion lead.

Of course, that's not going to happen.
Bureaucrats, pointing to statutes, would quickly
shut down any school that gave kids real freedom
of choice. Politicians would resurrect the
accusation they once used to sell No Child Left
Behind, that teachers were guilty of "the soft
bigotry of low expectations."
] Policymakers would argue that workforce needs
trump individual needs. Corporations making
billions selling "solutions" to the educational
problems they're helping create would threaten to
cut off political campaign contributions. Many
(maybe most) educators, comfortable in their
niches, would defend those niches by pointing to
personal successes.

And all will dismiss my proposal by arguing that
kids don't know what's best for them.

There's some truth in that. Kids have needs they
aren't able to articulate (a particular interest
of mine). But given freedom to choose, their
choices will be far wiser than those spilling out
of the Trojan horse the American Legislative
Exchange Council and its allies slipped through
public education's gate - the Common Core States
Standards Initiative.

That Initiative solves no significant problem. It
is itself the problem. Its quick, unquestioning
acceptance by most of the education establishment
and the general public is yet another
manifestation of the widening authoritarian
streak in American character.

Boycott the tests, and hammer the clueless
politicians who support them. Do that, and
they'll suddenly discover an interest in talking
to people who actually know something about

When that dialog begins, you can do future
generations and the world an enormous favor:
Insist on a post-elementary-level curriculum
that's at least 90% elective. Let human nature do
its thing.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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