As a new school year looms, Connecticut marches farther down a peculiar path to reform public education. Begun more than a decade ago, the trend stresses standards and the measurement of student mastery of them.
Connecticut along with 45 other states will follow Common Core State Standards in math and language arts. State standardized testing will be revamped to assess the common core, which means a massive realignment of curriculums, textbooks and teacher training. All this will have a significant effect on kids, mostly negative, because standards and testing are dead ends.
The standards-and-testing approach has failed for at least four reasons. First, it disempowers students from using their educations as a tool to self-understanding and self-creation. Second, it inhibits imagination in teaching and learning and creates an intellectually narrow classroom. Third, it dehumanizes and depersonalizes by fostering mechanistic teaching and relying excessively on numerical ratings of success and failure. Fourth, it distracts policymakers and voters from dealing with the real causes of an educational achievement gap stemming from poverty and socio-economic isolation of students in major cities.
My experience with standards and testing confirms their shortcomings. I taught in Connecticut public schools for 13 years, most recently in Farmington whose motto was "standards-led." Administrators and teachers there took standards seriously, but I never met a student who did, or many parents either. Teachers could compel kids to focus on standards, by testing them, but even the most grade-conscious students had short memories for them.
Standards become irrelevant when they grow excessive, as they were in Farmington. The common core runs longer still. Its language arts standards are more than 60 pages and the math standards are 93 pages. Imagine telling kids that the core standards require them to "prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively." To kids, this sounds artificial and superficial. It is.
A related problem involves motivation. Standards are extrinsic metrics, and kids do their deepest, most creative work when they define their research subjects and solve problems of their choosing.
My favorite class to teach in public high school was humanities. Students got a school year to study a question they posed. I oversaw projects ranging from "A History of Capitalism in America," to "Innovation in the Music of Claude Debussy" and "Prerequisites for a Through Hike of the Appalachian Trail." These projects amazed me for their complexity and insight. Students felt proud of them. "We got to choose what we did, and we wanted to work on them," one kid said in a post-class survey. Classes such as humanities are endangered species in public schools.
Fixating on standards imposes intellectual blinders. Teachers evaluated on students' test results, as Connecticut educators soon will be, have no incentive to teach beyond those tests. Unless climate change, the European debt crisis or the war on terrorism are on the test, teachers will avoid these vital contemporary topics and other subjects of concern to any thinking citizen.
Standardization encouraged by the common core detracts from students' humanity. The current approach has several historical parallels, and astute critics have pointed out its shortcomings. In "Hard Times," Charles Dickens skewered schools modeled on mechanistic, impersonal standards. His fictional principal, Thomas Gradgrind, killed students' imaginations by drilling facts, and the school's teacher, Mr. M'Choakumchild, poured on too much content at the expense of real learning and compassion. Gradgrind's business-minded approach resembles the common core's mission: "creat[ing] communities ... best positioned to compete in the global economy." Underlying this aim is fear about national slippage, but playing to fear sabotages kids' best efforts.
Education should develop self-aware people who can read, write, calculate and think analytically while engaging the world with compassion and empathy. I favor high standards, but the current movement confuses means with ends. Standards and testing have become ends unto themselves, "the solution."
I left public education a year ago for a private school that takes a more thoughtful and humane approach. Our students get into good colleges, even Harvard, and succeed at life - no common core or state testing required.
Chris Doyle of Simsbury is director of global studies at the Watkinson School.