Behind the push toward a national set of "common core" standards in English and math is the attractive idea that every kid in the nation should be more or less reading, writing and arithmeticking at the same level at the same age.
It makes sense. There's no real reason why 12-year-olds in Massachusetts should be learning to use similar triangles to explain why the slope m is the same between any two distinct points on a nonvertical line in the coordinate plane, while 12-year-old New Mexicans are still stuck learning to write an inequality of the form x > c or x < c to represent a constraint or condition in a real-world or mathematical problem. Right?
Progressives decry the national standards—developed with bucks from the Gates Foundation—as part of a "corporate education reform" platform that punishes, rather than supports, low-performing schools. Conservatives worry about losing local control. Experts criticize the sequencing.
Despite the controversy, SFPS is now phasing in implementation of these standards. Last week I spoke with two English teachers at Capital High School, which has already begun applying the standards.
The first teacher was enthusiastic. She said the standards "spiral" though material in a way that deepens learning over the grades, while giving teachers leeway in how they deliver.
The second, who'd seen various sets of standard over the years, acknowledged the value of establishing parity for kids who move between states, but wondered how uniform standards would work, given that students don't walk into her classroom with uniform readiness. "Kids and teachers can only move as fast as they can move," she said. "If a student's starting 10th grade at a 6th-grade level, he's not going to meet the standards. What happens then?"
And then, with the matter-of-factness of any good high school teacher, she cut to the chase: "No matter what you're teaching, if you don't have a good relationship with the kid, you're wasting your time."
She's right. Contemporary brain research has made it clear that people choose what they are going to learn, when, and from whom. Requiring teachers and students to adhere to national standards doesn't preclude them from developing good learning relationships, but neither does it help. With two out of five Santa Fe kids dropping out, one has to wonder why we're pursuing a reform idea that does not help teachers understand and connect to the children before them—regardless of what kids are studying in Massachusetts.
There are other options. I recently visited the Met High School in Providence, RI, a public, noncharter school structured around learning relationships, not classes and curricula.
It's a remarkable design. Students spend all four years with one teacher—called an advisor—and 15 peers, with whom they become as close as family while working on individual interests, goals and needs. Two days a week, they leave campus to work with community mentors, pursuing passions from music recording to elder care.
Though all students must prove competency in critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and communication skills, no two Met students learn the same curriculum. But I can attest that all of these young men and women do learn what they want to do with their lives, and they learn how to get there. And they graduate—at rates over 90 percent.
The Met's design, now nearly 20 years old, is being replicated internationally under an organization called The Big Picture. Its continued success offers compelling evidence that pushing teachers and students to cover a standardized curriculum is not the best way to engage people in learning.
National standards will make our schools more uniform—but perhaps uniformity isn’t what we need.
Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about education in Santa Fe. Biderman is a graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe teacher and administrator.