flickr CC image via PinkMoose
The problem with education standards in North America is they are system centered. My friend Gord Atkinson (via Twitter @Principal20) came up with a sadly accurate definition of a system-centered education system- he characterizes it as budget crossed with social engineering. Brilliant, and tragically a massive reason why we're not moving education reform forward toward what it should be; a child development centered system.
It sounds crazy that a system centered approach to education would ever be good- like restaurants serving food without asking the customers what they want. Gord's assessment that budget and social engineering are at play makes the issue easier to understand, if not to accept.
To state the obvious, there is a cost to education. Of course fiscal responsibility is critical if government is to continue to provide any sort of education system; this isn't at question, but how much really is our system dependent on the almighty dollar? In "Why Is It Always About the Funding?" I stated that,
...obviously funds are required to support many elements of the education system. Teachers need to get paid, resources need to be supplied and schools need to be built and maintained, however, when it comes to ideas supporting better practise, I would submit that perhaps the best education reforms require no financial support whatsoever... As intelligent professionals who know tacitly what works and what doesn't in their classrooms and schools, teachers typically integrate and synthesize their philosophical thoughts in an effort to reform their personal practise and refine their craft. I've had enough professional conversations with my teaching colleagues to know that collectively, we also have a lot to say about how these efforts can be extrapolated to a broader education reform context.We need to accept that politics are politics, (party agendas, personal political aspirations, fiscal realities and the never-ending quest for power are obvious factors that affect not just the funding of education, but every publicly funded institution,) and if we're going to tip education reform so that it reflects a child development-centered philosophy we need to get past our obsession with blaming government for our system inadequacies. Government is what it is; it will always require that education answers to a set of standards that reflect the relative success of the system. Understanding this, and also being pedagogical experts, it's incumbent upon teachers to show government that we too aren't interested in removing standards, but that we are interested in defining better ways to reach them. Let's let the government define the standards, while we define the path to get there.
As opposed to what we seem to approach as an absolute process with end goals, education reform should be a ubiquitous, constant, never-ending process. If we intend to move toward a child development-centered education system, teachers need to take the lead role in showing government that we know better ways to teach and evaluate kids so learning is evident, and that in many cases will cost less. The obvious example is weaning the system from high-stakes, standardized testing routines. We have come to accept these tests as just something we do, but this hasn't always been the case.This interesting article from the New York Times highlights the arbitrary and inconclusive nature of these tests. Amidst this controversy and considering the massive cost to administer these tests, why not instead let teachers decide to what degree learning standards have been met by individual students? After all, teachers spend two hundred days with their students every year; can we not trust their insight into how well curriculum goals have been met in each student's case?
Another cost-saving measure could be to move away from unsustainable forms of teaching and learning resources; paper textbooks being the obvious example. As soon as a textbook is published, contemporary access to digital information has made it yesterday's information. There is also an argument that textbook learning perhaps isn't the most effective way to learn anyway. Teachers know that authentic learning is displayed when it's relevant, current and applicable to a student's future, and they also know that a textbook isn't required as part of the process. Let's increase access to the digital universe, and allow teachers unfettered access to assist in creating relevant, current and applicable learning environments.
High-stakes standardized test routines and textbook style learning resources are not necessarily the only ways to measure and apply teaching and learning. They are multimillion dollar enterprises though, and the cost to education is unimaginable. All of a sudden, teachers start to look like a bargain at twice the price when compared to the cost of standardized tests and textbooks considering we can provide better, more authentic, child development-centered learning and assessment environments without either of these influences.