When developing Common Content or Core Standards the first step is understanding that, more often than not, they get in the way of promoting democratic school structures. There is nothing more “undemocratic” than mandating specific knowledge for every individual to know and eliminating all possible choice when it comes to scope and sequence. There is nothing that insults the democratic process more than putting a timeline to statements like “students will know” or “students will be able to” and then punishing them for not being diligent soldiers and memorizing this useless mass of factoids and minutiae while mandating that specific readings and texts be covered within a certain time period.
Even still, rest assured all of you core standard crazies with your request that every kid be able to accomplish “x” when they are “x” years old because I have a proposition. Rather than saying students must master a majority of these standards to be deemed acceptable, why don’t we give students options as to what avenue they choose to pursue and mandate that the core standards revolve around critical thinking and synthesis of ideas rather than core areas. Students would still educated in the core areas (so you can keep having them read Beowulf), but the standards would emphasize that teachers instruct to thought processes and cognitive development rather than “who kicked a pile of dirt in 1700?” I assure you that the former is exponentially more important to students’ future than the latter.
The key with anything that pertains to democracy, or child development for that matter, revolves around the ability to make choices and to understand that there will be different outcomes for each of those choices. Students that are passionate about specific subjects should be afforded the opportunity to develop and display their passion for that course. Making every student take the same assessment devoids the democratic process. While students should have to take four years of English in high school, the specific type of English course they take should be dependent upon their own personal desires and interests as opposed to assuming that all kids need to take one generic, boring English class. This is part of the reason why people enjoy college more and develop more autonomy in their studies during their post-secondary career than they do in grade school.
Having standards are important, but we need to be mindful of the impact that such standards have on engagement and invoking a feeling of democracy, or choice, in students. If we truly care about having our students grow up as participatory members of society and being invested and interested in their own education then we need to eliminate some of the compulsory feeling and replace it with some participatory ideas. That all has to start with how we view standards and what goes on in everyday classes.