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Standardizing Democracy-Part 1

The Dark Side

Let me be frank. I don’t get excited about standards. I have colleagues that I esteem who think they are vital to a strong educational system and I respect their opinion. And to an extent I get it.

Here’s my problem with them. They’re boring, they’re not radically different from anything else we have been doing in public schools over the last hundred years, and quite honestly I think a lot of them of are stupid or at least go without saying.

By their very nature, standards do not necessarily allow for individual learning paths. Now I appreciate backwards design thinking as much as any other educator in the last 40 years, but the standards system based on grade level, creates the special education system, which creates stupid children (because students know that when they’re in the SPED classes that you think they’re stupid, let’s just admit that), which creates students who don’t like school anymore, who think learning is too tough for them, who drop out, who don’t go to college…

It is impossible to say that students are going to move along in this lock-step system of developing the skills they need for college and careers as Obama is pegging the new legislature for education reform. Human beings are far too complex to try to reduce 13 years of learning and development into these a+b=c formulas. Perhaps only in mathematics have I seen strong evidence that moving along in an “a, then b, then c,” formula to be essential in building understanding and skills.

The thinking behind the creation of the Common Core standards is not at the level needed to solve the problem’s of the world today. As mentioned in this New York Times’ article the thinking dates back to 1983. It’s hard for me to conjure up a round of applause for an idea 30 years behind its time. To me it’s another sign of the inept leadership in public education.

These standards continue to pander to only two types of intelligence, logical and linguistic. And even within these realms there is not any strong trunk holding up the myriad of branches which are the standards. What are these standards for? To prepare kids for college and work, in that they can complete basic tasks necessary in both realms. At the risk of coming across like I don’t value this, my reaction is, big freaking whoop. There has to be a revolution at the very root of what our cultural values are. Because preparing more people for college and work in our current cultural climate only means that we will have more people ready to plunder the earth and others for their own personal and temporary gain.

Part of the thinking behind these standards are to be a guide to what is taught, not how they are taught, and I appreciate this. It is true that there is some liberty that can be taken to arrive at the standards how you want. And this is where the hope is. But only if districts and teachers implement them in this manner. It is completely possible that nothing will change as educators who are ingrained in their habits, just barely move their curriculum over to make sure they demonstrate these competencies. And this is why we need innovative and risk-taking teachers if common core standards (or any new directive) come through.

The standards model in my understanding is still largely based on a transactional model of education. This means that children are like trash receptacles and are there for us to throw our trash in. Periodically they must regurgitate our trash so that we can give them rewards—gold stars, grades, and diplomas.

There’s nothing in these standards that is going to save the world. We’ve known how to write essays and do calculus for thousands of years. We still don’t know how to get along with one another and the planet.

In addition, as the recent New York Times’ article, “Building a Better Teacher” states crystal clear, that even with standards, and exceptional means to assess where students are strongest and weakest, schools still flounder, because there is still a missing piece that no one has been able to articulate very well—how to teach.

This is my initial bitter reaction to what is happening in education reform. Look for Standardizing Democracy Part 2, The Light Side, where I attempt to be more productive in thinking about how common core standards can be utilized in democratic education.


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


7 thoughts on “Standardizing Democracy-Part 1

  1. Adam,
    I agree that standards that we started 30 years ago which have barely evolved except in content-to be more narrow and teacher driven, is not a formula where our education system can reach all learners. I believe that teachers should be facilitators that help children discover their own problem-solving path. If we can help them figure out how to access information that they seek, ask for help when they can’t and follow their own curiosity we will be changing children’s learning experience and their destiny. I look forward to talking to you more on Thursday.

    Posted by Andrea | March 15, 2010, 6:52 pm
    • Andrea,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. You nail what I think the education system should look like right on the head! Thursday and beyond is going to be very exciting!


      Posted by Adam Burk | March 16, 2010, 6:02 am
  2. Between you an Aaron I’m thinking that a first assignment next year in my classroom might be the Humument-ation ( of the Common Core Standards, or parts of them, so students can transform them into something they want to own and communicate to me their needs and wants.

    I think in the short term, we hack the standards into authentic, democratic, and project-based work.

    Concurrently, we work with students on colleagues on the kids of standards that could revolutionize schooling. We take those to our leaders and ask the difficult questions about why we’re not doing this work, and about why, even when we take it upon ourselves to do this work, it’s not supported the same way testing is.

    How do you advise classroom teachers looking at their contracts over the next month to react to the standards?

    With warm regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 15, 2010, 7:54 pm
    • Chad,

      I am glad that we are “catalyzing” each other. Classroom teachers need to make a decision for them selves. They need to look into their own heart and ideals of what education can be, talk to their co-workers and unions, and make a decision to pursue change or not. What we are talking about it very possible. I just came across the example of The New Country School in Minnesota, They do everything we are talking about, have great statistics, and students love it. We just have to start wagging the tail in collaboration with one another, students, and the community, instead of the other way around.

      Posted by Adam Burk | March 16, 2010, 6:06 am
  3. You hint at an idea that I have been toying with as I look at the possibilities of education and the current state of most education in this county. Reductionist. For the most part standardized goals ask too little, too narrowly and leave children, families, teachers and schools with less to look forward to. There is much more out there than what is being dreamed of in this philosophy.

    Posted by Alysia Scofield | March 15, 2010, 9:59 pm
    • Alysia,

      I am excited to have you as part of this conversation! I agree with you standards are totally boring and not exciting to anyone involved-students or teachers. Keep me updated as your idea unfolds.


      Posted by Adam Burk | March 16, 2010, 6:09 am

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