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Standardizing Democracy-Part 2

The Light Side

Now that I have purged most of my skepticism, please allow me the opportunity to express how common core standards may facilitate a move towards a more democratic education system.

First of all, as others have mentioned, having national standards will remove roadblocks in interstate collaboration and information sharing. This will assist in transitioning us to the next level in public education. In many ways we will be able to move beyond standards, because we will all know what they are, and we can concentrate on how to teach.

A potential pitfall is that we continue to operate as instructors rather than teachers. What I mean by this, is that teachers most often stand in front of a class and walk students through things step by step. The classroom is primarily an echo chamber of the instructor’s voice, which is mostly just an echo of tests.

We still need a basic re-orientation, personally as teachers, and collectively as institutions, regarding how education is done. Standards can be a part of this. If used well, standards can simply be “the hangers that we choose how they are dressed” as my graduate school director would frequently say. Meaning that if students are giving choice, they can self-design the means to which they address standards. This is done at the college level at Goddard College, and works extremely well.

The teacher’s job then becomes two-fold. First ensuring that the student’s plan adequately addresses standards. Secondly, supporting the student in her journey of self-discovery. Kirsten Olsen notes in Wounded by School that “the opportunity for self-exploration, for connection and meaning and learning, and for relevance in learning tasks,” are all supported by the newest cognitive literature on learning. (2009, p. 57) This is exactly what we can have the opportunity to do with common core standards.

Will they still be restrictive? Yes. Will they still be cumbersome? At times. But if used well, they can move us forward in educational practice. They can be part of the liberation of teachers and students to achieve personal goals alongside well-reasoned mandated ones.

The Maine Farm Enterprise Schools have a model I very much agree with for using standards. Again using a portfolio based system:

The curriculum is aligned with global standards and implemented and assessed in a personalized and flexible manner. Every student must demonstrate proficiency in communication and literacy, mathematical reasoning, science, and social studies. The path each student takes to this goal may vary in structure and in the length of time needed to complete the work.  Students will have three major passages, after 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.  Each passage requires the student to present online and physical portfolios of work, standardized test scores, and other accomplishments to the community, which decides whether they are ready to pass to the next level or ultimately graduate.

A stumbling block that I would like to see changed in the Common Core Standards is the reliance on grade levels. I can go along with certain “passage portals” such as the one’s Maine Farm Enterprise Schools propose, but I want to see desired outcomes (the end goals of the standards) which are then supported by the skills that standards detail. These desired outcomes should be skills mastered by the end of early childhood (EC-1), middle childhood (2-5), early adolescence (6-8) and adolescence (9-12). This way students do not have to experience needless “grouping” and potential harm to their self-esteem and image as a learner. The idea of grade levels can then be removed and terms that better reflect levels of skill mastery can be used. This format would honor each student to move at his or her own pace and authentically build upon previous knowledge and skill. More meaningful rites of passage could be implemented as well. These are fundamental to human development and psychology and is why learning long-division is so often referred as such in Elementary Schools. I’m pretty sure we can come up with a better ritual than that!

Utilizing an on-line database system such as TaskStream or Project Foundry, would allow students to maintain their portfolio work for themselves, parents, teachers, and prospective schools all to look at as evidence of learning and ability. This is far more revealing than a report card GPA. It also relieves the pressure to have grade-level groupings. For if students are self-directing their learning with teacher support than a teacher can advise any student using their portfolio to direct next steps.

This form of assessment would focus on higher-levels of cognitive domains. As Kirsten Olson states “students in 80% of American schools are typically working at the one or two lowest levels of cognitive demand: knowledge and comprehension. Students are most often being asked to do low-level work…” (2009, p. 61) This is not the students’ fault. It’s ours. We continue to implement the curriculum that demands this response, and this is a way school kills the joy of learning–it only allows for the bottom layers of it.

Classes could be structured to address student’s goals and open to whomever they are helpful to. Teachers would enjoy this, as those in their class would be there because it aligns with their personal and current goals, supported by previous knowledge and demonstration of meeting standards.

In the end, I do not think Common Core Standards are perfect, in fact they leave a lot to be desired. But they aren’t that bad. They may assist in removing obstacles to education reform, and can be tools in a more democratic education system. It largely depends on what we do with them.


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).


5 thoughts on “Standardizing Democracy-Part 2

  1. Adam, I appreciate this post as a classroom teacher thinking about how to frame my work with students the next few years, but I also appreciate your hard work to post twice this week and pose questions that complicate our compliance with standards-as-part-of-a-broken-system.

    Do you think common academic standards would survive the disassembly of grade levels, leveling/tracking, and testing?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 15, 2010, 7:59 pm
  2. Chad,

    A good question…I don’t really care if they do, is my answer. If someone is super attached to them then they will. If people come to see other ways of doing education as we begin dismantling the beast and the light begins to shine through the bricks that once blocked it, then perhaps not. Either way students will be better off.


    Posted by Adam Burk | March 16, 2010, 6:10 am
    • Adam,

      I wonder if purpose could replace standards so the purpose of public education doesn’t remain the perpetuation of the broken schemes surrounding standards. If we could spark more conversations about purpose, the path forward into meaningful reform might seem clearer to stake-holders. It would be great to start dismantling (to borrow your fitting turn of phrase) the dysfunctional sorting mechanisms of public schooling by bringing together local teachers and their leaders to ask one another if the purpose of school is to accommodate the standards movement or to follow kids’ learning.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 16, 2010, 8:28 am
  3. Chad,

    I just was looking up a standard for lesson plans I have to submit, and came across this rationale for the Vermont State Standards by grade level:

    The purpose of grade expectations are:

    1. To provide more specific and detailed benchmarks for Vermont’s Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities.

    2. To provide guidance for local curriculum, instruction and assessment.

    3. To provide the grade level expectations in math, reading and writing required for state assessment.

    Not one of those points is a valid end! So yes we should pursue purpose instead!


    Posted by Adam Burk | March 16, 2010, 6:34 pm


  1. Pingback: Standardizing Democracy-Part 1 « Cooperative Catalyst - March 15, 2010

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