Monday, January 25, 2010

Lean standards: Vicki Phillips makes the case

Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation has written a forceful piece on state content standards and why "more is not better" in those documents. Published back in October, it's still completely timely as we await public release of the grade-levels version of the common core standards:

To be ready for the challenges of college and careers, our students need a flexible mastery of the fundamentals in each academic discipline. We will not prepare young people for the unpredictable economy of the future by driving them through an endless list of disconnected topics. To be ready to compete and to change jobs often, they will need to apply their knowledge to new, unexpected situations throughout their lives.

The explosion of media and technology has added remarkable opportunities for gaining and sharing knowledge, but it also has made it all the more important that students master the core skills of gathering and evaluating evidence. Reading and writing with independence and confidence will remain master arts in the information age.

The good news is that, judging from the drafts released last week, the standards under development by the CCSSO and the NGA are on the right track.

* * *

In striving for focus, some tough choices about coverage have been made, and the result is substantially more elegant and focused than state standards today. We can all hope that in the K-12 back mapping, the working groups will continue to polish the draft standards to arrive at the diamond core of what students need most to succeed.

But there is always a fear that the opposite will happen. It is unlikely, for example, that as the work of standards development goes forward anyone will ask that anything inessential be removed. Rather, they may demand the addition of everything they themselves personally regard as essential. And if we play the usual game, we will try to quiet the critics by giving in to their demands and making sure everybody’s favorite topic shows up in the final product.

But playing the standards game as it has always been played will betray the teachers and students who are ready for a next generation of standards that builds a true ladder to college readiness. Instead, let’s listen to teachers and students—the people doing the real work—and give them standards that signal what really matters, while leaving them with the flexibility to pursue learning in diverse ways.

* * *

Common standards could become the foundation for higher achievement for all students—a beacon that leads us through the more threatening storm of unmet potential and unfulfilled dreams. As the draft standards are discussed in the coming weeks and months, many people will be looking at what has been left out, without seeing the focus that has been put in. It is worth remembering then that beacons guide not by shining in all directions, but by focusing their light.
The full analysis, available here, is definitely worth attention.

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