It’s rare when I get to write this but…
In his column from yesterday, Jay Mathews makes some great points. Starting with the headline: “We must dump marginal learning standards and other annoyances in return to classrooms”.1
As he often does in his columns, Mathews begins with an idea he picked up from an educator.2
Bill Horkan works at Justice High School in Fairfax County, Va. He has repeatedly shown me over the years how classrooms actually operate. “There is almost nothing that if the students do not learn that thing, they will be severely at a disadvantage later in life,” he said. “There are no facts, no equations, no theories, no lessons that if the students do not get them this year, they will be in trouble in the future.”
Instead, he said, math instructors during difficult times like these should teach how to solve problems and where to seek answers when puzzled. “It doesn’t matter if students forget the quadratic equation, which can always be looked up online,” he said.
And it’s not just the math curriculum that is full of material unessential material, although it is probably more over-stuffed than most of the subject areas stressed in K12. The importance of math is certainly far over-emphasized.
Anyway, Mathews continues by citing other parts of the curriculum, specifically Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL),3 that might be unnecessary, at best.
Here are examples: Among the 109 items to be learned in the Virginia Standards of Learning for Economics and Personal Finance are “comparing the costs and benefits of different forms of business organization, including sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, franchise, and cooperative” as well as “explaining how certain historical events have influenced the banking system and other financial institutions.”
Among 72 items in the World History and Geography to 1500 A.D. standards in Virginia, students are told to apply “social science skills to understand the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe from about 300 to 1000 A.D. by . . . characterizing the role Byzantine art and architecture played in the preservation of Greek and Roman traditions.”
Maybe some of these have changed. It’s hard to keep up. My questions are: Who has the courage to say our kids don’t have time for such marginalia? Will the states ever dial down the excess learning standards in which they have so much invested?
Excellent questions. And remember that, since these items are in the SOL, kids will be quizzed about an unknown subset of them during the spring standardized tests. We all know that what gets tests gets taught, even if it’s not worth the time and effort.
However, this is a Jay Mathews column so he eventually arrives at the wrong conclusion to his own premise, starting by asking “Could we politely ask our teachers to give their returning students as much reading and writing as possible?”.
No. Recreating a new list of activities for students to spend their time on should not be at the top of the to-do list. As schools emerge from the pandemic and are able to return to live instruction, the most important factor must be the kids themselves, not the curriculum.
Rather than scrambling to overcome an illusionary “learning loss”, how about teachers just spend time talking to their students?
We know they probably didn’t learn “enough” of the standard academic material. But instead of rushing back to force-feeding the standard curriculum, let’s talk about what they did learn over the past couple of years. What they learned about themselves, their family and community, about the world in general. And then maybe ask them about their personal interests, special talents, and aspirations for the future.
“What would you like to learn?” would make a far better starting point to building the foundation for a new curriculum than anything adults can create.
The picture is of the Capital Wheel on a recent bright spring morning. Yes, it’s upside down. I took it that way for a project and you have to admit that Mathews getting something right is a little upside down.
1. The headline used in the print version was much more to the point, but also correct: “Learning standards need reality check”.
2. It needs to be regularly pointed out that Mathews is not an educator, has never taught in K12, and has no experience actually working in public education. Which doesn’t mean he’s not allowed to have opinions on teaching and learning. But it’s not required that I take those opinions seriously. :)
3. Yes, we in Virginia are well aware of the unfortunate acronym.