Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Michael Boucher: New Standards Worse than the Old

Published November 15, 2003

I read with interest the Nov. 7 commentary by Bruce Sanborn, a chairman of the conservative Claremont Institute and a member of the committee writing new social studies standards. He echoes the claim I have heard several times from Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke that the old standards were "an embarrassment." I have yet to hear who was embarrassed.

Sanborn calls upon Diane Ravitch, a frequent conservative critic of public schools, to make his case. Ravitch found the Profile of Learning standards lacking, but I dare say that she would scowl at any attempt to create a more humane school system where all students are reflected in the curriculum.

Ravitch envisions a system where students parrot back facts and fallacies about the world without having experienced it. She scoffs at attempts to build skills in democracy, instead preferring people who can recite the three branches of government but have no sense of real citizenship. We have yet to hear what she has to say about our new standards.

Sanborn, a former teacher, thinks the Profile was all bad. Today's teachers know the issue with the Profile was simply that there was too much of it: too much paperwork, too much to store, too much to do in the time available. The thing that was brilliant about the Profile was that it was an attempt to define what students needed to know and do. These proposed standards also mandate too much to cover and too many tests. They commit all the sins of the Profile without any of the saving graces.

According to Sanborn, "The new standards are clear, testable statements of what a moderately well educated citizen ought to know about America's and Minnesota's history, geography, civics and economics. Unlike the Profile, the new standards do not call for students to perform activities and projects in order to evoke feelings and give them experiences." He is right in that the proposed standards are testable, but after that Sanborn is absolutely wrong. The lowest level of learning is repetition of some unconnected fact. Patients who go to a surgeon to replace a knee want more than someone who knows all about the knee. They want someone who both knows and has experience with knee surgery. Sanborn has this strange notion that knowledge of how to do things means students don't know anything about it. That is beyond ridiculous.

Let me explain a basic truth of learning: Teaching someone to do something comes after teaching the facts. To rephrase the old maxim: Teach a man what a fish is, he'll go hungry; teach him to fish, let him practice with guidance and learn to catch the fish that is best for him, he'll eat for a lifetime. If the state wants to make good fishermen, test a student's fishing ability. If we are trying to create citizens who "know and understand" democracy, have them do democracy.

The proposed standards are testable. They are mostly facts -- although often slanted to the political right, as in, "Students will know and understand the role of America's military and veterans in defending freedom during the Cold War, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, and the collapse of communism in Europe."

But will that meet our real objective? If our goal is to train automatons to spout facts that could be found in an almanac, then the standards are perfect. If the goal is to create citizens who can make decisions based on the glories and mistakes of the past, then they are a miserable failure.

The new standards are more of an embarrassment than the Profile ever was. They are a mishmash of fact and fallacy, and are woefully inadequate for Minnesota's children. Educators are looking for guidance as to what students need to know and be able to do, but this list masquerading as standards gives no real guidance and actually makes the burdens for teachers and students worse than the old curriculum standards.

Michael Boucher, Minneapolis, is a social studies teacher and department chair at South High School.
Minnesota Council of Social Studies Board of Directors
History Day Teacher of Merit
Has been teaching in Minneapolis for 12 years