Last week, I was asked to complete a survey administered by the Texas Education Agency. They were seeking feedback for the upcoming review of the social studies standards from Kindergarten through high school. Approximately every 10 years, the state organizes a review of these standards (the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS) in order to ensure they are meeting the up-to-date needs of today's students.
The process includes educators from across the state. Many of them are at the top of their game and consistently provide a stellar education to their students. Other educators on the panel are chosen by a member of the State Board of Education or other highly influential educators. Sometimes these participants are qualified. Sometimes they are not. Sadly, sometimes these influential folks simply choose their friends who have no business representing quality education.
The organization of the process is quite methodical. Step by step, each committee reviews their particular course. They review the relevancy and rigor of each standard. They edit, revise, add, rewrite, and delete standards based on their knowledge of the coursework and feedback from others. The process is so scripted that after several days of editing, revising, adding, rewriting, and deleting, most things do not change. Most of the time, it is simply an updated table of contents and reworded standards.
A few years ago, the state tackled the math standards and there was quite an uproar from many different factions. Teachers were split, with some loving the changes and others calling it "New Math 2.0." Several groups of stakeholders ridiculed the new standards for the lack of basics. Others ridiculed the emphasis on creative problem solving. Many talked about the pushed down expectations. That means previously taught 3rd grade standards were now expected in 2nd grade. In the end, the standards are not that different and they are not better.
The same thing can be said for pretty much every other content area. They get edited, revised, added to, rewritten, and occasionally standards were removed. But they were essentially the same. Every ten years, and they are not really better. The proponents of this process would disagree. The folks that worked on the committees would disagree. While there may be some minimal improvements made every ten years, the standards are essentially unchanged.
Talk to any teacher, and they will almost unanimously agree on one thing. The problem with the standards is that there are entirely too many of them. Way too many. Exhaustively too many. We are in our 20th year of the TEKS and Texas Educators have still not mastered how to do it all. Twenty years later and teams of educators are still trying to find ways to simplify them. Districts choose power standards. Curriculum resource companies sell materials that "cover" it all. Data tells us which standards we are good at and which ones need improvement. After twenty years, we should have figured out how to make all those standards come alive in our classrooms. We haven't. Yes, there are a few teachers out there who have pretty much got it nailed! Most do not.
Twenty years of trying to find a scope and sequence that will cover it all. Twenty years of collaborative team planning meetings to plan for "getting it all in" and we still struggle. Twenty years of technological help to fill gaps in learning from previous grade levels. Twenty years is long enough to try to make it work.
The real answer is simple. Get rid of the majority of the standards. There are too many. Way too many. Cut them by 60-75%. Allow teachers to focus deeply on the important standards that give students the opportunity to think, argue, create, solve, communicate, and analyze. I attended two of the TEKS revision parties and several of the committees talked about this exact idea. Then when it was time to cut, every standard was vital to one committee member or another. Everyone had a reason not to make the cuts. The work is tough and cannot be done well in one week.
I do not volunteer to be in charge of the rewrite. Hire Mike Schmoker for that task. His book, Focus, was the impetus for this blog entry. For starters though, how about following one of Seth Godin's ideas. Don't ask kids to memorize anything they can ask Siri. Siri knows all the facts but she doesn't do any higher level thinking. Sorry, Siri. Next, get rid of anything that stinks of worksheets. Sure, paper is a necessary part of education. Lots of paper! Stick to standards that make kids think, talk, argue, write, and wonder!