The US conversation about the role of higher standards in education is about to intensify due to the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. My question is whether this will help or hinder the exciting and promising innovations in P-20 education. A second question is whether this conversation will potentially marginalize certain important values for education. Some will use these new numbers as a war cry for higher standards, arguing that we are falling behind in what is being referred to as a global competition. In the recent PISA results, the United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. As noted in an email from Jeb Bush through the Foundation for Excellent in Education, The United States was also passed up by countries like Ireland and Poland.
Regardless of my opinion, I’m quite certain the internationally benchmarked standards are here for the longterm in P-12 education. At the same time, I offer the following five question to the broader conversation.
1) As wisely noted by Neil Postman, every technology is a Faustian bargain. Things are gained and things are lost. What about the technology of international standards? What is gained and what is lost when we emphasize this approach to education reform?
2) What do the international standards fail to measure the we value in education? People tend to value what they measure. The more we measure something, the more we think about and attend to the thing that we are measuring. If we focus more on what shows up in the standards, what values do we start to minimize? How do we maintain a strong commitment to those things that we value, but that are not in the standards?
3) Is it possible to be amazing at math, science and reading; but lack human agency and the capacity for lifelong self-directed learning? People can score well on all the tests, but the United States is historically founded upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This vision and conviction calls for distinct approaches to education, ones that value, highlight, practice, and are shaped by such rights.
4) With increased focus upon certain standards comes contingent funding that reward those who focus upon those standards above other factors. How does this impact education reform needs that vary from one context/community to another? How does it impact promising educational innovations? All of the high standards, accountability measures and teacher resources will not solve issues related to poverty and any number of other social issues that impact what happens in education. How do we ensure that there are adequate resources to address such needs and various innovations in different communities?
5) Do we want our education system to be about mandating what students should like and focus upon, or do we want a system that also helps students find and build upon their unique strengths, gifts and abilities?
None of these are intended to discount the value of developing high levels of literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy. I simply offer them as a balance to the conversation, an effort to help us avoid abandoning or ignoring certain core values at the cost of a few others.