Tuesday, April 26, 2011

National education standards will stifle innovation

My most recent education policy op-ed, "National education standards will stifle innovation," appeared today in the Michigan Education Report, a publication of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. In it, I write:

"Strict standards risk forcing students and teachers alike into a curricular straitjacket, alienating creative teachers and sapping the motivation of students. It is worth remembering that standards are nothing more than the products of committees of education “experts” quibbling around a conference table about which curriculum objectives to attach to each grade level. The term “grade level” is virtually synonymous with age, and any list of skills and knowledge all students must possess by a specific age is bound to be somewhat arbitrary.

It isn’t just “at-risk” students who have trouble moving through an arbitrary curriculum at an arbitrary rate; all students learn at their own paces, and individual students usually progress at different rates in different subjects. Most students do not fit the artificial mold of slow progress from “grade level” to “grade level,” accumulating skills and content knowledge at the same rate as the average child born in the same year.

Rigid, uniform and centrally designed curriculum standards make the curriculum less agile and flexible, less able to respond to the needs of students. The stricter the standards regime, the less schools are able to meet individual students where they are — a necessary first step to helping students grow academically."

The article also argues that the centralization of decisions about curriculum also risks making the teaching profession less attractive. You can read the entire article here.

If you enjoy the article, please pass it along to others who might be interested.  Thanks, as always, for reading.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Education-related excerpts from Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence"

(Note: I am posting additional excerpts, less related to education, from From Dawn to Decadence on my general-interest blog; you can find these here if you are interested.)

In a post I wrote a couple of years ago on Wide Awake Minds, I noted that "some books are an education in themselves" because of the breadth of topics they discuss and the seriousness of their insights about the world and about human life.  Historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present unquestionably meets that standard.

Barzun is one of the most erudite writers I have ever read. This New Yorker article describes Barzun's routine as he approached his 100th birthday in 2007, and comments on the range of his interests and knowledge:

"(Barzun's) idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology."

Here are a few excerpts from what I've read so far:


Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. ...Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. ...To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking Durer's charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

...The first generation of international publishers did not merely make and sell books; they were scholars and patrons who translated the classics, nurtured their authors, and wrote original works. Their continual redesigning of letter forms gave rise to the new art of typography.

...People were now reading silently and alone. ...Books, books everywhere, like home computers today. ...Print brought a greater exactness to the scholarly exchange of ideas - all copies are alike; a page reference can kill an argument by confounding one's opponent out of his own words. A price is paid for this convenience: the book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties. In the flood of material within even one field, the scholar is overwhelmed. The time is gone when the classical scholar could be sure that he had 'covered the literature' of his subject, the sources being finite in number.