Vermonters for Better Education
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When the State Board of Education met in October, they listened to a presentation on changes to Vermont's "Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities." The changes being proposed fell under several categories, including "Understanding Place," and "Natural Resources" which itself fell under the broader category of "Science, Math and Technology." The changes essentially amount to enhancing an aggressive environmental education unit in the curricula of schools across the state.
There's certainly nothing wrong with teaching students to "waste not, want not." But reading these Standards revisions is like reading materials from the Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, VPIRG or any other advocacy organization.
"Advocacy" is the key word here. Our schools should not be using the curriculum to indoctrinate children into a one-sided view of the world. While environmental issues are important, the standards presented to the board focused heavily on the environmental activism side of an issue.
High school students, for example, would be required to "compare and evaluate the effectiveness of laws created by different governments to address natural resource issues that cross political and/or cultural boundaries," and to "investigate alternative distribution patterns of natural resources in light of their ecological economic, social, and/or political implications." Keep in mind that the standards already require students to "show that some materials can be reused and recycled, while others will be disposed of in landfills."
As one board member commented during the presentation of these standards, it seems a bit too easy for "bias" to creep into the curriculum using these guidelines.
There is no requirement in the Standards, for example, for students to evaluate the use of resources and their effects on standards of living. There's no requirement for costs vs. benefits analyses of environmental laws. There's no requirement, in this particular unit, for strict scientific procedures to be followed - such as recognizing that evidence is required to evaluate hypotheses and explanations. (If you want those Standards, by the way, you have to move to Virginia, whose Earth Sciences unit includes requirements concerning "making informed judgments related to resource use" and a host of other solidly-grounded materials.)
The State Board, to its credit, asked very pointed questions of those advocating the inclusion of this material into the statewide educational standards. One board member suggested that these standards would lead to "institutionalizing a cultural sense that is not keeping up with scientific discoveries in the world."
Yet another board member asked if scientists working in the field of applied science had specifically been consulted as these revisions were put together. When told they were not, she observed, "If we did not specifically reach out to the scientific community, the work is undone."
The upshot? The board tabled the acceptance of these revisions. Three cheers for them.
But there's a broader question to be considered here. How many people knew these revisions to the standards were being presented to the State Board? How many people know what's in the Framework of Standards at all? While the education department conducted hearings and took testimony on the Framework over a long period of time, chances are that most parents were concerned more about making little Johnnie do his homework than what changes that homework would bring as new Standards were being considered. People live busy lives.
But the Standards deserve scrutiny from all of us. If you take the time to look, you might be surprised to find other areas that border on "advocacy." For example, under "Conflicts and Conflict Resolution," (a subcategory under "History and Social Sciences Standards) students should be able to "identify and evaluate the role of technology, multi-national organizations, and non-government organizations in contributing to and/or resolving global conflicts (e.g., Greenpeace, Amnesty International, United Nations, League of Nations, European Union.)
Since one of the primary purposes of government is to ensure a national defense, where is the required discussion of the role of the military as a deterrent to conflict? When the Berlin Wall crumbled, it wasn't because of the good folks at Greenpeace.
As the State Board member said when discussing the environmental unit, it's too easy, under these standards, for "bias" to creep in.
Debate over curriculum and standards is not new. It has been raging for a century or more, most recently dominated by "educational progressives," who tout so-called child-centered strategies that strive for relevance, and "educational traditionalists," who espouse academic rigor and a focus on basic skills.
Academic rigor and a focus on basic skills such as reading, writing and math would not only give disadvantaged students the keys to unlock the door to higher achievement in more specialized areas. It would also crowd out of the curriculum the bias that is creeping in as we adopt and use Standards whose focus on relevance makes them dangerously close to advocacy.
But the most troubling aspect of our "relevant" standards, was summed up for me by a long-time education observer. He pointed out that our kind of curriculum can inadvertently give kids the impression that when they leave school they "know it all." More academically rigorous standards, on the other hand, should make them feel there's "a lot more left to learn."
If the real goal of any educational program is the attainment of wisdom, which attitude would you prefer kids to have?