Both the individual state and the "Common Core" standards are highly debated, and I must begin by admitting that I do not have the time to keep up with the voluminous writing about them. A major part of the problem, however, is that most of the debate involves an "either/or," "for" or "against," polemical stances. My objective here is to suggest a simpler, less controversial, middle way.
The arguments for "standards"
are understandable. Politicians want to show the public that the money
that states, etc. invest in education is well-spent. Unfortunately, politicians
are probably the last people who should be in charge of developing standards.
Thus far, the various state and "Common Core" standards are "illiterate."
"Illiterate," according to Merriam-Webster,
means "showing or marked by a lack of acquaintance with the fundamentals
of a particular field of knowledge." Indeed, the writers of most of these
"standards" don't even understand the difference between "standards" and
Will common assessments be developed?In most of the English speaking world, "standards" imply something that can be clearly measured. "Objectives" are much more vague. In other words, both the state and Common Core "standards" give a complexly organized set of "objectives" (the beter to confuse you, my Dear). There are, however, no agreed on assessment tests. They are like telling car manufacturers that we want cars to be safe, but that we have no effective measures for assessing safety.
In many cases, these educational objectives are the equivalent of telling teachers that they are to teach fifth graders how to build a rocket to the moon. But there are no directions for the teachers--or students. In this situation, it is easy to see why many teachers bristle at the very idea of standards and testing. How well students do on such tests often depends more on the students' home life, natural interests, and what they had for breakfast than it does on what they were taught in the classroom. Then the teachers are blamed for students who do poorly. Unfortunately, blundering politicians and other self-serving interests proliferate ever-changing "standards" documents.
The writers of the standards are masters of hiding their weaknesss by turning them into what appear to be strengths. In a Common Core document, under "Key Design Considerations," you will find:
A focus on results rather than meansI love this one. Translated, it means "we have no idea of how to meet these objectives, so we are leaving that problem entirely up to the teachers." Talk about passing the buck!
The arguments against state or
national standards come from two directions. For one, there have been serious
arguments against various standards proposals for history and science.
These usually involve questions of content, and although the questions
are important, they are not my topic here. Here I am concerned primarily
with language standards. Unlike standards for history or science, language
standards (like standards for math) raise few, if any, questions about
belief systems. Thus we need to examine the objections against standards
for language--reading, writing, and, of course, grammar.
Do I really have to argue that
this is all literally nonsense, a charade to deceive the public? Part of
the reason for this charade may be that our educational elite does not
really want accurate standards and assessment. Such standards would mean
that children cannot simply be passed from grade to grade as they currently
are. Why is it, for example, that we have students in eleventh grade who
are reading at a sixth grade level? In some cases, it is because the sixth
grade teachers, lacking clear standards, simply pass the students on in
order to get rid of them. More frequently, from what I have been told,
teachers have to fight like _____ against their principals to give a student
an "F." I've also been told that in some school systems, students have
to be passed on to the next grade if their parents insist on it!
A Model for Clearer, More Effective Standards
I need to make it clear that,
although I refer to grade levels in the following explanations, they are
only suggestions. Before any standards are adopted, they should be put
on the web for a significant period of time so that both teachers and parents
should be able to discuss them. As you will see, the type of standards
I'm suggesting are much simpler and much more comprehensible than anything
you will find in state or Common Core standards. And "Yes," interested
parents should have input.
Because I'm coming from KISS Grammar, I'll naturally focus on grammar in the standards. The Common Core standards, under the section "Language Standards 6–12," section "Conventions of Standard English" for grades 9-10, you will find (p. 54):
2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization,Much could be said about this single item--"Spell correctly"? Does this mean that before ninth grade students to not need to spell correctly. Of course it does not, but you will find this (and other items like it) repeated throughout the standards--pure fat to obscure the ignorance of the standards. (If people cannot find the problems, then they can't complain about them. But more likely, such statements are repeated over and over and over again to create pure boredom. Boredom, more than anything else, will stop people from reading and criticizing the standards. But enough about item "c." Items "a" and "be" are the really interesting ones.
Moving backwards, from the simplest and silliest, why does item "b" ignore the dash? Is the dash a standard for some other grade level? (No, I'm not going to take the time to find out, because if it is, separating this use of the colon and dash would still be stupid.) And why is this a standard for grades 9-10? Are sixth graders not capable of understanding this? (Actually, third and fourth graders are probably the biggest list makers.) Item 2b, in other words, does not make sense.
If item 2b is bad, 2a if pure craziness. A search of the document reveals that this is the only place in which either "indpendent clause" or "conjunctive adverb" is mentioned. In other words, students are not expected to be able to identify either independent clauses or conjunctive adverbs, but they are expected to be able to "[d]emonstrate command" of how to use them. The standard would be just as effective if it read, "Use a semicolon (and perhaps a gimble) to link two or more closely related borogoves." And this is typical of all Common Core and state standards--students are expected to be able to "do" or "use" X; but they are expected to know almost nothing.
Effective (and humane) educational standards should test what students know. To expect students to "do" or "use" things without knowing what they are doing is not only to treat the students like rats in a Skinner box, but also to turn education itself into "Blah, blah, blah, boring." As Howard Gardner argues in The Unschooled Mind, effective, interesting education depends on developing students' understanding.
Standards for Grammar
Perhaps the best way to begin is to sketch a possible sequence and then explain:
Grade 3: Students will be able to identify the subjects, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositional phrases in sentences typically written by third graders.The first thing to note here is that these standards are cummulative -- the standards for each grade depend on the students' having mastered the standards for the preceding grade. As users of KISS Grammar know, a clause is a subject/verb pattern and all the words that modify it. In many cases, students confuse the object of a preposition with the subject of a verb. Thus students need to be able to identify prepositional phrases before we can expect them to be able to identify most subjects and verbs.
The second important point is that these standards are easily assessed, even with the fill-in-the-oval format of standardized testing:
Which answer best identifies the verb or verbs in the following sentence?By the way, currently most high school graduates cannot identify "am," "is," "are," "was," or "were" as verbs. You can test this for yourself--ask them to identify the verbs in the sentence, "The children were playing in the streets, and the entire street was at peace." Writing teachers, of course, are still marking sentences such as "One of the boys are here" as having a subject/verb agreement error. Some teachers will send students to textbooks to study such errors, but the textbooks do not help because the students' problem is that they do not recognize these words as verbs in the first place.
Users of KISS Grammar will realize
that I have omitted some complications, but my point here is that the preceding
examples are both clear and easily testable. Once teachers become involved
in developing such standards, they could help decide the grade level at
which the relatively few complications would be included. I have stopped
here with grade six because students who can identify the main and subordinate
clauses in anything they read or write have a much better conscious understanding
of how sentences work than many college professors do. My point here is
the nature of the standards, not a complete set of standards.
Writing and Thinking
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay
Approaches to Literature
Appreciating Literature and the Canon