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Why Are We Pursuing the Wrong Set of National Standards?

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With $100 billion to spend in the next two years, the Obama administration means business when it talks about reshaping the public education system. Why, then, is it ignoring some of the business community's best insights when it comes to core questions of how to spark systems change?

There's a disconnect between what the administration is promising - a set of voluntary national content standards - and what we the people will receive - a standardization of the public school system.

As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has explained, the Obama administration's top priority is to "make sure our K-12 students are prepared to succeed in college and the workforce." As a first step toward achieving that goal, Duncan wants states to adopt "rigorous K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and the workforce." Almost every state has agreed to participate - an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American schools.

At first blush, it's an optimal way to remedy the ongoing injustice that some children receive a high-quality public education, while others barely achieve proficiency. But here's the problem: although the public school system needs greater quality control, content standards are not the optimal measure to pursue.

If our goal is to "prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace," the standards we pursue should be whatever young people need most to be successful in college and the workplace. And in today's world, although young graduates certainly need a foundation of content knowledge, the greater measure of their long-term success will be the extent to which they learn to use their minds well.

Using one's mind well means more than just acquiring large numbers of discrete facts; it means learning how to find, analyze, and use information in adaptive ways. It doesn't mean content doesn't matter, either - just that our decisions about which content to teach (and why) should be made at the school level, by the people who know students best - their teachers. Neither does it mean we should throw up our hands and say there are certain things we just can't measure. In one school, for example, the curriculum is organized around seventeen standards of intellect, and the school has figured out how to measure factors as elusive as "collaboration" and "quality work."

The purpose of a national set of standards must be to ensure that a school in California and a school in Mississippi are reaching for the same golden ring. The standards must be aspirational, not basic. They must be guideposts, not hitching posts. And they must be indicators of wisdom that students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Numerous experts share this concern. As Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has observed, "there are powerful economic forces in place to standardize both instruction and assessment despite what we know to be true - students learn in different ways. The question now facing schools is this: Can the (current) system of schooling designed to process groups of students in standardized ways in a monolithic instructional mode be adapted to handle differences in the way individual brains are wired for learning?"

Princeton economist Allan Blinder echoes a similar note of caution. "It is clear that the U.S. and other rich nations will have to transform their educational systems so as to produce workers for the jobs that will actually exist in their societies. Simply providing more education is probably a good thing on balance, especially if a more educated labor force is a more flexible labor force that can cope more readily with non-routine tasks and occupational change. But it is far from a panacea. In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them."

We desperately want to believe it is possible to find simple solutions to the complex problems we face, and to neatly divide cause and effect. To improve student learning, the conventional wisdom goes, we must make schools (and teachers) more accountable to student test scores. As Secretary Duncan said recently in remarks at the Governors Education Symposium: "Once new (content) standards are set and adopted, you need to create new tests that measure whether students are meeting those standards." Duncan has pledged up to $350 million to "help pay for the costs of developing those tests."

I believe the Secretary genuinely believes this path will best serve the needs of all children. I believe just as strongly that it will not. So how do we take this knowledge and create a more effective intervention strategy for our public school system?

Let's start by remembering that in any organization - whether it's a school, a business or the entire public school system - the central challenge is to strike the right balance between individual freedom and group structure. Artful leaders allow enough individual freedom so individuals have the room to be innovative, adaptive, and empowered, and they provide enough structure so all people have the support and clarity they need to do their best work.

Apply that thinking to our current challenges, and a good rule of thumb emerges for the Secretary to follow: First, provide simple structures that clarify for all schools what we mean when we say we want children to learn to use their minds well. And second, provide educators with the freedom to make complex decisions about which content will help them grab the golden ring and truly prepare our children for success in college and the workplace.

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