Sh*t Out of Luck

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

           In Virginia we have the Standards of Learning, commonly referred to as the SOL’s.  Either the committee who named these had a terrific sense of humor or were a bunch of idiots or were realists.  I’m not sure.  I’m going to speak to these specifically, however most states have their own versions of SOL’s (hopefully better named) and I suspect that the other states standards/processes share many of the same problems.  If you have any insight as to similarities and differences among states feel free to comment below.

            Like NCLB (see previous post) the intentions of the standards are admirable.  No longer will kids say, like we did as children, “we never got past World War 2 in history class.”  Also, children who move within the state are likely to find the curriculum similar from school to school and so in our mobile society there will be less gaps in learning.  And finally, there is a way to collect data and measure student mastery of the curriculum and teacher and school effectiveness.  All are noble goals that have been achieved to a certain extent, but at what cost?
            When I was in the classroom, I balked at claims that SOL’s squash teachers’ ability to be creative and to make learning engaging.  This is not true; many teachers are wonderfully creative.  However, now that I have time and space to consider the outlets for said creativity, it seems wasted.   Many of the standards require the memorization of facts.  If teachers merely handed the students a list of facts and told them to memorize them, the students would be bored.  A few would be successful, but many would not.  And so, instead teachers give the facts context.  This is good and important.  But we also create fun games and “dog and pony shows” to make the memorization fun.  An example, when I used to teach about the Great Plains I’d print out pictures of buffalo, write questions on the back, hang them on the walls, and let the students throw balls at them.  If they hit one, I’d read the question on the back.  Creative?  Yes.  Fun?  Yes. But my creative energy was being spent encouraging the consumption of information rather than the production of it.

Having students memorize a body of knowledge, even with context, has little merit. First, long term retention of this information is weak.  How many of you remember the three types of rocks (a fifth grade science SOL)?  See answer at bottom.  The show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? demonstrated that most adults have forgotten the information they learned in elementary school.  And other than losing money in a game show, who cares?  I have a full life without knowing anything about Mali (a current third grade SOL).  I’m sure Mali is interesting, but I don’t believe that a third grader needs to know about it.   Finally, if I want/need to know anything about Mali or rocks, I can find the information instantly on the Internet.  What’s the value in memorizing it?
              I have less of a problem with skill based SOLs (particularly in reading, writing, and math), but even these have issues.  By pairing the standards with certain grades rather than mastery, some students aren’t being challenged and other students are left behind.  This is obvious as early as kindergarten.  Here is one SOL:

K. 7 The student will develop an understanding of basic phonetic principles.
a)  Identify and name the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
b)  Match consonant and short vowel sounds to appropriate letters.
c)  Identify beginning consonant sounds in single-syllable words.

I know quite a few preschoolers that have achieved these, and for them to spend valuable classroom time practicing these skills when they are ready to go further is wasteful.  Attempts to differentiate will result in teachers naturally spending more time with children who are struggling and leave the more developmentally advanced children to their own devices.  They tend to give them more work, rather than more challenging work because they don’t have the time to guide them through the more challenging work when they are busy helping struggling students.
            SOL’s impose an artificial pace and superficial mastery.  And while they’ve successfully ensured that all educators state-wide are on the same page, it isn’t a very impressive page.  

Answer:  The three types of rocks are sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.


jenwrad said...

Amen! But what to do about it?

Mary said...

Ahh. So glad you asked. In fact I have so much to say about it that I'm going to start a new blog on education...stay tuned.

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