An argument against standardization in education

When I started teaching math in the CH-UH school district in 1988, the requirements for graduation included one, then two, math classes, neither of which had to be Algebra I. Some kids took the Algebra I (geometry through calculus) courses, but others chose Basic Math, Applied Math, or Business Math. In Ohio today, the lowest level of high school math is Algebra I, and all students must take four years of math, including Algebra II. The assumption from the great state of Ohio is that every child should be ready to attend a four-year college, if they so choose.

I have often wondered why it is that everyone needs so much formal math (strange coming from someone who actually likes math and teaches Algebra II). I wonder how many people actually use Algebra II skills in daily life or in their jobs. My wild guess is that it is probably a small percentage of the population.

For most daily tasks, solving or graphing exponential, logarithmic, or rational functions is not something people will ever need to do. As a practical matter, I believe that learning so that you can research and master any material is the essential skill. Solving and simplifying Algebra II problems may be a great skill for the process of learning how to learn, but may reinforce math phobia. It seems that kids who are truly interested in math and science should probably continue to take these traditional classes. I wonder, though, why ALL students have to go through it.

If students were not required to take a traditional sequence in math, and take state tests on this standardized material, then perhaps we could offer other types of math learning that might be practical, challenging and even interesting. For instance, I have always thought that if I could teach a class on orienteering, students would learn a lot of math (and get exercise). I also believe advanced navigation is something that could appeal to students who want to become pilots of ships or planes. Carpentry skills, pouring concrete, or other [construction] applications presented from a math perspective could be incredibly powerful and interesting.

I spent time in the 1990s trying to figure out how to create a district-sponsored charter high school for students who wanted to study environmental and conservation issues in small, independent student-led groups. Even then, I thought that students could be engaged differently. (Obviously, I didn’t get anywhere with that idea—it was right in the early days of the test-and-punish routine we see all the time now.)

I could go on and on with examples of short or long courses that could make real changes for students. The problem is that the curriculum, by being “rigorous,” is so narrow and standardized that every student has to come out knowing the same stuff.

Every student has to pass exams that show that the student knows all about algebra, English, the basic sciences, etc. Kids today are forced to learn so much more and at an earlier age than when I was at Heights. The pressure students are under is tremendous. Of course, this makes everyone “accountable” for their learning. But is it really desirable for every child to come out of school in Ohio with the exact same skills? Is it really desirable that every child attend a four-year college? 

I believe that we should be teaching kids how to discriminate between good and bad information, form well-reasoned arguments, and be able to work in a team. They need to know how to learn. I believe we can accomplish these tasks without this strict narrowing of what students should learn. There are so many ways of reaching students through their interests, but the ability for teachers to “go off script” and explore the things that kids really want to study is more and more difficult. We teach courses instead of students in our Ohio schools, because that is what the kids need to pass their tests so they can get a diploma.

What if things were different? What will it take for the pendulum to swing back the other way? Imagine how fascinating school could be.

Ari Klein

Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.

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Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 5:45 PM, 04.29.2016