The Next Generation Science Standards have just been published, and they stand as science education's answer to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), meaning that the over-riding philosophy behind the CCSS is spreading ever-deeper into American education.
Now, there are a lot of things that I think the CCSS get right, and it appears that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) follow suit: They raise the level of rigour, they focus on critical thinking and application of skills and content, and--just by their nature--they create some sort of level playing field for a population of students that is increasingly transient.
But at the heart of both the CCSS and NGSS is a flawed premise. That premise can be boiled down to one backward idea: If we need to increase rigour, the way to do that is to push down, to make what used to be eighth grade content into sixth grade content, or--worse--what used to be second grade content into Kindergarten content.
We see this philosophy working unchecked in every aspect of school reform. Obama's budget proposal gives us more of the same: Preschool for all and day-long Kindergarten.
Underlining all of the current reform is this idea that more school is the answer. If they're not getting multiplication by fourth grade, we'll start in second.
All of this makes for terrible reform for two very good reasons.
First, I believe we're doing little more than accelerating student burn-out. The idea that Kindergarten and early elementary is a place where young children actually WANT to be, where they are enthusiastic about learning, is almost dead now. We've almost killed the wonder which should reside at the heart of education. While I have fond memories of learning to read in first grade, if I were in school today, I'd be the focus of a reading recovery specialist and tagged as at-risk due to my lagging skills. At the early stages, increased rigour often leads to increased labeling of students.
More importantly, this shift ignores the question of childhood development. I teach 12 and 13 year olds, and every year, I send students on to the eight grade who never demonstrate proficiency in a handful of skills (mostly abstract thinking) because, no matter how many ways that skill might be taught, or how hard they worked, or how early their exposure began, their brains were simply not ready to process it. In the eight grade or maybe the ninth, suddenly it comes to them like a thunderbolt.
So, why should we waste more class time, at earlier ages, practicing skills and concepts that students are developmentally unprepared for?
Other philosophies, such as Waldorf Education, actually attempt to account for children's development. And when you take it into account, the results are exactly the opposite of the current trends: the early grades focus less on content and complex skills.
Compare that to the current system where we teach content and reteach content, the SAME CONTENT, year after year, and each year students appear to have it, but when the next year rolls around, it's gone. That's teaching, and quite often it's top-notch teaching, but it's not called learning.
Now, the current philosophy tells us that we should begin this futile process earlier.
This is all a long way of saying something simple: We need to stop basing our educational models on economic competition or on some wrong-headed idea that teachers just aren't working hard enough, and we should start thinking about how children learn.
There's plenty of research and data out there. Honest.