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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Time is an important element in education


By Jim Shon

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Unlike official standards, STEM programs, such as the robotics activity above, help students make the links between math, science and problem-solving in real-world situations.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | 2009

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Lots of people have opinions about education standards and benchmarks, mostly about how they must be higher or tougher. This is poppycock.

Current standards suffer from five toxic flaws:

1. Too many to be "covered" or taught in a quarter, semester or year with an emphasis on memorizing facts; we have forgotten about time.

2. Too many must be written, as if they were college-level essay questions.

3. Too few require in-depth analysis or creative thought.

4. Too few require integrating knowledge with other core subjects.

5. Too few require applying knowledge to real-world situations.

Consider the following benchmark: Explain the responsibilities of citizens in a representative democracy. Anyone want to guess for what grade this was written?

I have taught graduate classes at the University of Hawai'i where many students could not come close to answering this. Yes, you can tick off some basic responsibilities, but civic literacy demands much more. Look at countries around the world struggling with democracy. It is so much more than voting.

Here's another one: Describe the ideas and principles (including checks and balances, separation of powers, representative democracy) of the Constitution. How many voters with a college degree could do this justice?

These are just two of nine benchmarks in the first semester quarter for Hawai'i's Grade 8 Social Studies standards. Unfortunately, an in-depth exploration and understanding of issues, events, and ideas requires more time. Hey, policymakers: Instructional time counts!

Want to know what else an eighth-grader needs to know in about two months?

How about these benchmarks: Explain the problems of the national government under the Articles of Confederation that led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Another one: Explain how the Bill of Rights places limitations on the federal government.

Any of these could take an entire semester to understand well.

"Benchmarks" are designed to further refine and explain the broader standards. They are also used by the Mainland testing industry to pick and choose multiple choice questions for our high-stakes tests. A teacher fears that if all the benchmarks are not "covered," students could be faced with test questions on subjects that are totally unfamiliar.

There is a lot of "describe" and "explain," but no "analyze," "interpret" or "debate." Benchmarks emphasize retention of information and canned explanations.

It is also true, sadly, that teachers are not encouraged to relate their subjects to the other subjects.

Here's an example. Suppose you were teaching a course for 12th-graders to understand democracy. How do adults understand it? Well, we are all familiar with polls. Why not ask the students to design and conduct a poll?

But wait, to do this would require some basic understanding of statistics, trends, etc. i.e., applied math. But do the math teachers team up with the social studies teachers? Rarely.

Why not? Well, math standards and benchmarks are in their own silo, and social studies are in another. The benchmarks don't connect or relate. The real world does not separate the two, but the standards do.

Science, technology, engineering and math so-called STEM and robotics programs try some integration, but it's not in the standards, and there is too little time. These high-engagement activities are hard to integrate in the short school day, and are seldom offered to all the students at a school.

Standards are more toxic because we insist on the least expensive and least meaningful tests to measure success: multiple-choice. Real-world assessments are only a dream.

We can do better. We can be more realistic about the time it takes for quality teaching and learning each semester. And, we can admit that teaching kids to understand and apply knowledge is more important than "covering" material so fast that both teachers and students are frustrated.