There are two opposing pulls in education reform in America, the pull toward building a common foundation for students and the pull toward individualizing student experience. I was thinking about the dichotomy the morning, because Damian had to bring to school a poster and paper about core American values as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The three he chose to write about were liberty, equality, and justice.
Equality is a core American value, but it's also contentious, in education as elsewhere. We argue about equality of opportunity, strive for equality of inputs, and bemoan inequality of results. We want all students to have the same chance at a good education, as long as it means our own children are not held back in any way: not by letting just anybody into honors classes, not by diverting our tax dollars to a poorer district, and not by policies that block informed parents like us from maneuvering our kids into a class taught by the "best" teacher.
To have a chance at equality, students should have access to the same level of resources, teaching, and curriculum. In fact such equality is elusive. Most school funding depends on property tax revenues, of which rich communities have more. Most teachers like to teach where they feel they're having an impact - which means their students have the home and school resources, the orderly classrooms, and the parental support to thrive. As for curriculum, how do you teach a demanding curriculum to classrooms with high student turnover, lots of language minority students, and kids with big gaps in prior knowledge? Schools and classrooms tend to gravitate toward their own normal curves, where kids who are performing well compared to others in the same classroom are deemed to be doing just fine, even if they're learning far less than students in a neighboring town.
Thus the push to Common Core standards. Advocates of common standards urge us to be honest about what kids need to learn to make it in society and the world of work today. Let's share common high expectations for poor and well-off students. Kids are setting out on a long hard trek to adulthood. Let's at least give them all the same map.
Once we've resolved that all kids have the right to learn at least the same core material, and schools have the same duty to teach it, it's not that big a step to say there should be common assessments. Not as the only assessments kids ever see, not as a life-deciding high stakes experience, but as a way of marking progress along the journey. Otherwise, it's just too easy to convince ourselves that kids are making decent progress when really they're not.
But against this ideal of equality stands the ideal of liberty. Shouldn't parents have the right to choose what seems best for their children? Shouldn't schools be as free as possible from rules and regulations that get in the way of deciding what works best for individual students? For Americans, the idea of liberty is closely related to the idea of individualism. Americans don't expect the individual to step aside for some abstract common good. We don't want the child who has already mastered algebra to have to sit through drill in the multiplication tables for the common good; we don't want the child who has cerebral palsy to sit in the corner of a classroom without a classroom aide. We believe in maximum choice and individual rights. Instead of doing the same for all, we want to make accommodations.
So at the same time that we struggle to provide an equal education for all, we experience a fragmentation of education delivery. Pull-out classes and differentiated learning, where different students in class may receive different assignments, attest to educators' wish to adapt learning to particular student needs. To some educators and parents, sameness is thought of as a hammer used to beat students into a useless lumpy shape. Magnet schools and charter schools strive to return an element of choice to parents. One of the fastest growing sectors of K-12 education is homeschooling, now serving over 2% of the population.
So despite our wish to provide a common foundation for all our children, which sounds like a core building block of a just society, we find our devotion to liberty and individuality tempting us in another direction, toward an education fashioned for each child in particular, and especially for our own child. In education we face the question of how to mediate between our core values of freedom and equality in order to create a system that is just and fair while it also optimizes individual growth. It's not an easy task.