In general, I find statewide curriculum standards more bother than they are worth. Good teachers don’t need any external committee or board to tell them what to teach. Good teachers have spent their lives studying their field of interest. Good teachers know what kids need to know. Good teachers can choose different areas of focus—in history, for instance, one teacher may be an expert on the Civil War while another may have special knowledge of and experience in the civil rights movement; in foreign languages, one teacher may choose to focus on conversation and grammar while another may emphasize literature and culture. Good teachers can work with any set of important topics within their fields and still work toward the overarching common goal of helping students develop independent critical thinking and skills for lifelong learning.
Standards just set the parameters for standardized tests, which box out creativity and diversity of inquiry in the classroom, not to mention facilitating lazy teaching (What shall I teach? wonders the lazy teacher. Oh, the state lists these topics, so I’ll just copy that!). Standards get in the way of the innovative teaching that we need good teachers to do.
An example of the negative effect of statewide curriculum standards comes in this report on social studies standards, which notes that only fourteen states require teachers to cover the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I heard SDPB lead this story with that sentence and thought, who needs the state to tell teachers to cover that topic? September 11 was a pivotal moment in American and world history, pulling our country out of its happy post-Cold-War-victory haze into a new era of fear, imperialist rage, and uncheckable military deficit spending. How could history, civics, and language teachers not be covering this world-shaping topic?
Because, says Florida professor Cheryl Lynn Duckworth, state standards don’t say they should:
Cheryl Lynn Duckworth, professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, said there are some barriers, including teachers needing to stick with what is required, to keep test scores up.
“The whole life of the school is testing and student scores,” Duckworth explained. “So, if a subject like 9/11 is not embedded in the curriculum — and more often than not it isn’t — it can be very, very difficult to carve out any time” [Mike Moen, “States Slow to Include 9/11 Curriculum as Part of Education Standards,” Greater Dakota News Service via KBHB Radio, 2021.09.10].
It ain’t on the lesson plan if it ain’t on the test, and it ain’t on the test if it ain’t in the state standards. That’s lazy teaching. Good teachers set their own standards, based on their professional preparation, judgment, and unique skills and experiences. If new events and new voices provide material for useful study and classroom discussion, good teachers will recognize the value of those new events and new voices and incorporate them into their curriculum long before some statewide committee says they ought to. (Besides, statewide committees are subject to the ideological impositions of the governors and gubernatorial appointees who commission them, as we’ve seen… but more on that in a later post.)
Teachers who recognize the value of doing a lesson or unit or an entire course on 9/11 and the impacts it has had on history, government, and society should be free to do so. Teachers who choose not to focus on that particular historical event should also be free to do so—there are only so many hours in the day, and a fair argument can be made that you can’t understand contemporary history if you don’t understand our founding history.
But if the only reason teachers aren’t covering September 11, modern terrorism and imperialism, Islamophobia, and other important associated topics is that the standards don’t mention them, then our standards are exercising a harmful tyranny over diverse teaching and intellectual inquiry in our schools.