Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Mixed Messages of Standards and Education Reform

More Facts or More Thoughts?

Last night I met with two experts on education and education reform. They have both been working with the government, foundations, and private companies for decades — seeing one phase of reform replaced by another. They made clear to me something Nina had raised in her comment the other day about teachers — the focus on facts. The shift to standards loads more and more and more and more and more stuff onto what a teacher is theoretically supposed to cover and the student is supposed to know. Of course it is really all a shell game — what the student needs to know is that tiny subset of all of that stuff that will be on the test. But since neither student nor teacher knows what that subset will be, coverage is all. Standards have come to mean loads of facts — not how to find them, think about them, organize them, make sense of them, or express them. And yet.
    While standards = facts, we also constantly hear about what Mary mentioned:that shift from industrial education to a focus on innovation and creativity. Teachers hunger to teach something meaningful which is not a wallpaper of facts, which has depth and significance. Middle class parents know their kids are not going to have safe and happy futures unless they go to good colleges and hone their thinking skills — so they want their kids to leave school ready to be bright and innovative. So education reform swamps schools with a flood of material to cover, while holding before schools the vision, perhaps the mirage, of a new kind of education focused on inquiry. We are going in two absolutely contradictory directions at once.
     Of course this relates directly to us. No scope and sequence demands students know about the girl who came before Rosa  Parks. And yet Philip Hoose has written a wonderful book about her that would stimulate kids to think, ask questions, look beneath the known story for the unknown one. Our books fall directly on the fault line between the practice of educational reform — the flood of facts — and the ideal, the dream, the wish of educational reform — a focus on inquiry and thought (as Craign Mullaney so eloquently described). 
    This friends is our challenge — we are  in the space between, and need to announce that we are here, alive, creating — even as one tectonic plate (facts) presses down on us and the other (the dream of the new) seems for vision than real. At least that is how I see it today, as I head off to NCTE.


  1. Mary Cronk Farrell says:

    Yes, yes, and YES!!!!

  2. Linda Zajac says:

    Recently, while developing a school program, I went to look at the standards and felt very restrained by them and by the inconsistencies in them. I put this quote on my website:
    Ideas need freedom to roam and flourish, but “standards” are the leash that restrains them. ~ Linda Zajac 11/1/09 post
    I’ve heard many teachers say those standards and the tests suck the joy out of teaching.

  3. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    The tectonic plate of standards may be pressing down, but I agree–this is where NF books can step in to add context and meaning, to raise questions and give a little breathing room to the process.

  4. The strange thing is that there is so much vitality in NF for K-12 right now — such freshness in text, art, design, approach — the field is as lively as ever. And yet the school world is so creaky — half asking for more and new kinds of NF (for boys, for reluctant readers, for pursuasive writing, for science) and half frozen into testing, overwhelming scope and sequence, and endless facts. More on this soon/