Making Curriculum Pop

The current structure of the No Child Left Behind program guarantees that children will be left behind for two specific reasons.  The purpose of this note is to elucidate those reasons and suggest concrete solutions.


Educational Standards in the 19th Century


The most important reason that NCLB can not succeed is inherent in the goals that have been set.  The Educational Establishment wants to go “back to basics” and has concentrated on reading and math.  But reading and math are seen in framework of an obsolescent skill set: the skills essential in the 19th Century.  In effect NCLB is purposively leaving students back in the 19th Century rather than moving them forward into the 21st Century.


The workplace of the 19th Century demanded skills of penmanship, reading, writing, computation, spelling, etc.  During the 20th Century those skills were automated through the integration of the computer and the Internet.  We are moving further into the 21st Century, but K-12 education is still based on the obsolescent skills of the19th Century.



Today babies and toddlers interact with keyboards and screens and have a familiarity with them.  This is considered a very positive thing because it prepares them for life.  But then the child comes to school and we put a screeching halt to their growth.  We take the computer away and put a pencil in their hands.  Why?  Continue using computers for reading, writing, and computation.  Teach paper and pencil in addition, but not as the basic tool.


Strategies for teaching reading and writing.


19th Century

The child has to learn to make each of the 26 letters using paper and pencil.

The child has to learn what each letter looks like and sounds like.

Then the letters are put together to form words which should trigger both the phonetic and semantic properties of the word to read and write.


21st Century

The alphabet is obsolete and arbitrary.  It is the letters in that alphabet that are important, not their order.  What would happen to reading and writing if “a” was not the first letter of the alphabet?


Consider how we “learned” to hear, to listen and to converse?  It was a dynamic process that was guided first by your parents and then by many others.  Those skills developed simply because this is what you did.  Expand that process into reading and writing by teach reading, writing, and keyboarding all at the same time. 


The child uses the keyboard to produce letters, words, meaning at the same time.  Show a child how a word is spelled using the keyboard and screen.  They will be able to write the word and trigger the sound of the word cat, the letters, and a graphic, simultaneously.


More concretely, a child touches the ”a” key and sees the letter, hears its name, and its sound.  When the child puts together the letters “cat”, the picture and sound of a cat as well the word “cat”.  Teach them to send email, Skype, and chat.  They will learn to read and write the way they learned to speak and listen.   The school provides a more formal and structured guidance.


Math has always been a controversial topic.  We hear how we are falling behind the rest of the world in science and math.  Experts have been saying that since the Cold War, but somehow we stay on top.  Be that as it may, there is clearly a problem in mathematics for far too many people. 


Return to the 19th Century.  Arithmetic was essential for moving on to higher mathematics and computation was essential to bankers, accountants, and other professions.  In the 21st Century, the spreadsheet automates arithmetic so a person can concentrate on the more important aspects of the task.


The student of the 21st Century will use a spreadsheet to learn mathematics.  It has the advantage of a flexible workspace with automated arithmetic.  The time used to teach arithmetic would be used in dealing with mathematics.  Children are not taught long division for 4 years but it is a trivial operation on a spreadsheet.


Just as there would be supplemental classes in paper and pencil, there would would be supplemental classes in computation.  The emphasis should be on approximation rather than the exact answer.  We need to calculate a tip on a bill, but an approximation is good enough.  If precision is essential then I would not want to depend on mental arithmetic, but would look for a computer.


I am not suggesting the elimination of paper and pencil and computation skills, but they should not be the basis by which we teach and evaluate our students.


The second reason NCLB cannot succeed is directly related to the evaluation technique, itself: the standardized test.  The most obvious reason that such tests are inappropriate is that the workplace does not consist of multiple choice tests. 


In addition, standardized tests have some confusing characteristics.


A standardized test means the test has been created to follow a normal curve.

In any normal curve half the students must be below the median.  So you can expect half the students in your class to be below the median.  So what is the passing grade on the test?  And who decides that score?


So now we bring that to a particular school.  The test was designed so that half the students do poorly then you can expect that half the students in your school will do just as poorly.  The Establishment has defined the passing grade and you see how your school compared.  Who decides the passing score?  And on what basis?


In New York City Mayor Bloomberg was pointing to the educational gains in the city, when the State came down and said City tests were too easy.  How do you define what is hard or easy and who defines it?  I could just as easily say that New York City was fine, but the State test was too hard.  Who decides that?


Here is a bit of icing.  The Wechsler intelligence test was revised because students were watching too much TV and learning too much.  The test designers had to revise the test upward to drop the Mean score back to 100.  This had the effect of making everyone less intelligent.  And all because of TV. 



How did we become so enmeshed with standardized tests?  As early as the 1950’s the College Entrance Examination Boards (which evolved into the SAT) were developed because colleges wanted an easy way to rule out students.  “We will not take anyone with a CEEB of less than 1000.”  And Pandora had opened the box.


It is time to close it.  Standardized tests have their place, but not as the sole evaluation criterion of whether a child has or has not learned.  The purpose of a test is to predict how a student will respond in the future. But why try to predict what is already here.  Look at the behaviors themselves and evaluate that.  About 20 years ago Authentic Assessment was the hot topic.  It examines what a student has actually produced.  The teacher is the primary evaluator and can point to specific student projects to illustrate any rating.  The ratings should be as simple as Inadequate, Adequate, and Exceptional.  Colleges, Universities, Employers and look at what the student has accomplished rather than looking at a score that is supposed to predict what a student can accomplish.







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Comment by Robert Zenhausern on June 28, 2011 at 2:00pm

The next time they will pay attention to my blog.

Actually, it is better that we postponed it until now.  Things are evolving in India and we are pushing for educational reform in India.  And our US/Indian team has already started to put those concepts into play.

One of the things we will be doing is creating an online school for the home-bound, home-schooling, and the institutionalized.  We plan to take the Government curriculum and develop learning projects that incorporate them.  Mathematics will be taught on a spreadsheet, arithmetic calculation will use traditional or newly developed methods.  Might you be interested in Making Curriculum Pop in India?

Comment by Ryan Goble on June 27, 2011 at 11:00am
Hi Robert, I'm gonna share this with the whole group as it is interesting but in the future (wow I sound like a mean dean) please consider sharing your awesome in a group like Ed Policy - that way everyone in the group gets an e-mail when you post it.  As you know, I've really built the Ning around the group structure so like minded folks can connect and communicate.  Blah, Blah, Blah on my end.  Awesome blog and thanks for sharing!


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