One Size Fits Few

Do the people developing state standards have any clue about kids – and why should we force Moby Dick down the throats of 15-year-olds?

By Susan Ohanian

“Standardistos” in most of the 50 states are high on skills amphetamines, engaged in what amounts to a standards arms race. These days, every Standardisto is looking for 10 minutes of fame, proving “my standards are tougher than your standards.”

If John Silber, [former] chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, has his way, students will read from a core list, including Milton’s sonnets and Moby Dick. Now you know and I know that anyone who says high-schoolers should read Moby Dick:

  1. doesn’t know any fifteen-year-olds,
  2. has never read Moby Dick, or
  3. has read Moby Dick, has a fifteen-year-old in the house, and wants to get even.

I worry that a whole lot of the Standardistos’ curriculum exists on this “get even” premise. I suffered, so why should today’s kids get a break? The sad thing is that Moby Dick is a great book. It wasn’t until I was 42 years old that I’d sufficiently recovered from my college experience to try it again. Okay, I confess: At 42, I still skipped the rope-tying stuff. It just seems a pity that in the name of Standards, we ruin so many wonderful books by forcing them prematurely on kids.

California’s Standards

Sometime back, a number of blue-ribbon commissions expressed concern that American kids were getting too little history. Now California produces a document showing us how to give them too much.

Here, for example, is section 1.6 of the California History/Social Science Standards:

“Students understand basic economic concepts and the role of individual choice in a free-market economy, in terms of:

  1. The concept of exchange and the use of money to purchase goods and services.
  2. The specialized work that people do to manufacture, transport, and market goods and services and the contribution of those who work in the home.

Remember, this is Grade One.

Second graders label a map of North America from memory: Countries, oceans, Great Lakes, major rivers, mountain ranges. Second-graders also read the biographies and “explain how heroes from long ago and the recent past make a difference in others’ lives.” The Standardistos suggest: George Washington Carver, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson. I sense E. D. Hirsch’s influence here. The peculiarity of the grouping as well as its developmental inappropriateness has that Hirschian feel to it.

Fourth graders get latitude and longitude and the Spanish missions. Many California teachers won’t see much new here. I remember studying the Spanish missions in fourth grade eons ago. Of course, the text then, like the text today, does not talk about Father Serra’s missions as a system of forced labor.

In the new California standards, fifth graders “describe the entrepreneurial characteristics” of early explorers such as Columbus and Coronado. They also “understand the purpose of the state constitution, its key principles, and its relationship to the U.S. Constitution (with an emphasis on California’s Constitution.)” Actually, I, a native Californian, have vague memories of learning — no, memorizing — all that California Constitution stuff. I wonder today, how much poorer a life I lead for not remembering a bit of it for longer than six minutes after regurgitating the facts on a test. All I remember is the bear on the flag.

There is more matter here than I can possibly describe. This document reads like the outline for at least half a dozen fat college texts.

Standard 7.9, for seventh graders, is the penultimate standard. As fifth graders, students had to learn the history of civilization in medieval times. Now, under 7.9, they will analyze the historical developments of the Reformation, in terms of:

  1. the causes for the internal decay of the Catholic church (e.g., tax policies, selling of indulgences),
  2. the theological, political, and economic ideas of the major figures during the Reformation (e.g., Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tindale),
  3. the influence of new practices of church self-government among Protestants on the development of democratic practices and ideas of federalism,
  4. the location and identification of European regions that remained Catholic and those that became Protestant and how the division affected the distribution of religions in the New World,
  5. how the Counter-Reformation revitalized the Catholic Church and the forces that propelled the movement (e.g., St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, the Council of Trent),
  6. the institution and impact of missionaries on Christianity and the diffusion of Christianity from Europe to other parts of the world in the early modern period, including their location on a world map,
  7. the “Golden Age” of cooperation between Jew and Muslims in Medieval Spain which promoted creativity in art, literature, and science, including how it was terminated by the religious persecution of individuals and groups (e.g., the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492).

Seventh graders meet John Calvin! William Tindale! The Council of Trent! The prospect leaves me breathless. Surely a person must be unusually dense to think seventh graders can be forced to drink of this brew. I confess I thought it wonderfully apt that William Tindale is of such secondary significance that he isn’t even in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Tenth Edition. But I kept checking and discovered that he’s there. Standardistos, ever esoteric, employ the third-alternate spelling.

Seeking Asylum for Seventh Graders

Time out. Does anybody out there know any seventh graders? As a refresher course, let’s hear from premier New Hampshire middle school teacher Linda Rief. This description of emerging adolescence as both the best of times and the worst of times is from her book, Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents (Heinemann, 1992):

Working with teenagers is not easy. It takes patience, humor, and love. Yes, love of kids who burp and fart their way through eighth grade. Who tell you “Life sucks!” and everything they do is “Boring!” Who literally roll to the floor in hysterical laughter when you separate the prefix and the suffix from the word “prediction” and ask them for the root and what it means. Who wear short, skin-tight skirts and leg-laced sandals, but carry teddy bears in their arms. Who use a paper clip to tattoo Jim Morrison’s picture on their arm during quiet study, while defending the merits of Tigger’s personality in Winnie-the-Pooh. Who send obscene notes that would make a football player blush, written in pink marker, blasting each other for stealing or not stealing a boyfriend, and sign the note “Love, ____ . P. S. Please write back.”

No one who knows seventh graders would insist that the subject matter will take precedence for longer than about 12 minutes a period; that’s on good days. “Bad-mannered little shits” is a phrase that seventh-grade teachers understand. It was coined by Noel Coward, referring, not to seventh graders, but to the Beatles.

The above is just one of 11 standards that California Standardistos say seventh graders will master in their history classes. If I were a parent in California, I would be looking for a transfer out-of-state rather than face the savage reality of the homework these standards will generate. A class-action lawsuit against the Board of Education might be another possibility.

An interesting footnote: No history/social studies standards have been written for ninth graders in California “in deference to current California practice in which grade nine is the year students traditionally choose a history/social studies elective.” I have read all the standards documents, including the minutes of commission meetings, produced by the California Standardistos. In twelve grades on imperatives and explications, this is the only mention of students getting a choice.

California Standardistos were very conscious that these are the first-ever statewide academic standards for history. In announcing the California Academic Commission’s approval of its standards, History/Social Science Committee Chair Lawrence Siskind said, “Our History/Social Science Standards are balanced and academically rigorous. I am especially proud of the civic values and virtues which they impart. When they graduate high school, California students will be ready to vote, to serve on juries, and to take their place in society as responsible citizens. Should they ever be called upon to fight for their country, these standards will teach them why their country is worth fighting for.”

No comment.

Susan Ohanian is a teacher and author of more than a dozen books.This article is excerpted and condensed from Chapter 5 of One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, by Susan Ohanian (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc., 1999). To order call: 800-225-5800. Adapted by permission of the author.