Friday, March 11, 2011

The Grade Band Paradox

Ok, so I'm inventing a term here.  The term is the title: the "grade band paradox."  It refers to an inherent problem in K-12 curricula that no one seems to acknowledge when they're doing research, making policy, or framing standards and tests.  In reality, I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this, but it was particularly striking to me as I watched a presentation about ongoing work the National Research Council is doing along with on new standards.  One of the chief goals of these new standards is "grade bands."  In short, the science education pooh-bahs think that there should be logical, rational, cohesive progress from grade to grade, with students from all over the place mirroring each other.

The problem is this*: we are always trying to create a cohesive, comprehensive K-12 curriculum.  We want second grade to build on first, first to build on kindergarten, and the same up the chain.  High school science classes should be able to rely - in theory - on the work done in the middle school.

*We're going to ignore, for now,** that different places - like Hawaii and New York - might have vastly different cultural and environmental needs in their curricula.  A simple example is how much more vital it is to instill an understanding of coral life cycles at a young age in Hawaii, whereas the Hawaiian student will struggle to understand the equally important concepts of continental drift (for example) and the creation and erosion of mountains (like the Appalachians) and how that lends itself to mining.

**We're also going to ignore that individual students might differ from each other.

Wait, that's not the problem yet.  That's just good curriculum design.  After all, wouldn't we rather have a cohesive experience for our students?  No, the problem comes from the continuous reinventing and tweaking that necessarily goes along with these efforts.  Rarely does a given set of standards really last all that long.  Or, even if the standards stay the same, the state-adopted standard-aligned curriculum changes.  Or, even if that stays the same, schools change, teachers are hired and fired, students move around...

The result is that, despite good intentions and sound principles, no student actually receives a coherent K-12 experience.  We decide so quickly that there are flaws and policy problems and teacher problems and learner problems and so on that we never actually give our comprehensive K-12 plans the thirteen years they need to run (not to mention the X years after that for the lessons to really take hold).

An example will serve to elucidate the problem:

Johnny is five years old, and will enter kindergarten this fall, in September of 2011.  As he begins at his local public school, he'll be operating under the standards and procedures of No Child Left Behind.

Come 2013, the NRC framework and new standards have been published, and the Federal Government moves to adopt them.  States slowly follow suit, meaning Johnny's elementary school makes the switch as he enters the fourth grade at the end of 2015.

After a couple of years, Johnny's home state is starting to recognize flaws in the current program, and so they do an internal revision and change testing procedures state wide.  As a result, Johnny's state (and school district) adopt a new text book and new curriculum in 2018.  Johnny enters seventh grade already having faced NCLB, the new standards, and a revision and curriculum change.

Of course, in 2018 a new President enters office with a new plan for education.  He appoints a revolutionary new Secretary of Ed who makes sweeping changes to science curricula in particular, integrating more even more technology and engineering studies than were in the NRC standards of 2013.  This process takes three years to come to fruition, and so as Johnny enters his junior year of high school in 2021, he confronts his fourth new integrated, cohesive K-12 system.

And so on.  The point being, you can't really have a grade-by-grade curricular arc when the arc changes every three to five years.  Kids in America are in school for 13 years, and radical education policy changes - or even small tweaks - lead to a disjointed pathway through the education system.

Of course, policy people don't see past the next election, nor do they see past theory and into reality.  To them, the K-12 system they approve in 2013 means that all kids in school in 2013 are receiving a cohesive curricular experience when, in fact, they are not.  Most of them will be facing, instead, yet another variation on the standards theme, a variation that throws out much - or at least some - of what they have learned heretofore.

It's hardly surprising, then, when a new system is put in place, but high school students don't seem to perform any better within a year or two, or even four, or even seven.  If the new system really works - or if it doesn't - you won't really know for at least 13 years, and there's no getting around it.

A better approach, then, would be to institute new educational policies starting at the kindergarten level, and then working up through the high school.  Unless there is a broad consensus that the current system is obviously and demonstrably messed up so badly that it ought to be thrown out (and NCLB might just be such a case), it's probably better to give students an older, but more cohesive experience than a newer, but fragmented and confusing one.

Actually, I should phrase that as a question.  I don't know which is better, and I don't know if anyone does, because generally new policy is implemented across the grades, all at once, without any regard for the experiences of students who have been in the current system, operating under its rules and its expectations and its standards for as much as a decade.  I would submit that, at some point, it might behoove us to remember the Grade Band Paradox, to remember that your shiny new K-12 framework will never be experienced by a student all the way from K to 12.

1 comment:

  1. I've considered that issue before, but you've put it into words quite well.

    I seem to remember something analogous occurring with state standardized testing. I remember that the state was changing which years (I'll use HS as an example) students would take the test. They realized that if 9th and 11th grade was the initial plan, then switching it for everyone to 10th and 12th would result in two classes of students getting an extra dose of testing. Therefore, the new schedule was implemented only for those in a certain class year and following.

    They can do it for testing (unless my memory is flawed), but they won't do it for curriculum.