What about the students who move?
It's a question often raised in support of the CCSS, or just national standards in general. Don't we need national standards so that students who move won't be thrown for a loop when they change schools, even across state lines? I'm unconvinced by this argument.
I'll admit up front that, as both my regular readers know, I am not a believer in national standards at all. But let me try to walk you through my unconvincedness in the face of the traveling student.
How many are there?
This seems to be a point of some debate. Several readers have directed me to a study cited here which suggests a whopping 15-20% students moved within the previous year. That's a fairly fuzzy number, and the previous year in question is 2003. It also doesn't address the nature of the moves-- across town? across state? across country? The study is interesting in that it points out that outside of a small smattering of military families, the traveling students come from families that are migrant workers, homeless, or poor. Reminds me of decades ago when a poor student explained his families regular moves as seasonal-- cold weather months in apartments that included utilities, warm-weather months in places that did not (with the clear implication that rent was not always paid).
The more commonly cited percentage is 1.7% of 5-17 year olds move across state lines. The source for that number is this chart from the US Census Bureau, so it's probably mostly somewhat accurate-ish. In all fairness, I should note that this works out to 915,328 students, which is not an insignificant number. We also can add to that 2.2% moving within the state, and 9.4% moving within the county. Students moving in from abroad is .5%, or one third the number moving across state lines. I note that number because one of the question the issue raise is why do interstate movements merit imposition of national standards, but international do not. Is it a matter of principal, or is there somewhere between .5% and 1.7% a cutoff line under which the number of student adjustment issues doesn't merit consideration.
One of the pieces of information that no set of information seems to address is the when. Are we talking about students who change schools between school years? Experience and anecdotal info suggests not-- that many of these traveling students travel during the course of the school year itself. I promise to care about this point further down the page.
The Devil in the Detail
I am not unsympathetic to the problems that come with moving to a new school. It's just that I don't think a national scope and sequence necessarily helps, and certainly doesn't help to a degree that justifies the effects on the education of the 98.3% of non-interstate students. To manage this kind of consistency within even a state, a single district, or single building, requires certain adjustments that may be neither feasible nor worthwhile.
I'm going to stick with English, which in many ways is more difficult than math because the study of math has its own built in sequencing to an extent that the study of English does not. Let's consider for our hypotheticals, two old mainstays of 9th grade English across the country-- Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations.
Should there be ease of mobility between tracks? A low-level group might study R&J with the goal of simply knowing the plot and characters and being able to discuss the play as it relates to modern social patterns. They might even use one of the many modern-language parallel texts to help them deal with the Scary Shakespeare Words problem. On the other hand, a high level class would likely have many additional goals, including delving into the Shakespearean language, writing more academic formal papers.
Students who, in the process of switching schools, also switch tracks will find this difficult. Are their adjustment problems a consideration, or do we write that off as another matter entirely?
I have a class that is primarily females, so as we study R&J, we veer off extensively into the role of women in Elizabethan society and in the world of the play. One day in discussion several students introduce the topic of women's frustrations over the lack of control they have over their own destiny, and start to use that to inform their own ideas about interpreting characters such as Lady Capulet and the Nurse as well as Juliet herself. As a particularly canny educator (or a fair-to-middlin' one having a good day), I see an opportunity here to bank and set up discussion points for the female characters of Great Expectations.
Should I shut all of that down because it will be unfair and confusing for the hypothetical student who might be moving into my classroom sometime between now and the beginning of Great Expectations?
Should I generally avoid anything "extra," or in a math class should I avoid moving ahead swiftly just because we can, because that will give us material coverage that we are not supposed to have, putting my students too far ahead of the hypothetical transfer student who might be arriving any day now from a school that didn't get that extra material?
It's the same conversation we had for NCLB-- is there really any way to keep students on the same page that doesn't invove holding back those who are ready to zip on ahead?
On the other end of the scale, we have the slower students. Do I say to them at the end of six weeks, "I know we're only at the end of Act III, and I'm proud of you for hammering this out and making sense of it, and I know that some of you are now really into this and want to see how it all turns out. But according to the Big Master Schedule, we are done with Romeo & Juliet now. So our test on the entire play will be this Friday. Good luck."
Chris just came into my class from a school where the English teacher approaches R&J strictly from a performance standpoint, but all of my instruction and building activities have been geared toward textual analysis. So while Chris knows the characters and the plot, Chris is not really prepared for any of the sorts of activities that we are doing. Is that Chris's problem, or the educational system's?
Look, I Wasn't Trying To Get This Picky. I Just Think That Every Kid in the Country Ought To Get the Same X, Y and Z.
It's fair to say that all of the above was simply getting excessively picky about the issues of student mobility. But my point is that it's impossible not to get that level of picky, even if your intent is pretty simple.
Let's say that your national standard says that every 9th grade class covers the same list of material (including R&J and GE). That seems simple. But remember-- some not-inconsiderable percentage of the raveling students travel during the school year. So if your school covers R&J in the fall and my class does it in the spring, a student who switches from your school to mine gets R&J twice. A student who switches from mine to yours gets R&J none times.
So a list isn't good enough. To accomplish the goal of making life easier for the traveling student, we have to prescribe not only a list of content, but a schedule for it as well. So by decree, October is now R&J month across America. Except that now we're back to the question of faster and slower classes.
AND that's proscribing content, but we might all use the same content to teach entirely different competencies, so we'd better proscribe exactly what skills will be taught with the content.
And before you know it, in order to make life better for 1.7% of all students, we have written a very specific national curriculum-- not standards, but curriculum. Except that writing a federal curriculum is illegal. But nothing less than a national curriculum is going to accomplish the goal you're after. Anything less will keep us right there in the land of When You Switch To a New School You Have To Deal With Them Covering Different Material in Different Ways.
Can't be done. It's not just illegal; it's large scale educational malpractice that would destroy any semblance of usefulness of US public education as well as violating some of our most sacred national values.
Or, to be brief, I think it's a bad idea.
What Do You Want, Anyway?
Part of what makes this goal so elusive is that it's so fuzzy. What do you want every freshman in America to know about Romeo and Juliet? Do you want them to recognize that it's a play by some Shakespeare fella? Do you want them to be able to quote passages? Do you want them to recognize key plot points? Do you want them to be able to argue the relative merits of Leonard Whiting and Leonardo DiCaprio? Do you want them to be able to write iambic pentameter? Do you want them to know how it's related to West Side Story? Do you want them to be able to discuss the use of blood and heat as recurring images in the play? Do you want them to know who Queen Mab was? Do you want them to have a theory about where Benvolio disappeared to? Do you want them to be able to explain what the play said to them about their own conception of young love? Do you want them to know all the dirty parts? Do you want them to be able to discuss the various uses of dramatic irony? Do you want them to use the play to discuss the ickiness of sex with thirteen-year-old girls? Do you want them to know that "wherefor" means "why," not "where"?
And once you've selected from the iceberg of ideas and competencies that the last paragraph shows only the tip of, do you want them to display absolute command, bare competence, or passing familiarity with the idea you've tagged.
When you say "I want every class to have covered some of the same basics," what exactly do you mean?
When people move, their situation changes. They live in different surroundings. They cope with different weather. They adjust to different local fashion trends. They learn to understand different accents. They learn to eat new regional foods, and they do without the food they used to enjoy. They learn different traffic patterns. They learn about different sports teams.
They learn to do all this because different places are different. (And this is what we've come to in current education debate-- the point where simple tautologies pass for controversial statements).
Different places are different. That's not a flaw. It's a virtue. Yes, it can create challenges for the traveling students but
A) different places are different and
B) your proposed solution isn't really a solution