Commentary | Education

Lessons—A City Rebels Against State Standards

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


A City Rebels Against State Standards

By Richard Rothstein

Although “local control” means little for huge districts like New York City’s, most American schools are run by elected boards that are expected to reflect community goals. But if states set standards, as they are now doing, the most important role of local boards disappears.

In Pasadena, Calif., a school board has bucked the trend, voting defiantly last week to adopt its own science standards rather than the state’s.

Local control has its downside. Boards may set low standards, or learning may take a back seat to job protection. But local control also has benefits. Districts can pioneer better methods that get copied nationwide.

Schools benefit if a state-imposed curriculum is wise. But they can suffer if standards are flawed or unsuited to local need.

Pasadena’s vote is noteworthy because experts often depict American science education as a mile wide and an inch deep, with students memorizing disconnected facts. While standards in some states address that concern, those in others do not. California, for example, now expects third graders to know that matter consists of more than 100 types of atoms listed on the periodic table, and that energy comes from the sun as light.

Eight-year-olds can “know” facts like these, but few can understand them. Yet California considers the standards high, because pupils could not previously regurgitate such information.

Pasadena is a Los Angeles suburb with mostly minority and poor students. But it is also home to the California Institute of Technology, where 15 years ago the faculty began to develop for the district a curriculum that teaches children to “think like scientists” rather than memorize facts they don’t understand.

Discarding textbooks, Pasadena uses kits of material for experiments. While one fifth-grade class creates electric circuits to light a bulb, another investigates crayfish. These lead to teaching about conductivity and anatomy. Students write their observations and hypotheses, and describe their experiments in journals.

The Pasadena schools superintendent, Vera J. Vignes, says science is best taught by engaging pupils’ natural curiosity with “hands-on” activity. They can then relate this experience to the underlying concepts.

The curriculum is nationally admired. Urging Pasadena to maintain its approach even if it differs from state standards, Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, contrasted Caltech’s methods with usual teaching that asks only for word recognition that is easy to test on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank exams.

And in “Teaching the New Basic Skills” (Free Press, 1996), Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy praise Pasadena as teaching true scientific method. At the meeting last week where the school board adopted its own science standards, students and teachers testified of coming to love and learn science from “inquiry-based” lessons, and parents described how children linked writing, math and science.

Yet the school board’s vote invites trouble. Pasadena may do poorly on science tests now being developed by the state, and suffer sanctions as a result. Certainly students could excel on topics they understand from collecting data and testing hypotheses. But because Pasadena emphasizes depth, not breadth, there may be topics where students have little experience, and here they could do worse than others in California.

The district now plans its own assessments, including student presentations, written accounts of experiments and multiple-choice tests, that can show whether claims made for kit-based instruction have merit. Although the highly acclaimed program is over a decade old, there are as yet no external measures of the understanding that pupils gain — a strange lapse for dissident educators challenging state standards.

Mary Dee Romney, a community activist and school board opponent, said she found it astounding that Caltech had not assessed the program objectively. “It is counterintuitive to the very nature of science,” she said.

Now, as the district moves to develop its own evaluations, it must convince the community that these should carry more weight than state exams. If students do better on district assessments than on California’s standardized tests, the board may have to mobilize political support to continue the program.

Thus, Dr. Vignes says, the district is now planning outreach activities, like science fairs where parents will be judges. “We have a lot of work to do with parents,” she acknowledges.

Pasadena’s challenge to the state is complex. While California standards could harm Pasadena instruction, elsewhere state standards could improve what previously passed for science teaching. It’s probably better to memorize correct facts than wrong ones.

But Pasadena is not the only innovative district that believes state standards limit learning. If other districts also rebel, they could challenge the faulty notion that combining local control, high standards and more state accountability is an easy matter.

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