School Standards: How's That Again?


January 10, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Ever wonder why education in this country is in such trouble?

After reading a draft copy of the "Proposed Exit Outcomes" prepared by the members of the Carroll community and the administrators of the county's school system, I think I have a much better idea of where the problem lies.

Educators can't seem to articulate in a clear and understandable fashion what students are expected to learn during their 12 years in Carroll County public schools. Instead, they resort to pretentious social science jargon that is meaningless to the students, their parents and the rest of the population. For all I know, it may be meaningless to the people who utter and write these words.

If the community expects certain things of the schools, the language describing them should be precise. Otherwise, there will be no commonly accepted definition of the expectations. Without this common understanding, the standards are meaningless.

At the moment, there is only confusion over these proposed standards for Carroll County graduates.

Why else would a parent, a rocket scientist, admit that he doesn't understand the draft document that was presented to parents six weeks ago for comment?

The draft outlines seven standards students will be expected to meet when they graduate from county schools. I wager that most students -- including the ones who might be expected to meet the standards -- couldn't tell you what they mean.

The first standard is: "able communicators who are individuals who can access information, process information, analyze and evaluate information, apply information and convey information to manage an ever expanding body of knowledge in exchanging and creating ideas."

The first time I read that I thought I was reading the design specifications for a new personal computer equipped with a 486 DX chip, a 4-megabyte random access memory, a 120-megabyte hard drive and a 9600 baud modem. "Access" and "process" are words more appropriate for machines than people.

Wouldn't it be better to say the school system is supposed to produce graduates who can gather information and then communicate their ideas and the information clearly in writing and in speech?

Another standard calls for developing "collaborative workers." Graduates are expected to "think divergently" and "sustain group relationships."

I am still puzzled over the meaning of "to think divergently." Divergent could mean to branch off from a common point, separate or depart from common practice. Does this mean that one of the standards expected of Carroll County students is to challenge the status quo and become members of the avant garde? I doubt it.

More than likely, the meaning is that students are expected to approach problems from different perspectives. Why not express the standard directly instead of making us guess its meaning?

"Sustain group relationships" is a pretty convoluted way of saying that students should be able to get along and work with other people.

You'll never guess what "innovative producers" are supposed to do. They are supposed to appreciate the arts.

Graduates of the schools are also supposed to "analyze diverse information for possible adaptation."

The list of these vague and meaningless phrases in this draft continues, but there is no sense beating the issue into the ground.

Before this draft progresses any further, the language ought to be sharpened.

"When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink," wrote George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language."

Orwell, the author of "1984" and "Animal Farm," also pointed out there is an interplay between words and thoughts. Bad thoughts corrupt the language (using the phrase "revenue enhancer" in place of the word taxes, for example), but bad language can also corrupt thoughts.

No one deliberately tried to draft a confusing document. More than 700 parents, students, administrators, community leaders and business people had a hand in developing these standards. reach a consensus, the leaders may have had to transform what had been strong, clear language into the flaccid, obtuse document we now have.

Nevertheless, these educational standards have to be re-worded make the meaning obvious to everyone. The directives have to be concrete rather than abstract, clear rather than obscure, precise rather than vague.

Unless the language in this "Exit Outcomes" is improved, the entire exercise will have been wasted.

All of us have a stake in what students learn in school. If society is to continue functioning, students must meet certain performance standards.

Before the students can meet them, however, we have the daunting task of articulating what they should be.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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