We think this is important, so let's make kids learn it

by John Watson

The last blog post argued, in part, that

“all too often legislators, governors, and interest groups decide that the solution to a real or imagined problem is another curriculum requirement, another standard, or another test. Each one of those incremental steps removes school and teacher autonomy, and ultimately reduces student agency. A better approach would increase school and teacher autonomy, while creating better reporting mechanisms and increased transparency so that parents, students, and others could evaluate schools.”

The idea that school leaders, teachers, and students should have more autonomy seems to be gaining traction, as the centralized approach of NCLB gives way to (some) increased flexibility in ESSA.

But for this greater autonomy to truly take hold, we need fewer stakeholder groups advocating that their area of expertise is something that all K-12 students should learn and know.

This type of argument is fairly common. For example, in Envisioning AI for K-12: What should every child know about AI?, a group of researchers argues that “[t]he ubiquity of AI [artificial intelligence] in society means the time is ripe to consider what educated 21st century digital citizens should know about this subject.” The paper goes on to lay out key ideas that the authors believe all citizens should understand, and suggests the start to developing curriculum guidelines and resources for teachers.

That paper doesn’t quite make the leap to advocating for a policy change for students to learn about AI, but it’s easy to envision a next iteration, or new interest group, doing so. This has been a trend in technology in particular, in recent years. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has called for coding to be a requirement in every public school, for example. Code.org has also pushed for an increase in coding and a policy change requiring all schools to offer coding classes (page 4 of the linked pdf).

This approach is perfectly understandable. I believe that climate change is a critically important problem, and I wish more people understood it. Thus, it’s a reasonable leap to suggest that all students should have to learn about it.

But the result is an educational tragedy of the commons, in which the shared resource that everyone wants to access is instructional time in school. Each individual standard and requirement makes sense to someone, but the aggregate effect is that teachers and students spend much of their time on someone else’s interests instead of their own.

Which leads, of course, to the ubiquitous question: “is this going to be on the test?”