Analyzing Indiana’s New Academic Standards

I’ve finished reviewing much of the recently-released final draft of Indiana’s academic standards. After allowing my analysis to gestate, my reaction remains “meh.” The standards do not revolutionize the previous Common Core standards by any means. Indiana is making a big political splash, but little more than a ripple in the water for educational standards. In fact, these new standards might work antithetically for retention and graduation rates. The Department of Education may have succeeded at their goal of making more stringent standards; however, the standards might be too high for students, especially concerning mathematics. In mathematics specifically, they may have made them so compacted with unnecessary mathematical applications that the teachers might not be able to successfully perform their professional duty.

I have not been the biggest proponent of the Common Core standards in the past. I appreciate that the standards are not curricula, and the guidelines are set up to allow teachers to create a curriculum for the purpose of meeting objectives that will benefit students for their preparation for college. But with practical application, the Common Core standards have been utilized to create uniform curricula at the local level, often preventing teachers to apply agency in their classes in the face of administrative edict. Often, catering to state or national testing becomes incorporated within these universal standards, and teachers are forced to use curricula increasingly based on political and financial obligation. Teachers lose autonomy because of the standards, even when the standards are designed with autonomy in mind for the teacher. I don’t see Indiana’s new standards departing entirely from the problems that the Common Core has already created within our classrooms.

Now I’m not the biggest opponent of universal standards either. As mentioned, I appreciate that the standards are designed with both the teacher and student in mind. A teacher has plain, broad guidelines within which to work, and a lack of designated standards could foster bad teachers in our classrooms. These standards are a beneficial map for the young teacher who is attempting to learn her craft, and best practices can be established within a teaching community based on these standards. For students, schoolwork has become more difficult because requirements for college entry are becoming more stringent. These standards are largely created, successfully, with what is needed for students prior to their entry into higher learning. The high-school standards will provide a workable guideline for students who are interested in entering college-level learning.

As an English teacher, I see very little change in the Indiana standards from the Common Core. I continue to hope that certain elements will evolve for the better, but our training within English remains stoically traditional. The elements for writing remain functional, stressing the writing process, genre writing, and research systematically throughout the academic career. Grammatical application remains stagnant, emphasizing mechanical function—spelling, punctuation, capitalization—instead of applying pragmatic linguistic practices toward sentence and paragraph construction. One of the frustrations young writers increasingly encounter in their English classes is an overemphasis on mechanics, while the content, style, and form of writing are underutilized in writing instruction. Too much emphasis on testing for grammatical usage often stymies young writers instead of assisting them.

Diction is also overemphasized a bit, as vocabulary training remains a separate entity within the English standards. Traditional English training often involves vocabulary quizzes and tests, and the standards continue to cater to the misconception that quizzes and tests will broaden the students’ lexicon. Vocabulary should honestly be incorporated within the reading component of the standards. Students broaden their vocabulary more readily when they read new words and terms within context. A teacher can assist students better with shared text than with blunt quizzes.

For the reading component, I appreciate the abstention for designating texts, allowing teachers to select appropriate texts for the classes. However, the problem with text selection will most likely remain: administrative interference, whether because of budgetary concerns or political censorship. I continue to advocate for the teacher with the selection of texts. The professional capacity of the teacher is to design the lecture, assignments, and study for the students; the teacher should not have to design curriculum from pre-selected texts. The selection of the text should be made by the professional who is attempting to construct a pedagogy based on their training and experience. Another valuable designation that should help reading: emphasis of media literacy. The inclusion of media literacy within the standards can be a most valuable component for expanded textual exposure.

A difficulty with the research and writing process remains, and that is the competing systems of documentation that are used by different collegiate disciplines. For English, the Modern Language Association or the American Psychological Association can be used. (For science, we also have the Council of Science Editors; for history, we include the Chicago Style system of documentation.) The long-standing difficulty for instructing academic writing is the difference in the formatting for opposing systems. Even in college, students easily become confused. A small example: MLA endorses the “Oxford comma,” while APA omits it. The opposing systems are designed for specific college disciplines, and each has their benefit depending on the needs of that discipline’s genre of writing. Often, you’ll hear scholars report that one system is better than another, but this is usually because it is the system to which the scholar has become accustomed. The truth is all of the different systems perform the same function; there is only different formatting involved. I have long been a proponent of teaching all of the most utilized systems side-by-side, at the same time, in the same class, to show students how systems of documentation work universally across the college spectrum. I have even suggested that an English class dedicated only to the research process might be a good idea for high school classes and college courses.

I’m going to step out of my English teacher shoes and attempt a more wholesale examination. I find that when standards are designated like this, more division is created between disciplines of learning. With the Indiana standards, science, mathematics, and history receive their own designation, yet all should be incorporated within language learning equally. Integration of disciplines is necessary for student success, and the standards seem to create more division than cooperation. I appreciate that science, mathematics, and history incorporate more reading and writing into the standards, but I neglect to find integration for other disciplines within English training.

Advocating integration instead of division, I notice what is most lacking within the Indiana (and Common Core) standards: philosophy. It is easy enough to train philosophy within English courses when selecting literature or nonfiction selections (as political science often finds its way into history), but a lack of attention to philosophy within the standards suggests that it is an unnecessary component of a student’s preparation for higher learning, or life after high school even. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom might be deemed most necessary for today’s young learner. Philology is the love of learning, and an integral part of philosophical training for a student. We might agree, as a community, that ethical training has been sorely lacking within our adult population. I am most insistent about philosophy training. It is a necessary component of students’ learning, and it may help to improve our greater community.

Regarding mathematics, I will write from my experience as the former co-chairperson of the Achieving the Dream initiative at Ivy Tech Community College, where we focused on Advanced Skills Advancement courses. These courses focused on remedial mathematics preparation, which remain the biggest difficulty for beginning college students. Many of the students in these courses attend and fail because of increasingly difficult mathematics curriculum design (There are language deficiencies, also, but they pale in comparison to mathematics). Our failure to retain students often can be linked to failure to pass students through these difficult gateway courses.

At Ivy Tech, the evolution of these courses involves cramming more and more “necessary” mathematical theory and practicum into existing courses. Often, two courses of math are eliminated to create one course with the same amount of mathematics work in a single course. I see the same thing happening within these Indiana standards. In an effort to create strict standards, however, this catering to every mathematical principle under the sun—those that might be taught instead of should be taught—ends up being antithetical to training students appropriately of the mathematics discipline. The most difficult aspect of teaching mathematics remains the practical application of math to other disciplines or real-world application, whether it be physics, engineering, logic, science, rhetoric, or nominal vocational skills. Instead of attempting to enforce every conceivable mathematic formula within a student’s curriculum, the mathematics discipline might be better served by emphasizing practical application. An admittedly-oversimplified example: teach logical validity of rhetoric using truth tables. It involves an objective expression of mathematical formula and symbol that can be practically applied to a student’s academic and life experiences.

Mathematics is the component that worries me most about the new Indiana standards. Teaching mathematics is undoubtedly the most difficult discipline to instruct. I worry that these more difficult standards will create a more overwhelming task for our math teachers to perform with their students. No doubt, I worry more that students will be unable to accomplish the more rigid standards. I worry most that more rigid math standards will create more situations where students are lost, without having proper proof of the necessity of increased mathematical rigor within our educational system.

Essentially, the mathematics portion of the new Indiana educational standards is most in need of revision, mostly subtraction, and while I would like to see more improvement within English, the proposed standards seem sufficiently valuable for our state’s educational needs.

As for Indiana’s role in the national spotlight, it seems undeserved to me. As the first state to adopt Common Core standards, it’s obvious that Indiana’s politicians observed how best to construct their own standards: throw a bunch of educators into a room, lock the door, and let simmer, until they come up with a viable plan. Nothing revolutionary here in the Hoosier state.

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2 comments

  1. Stupendous article! I could find nigh no objections to the proposals herein. Furthermore, as a budding philosopher I am naturally titillated by the prospect of increased philosophy learning.

    Although there ought to be more, as you say, I have noticed as a student that ethics has specifically received great attention across multiple degree programs at Ivy Tech. Furthermore, students are now learning basic logic tenets in their required math courses. This is a positive sign.

    Beyond this, your article is itself educationally philosophic insofar as it addresses in depth the most important subjects students learn, aiming to unify otherwise seemingly disparate subjects for purposes of a specific end. At IUPUI I read a 20-year-old article in “Metaphysics” that claimed one of the last vestiges of philosophy is to unite the varying fields of study in order to craft a single collage of collegiate study.

    One of the issues I’ve encountered in my studies is that coursework is not unified, forcing students to compartmentalize knowledge rather than synthesize it. For example, “self” means one thing in philosophy, another in sociology, another still in psychology. Yet we must memorize these definitions as separate entities, and when we leave school, which one do reference?

    Philosophic effort may unite definitions across subject areas–and this effort could be repeated for major elements across an entire diploma/degree program. This is not difficult; I would attempt this feat as an undergrad. This effort to craft a “unified philosophy of undergraduate learning” (or “of secondary education,” etc.) has, to my knowledge, not been made–although I am but personally unfamiliar with any such (likely) graduate-level educational efforts.

    1. Thanks again for the kind words. It’s encouraging to hear that you see more philosophy incorporated into various classes. I know my first experience with taught philosophy was in college…the more I learned of philosophy, the more I became indignant that none of it was introduced to me in grade school or high school. I still believe philosophy should be taught earlier in a child’s education, but I have a feeling that parents might become uncomfortable, administrators don’t see a need for it in the potential workforce that is the student body, and teachers might not be prepared to teach philosophy (some might even be intimidated by it).

      I think synthesizing coursework across disciplines would be a great step for improving education; I know that educational departments are highly competitive and rarely cooperative, so it remains problematic. I remember one of my excellent professors, Michael Dobberstein, reacting to a statement I made early as an undergraduate…something along the lines of “I hate math. That’s why I’m studying English.” He had a slightly gruff personality, and he basically called me stupid. I was shocked (out of my stupidity), but forced to consider his premise: a student stifles themselves when they focus so narrowly within an academic discipline. It’s stayed with me. I see how English study can assist learning across the disciplines, and I enjoy learning something new everyday by openly engaging in study of all disciplines. An individual student can take it upon one’s self (all of the definitions of the word) to synthesize his own education; I do wish those in charge of establishing standards would consider this idea more…

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