Inject critical thinking into state standards to think outside the bubble

For nearly a decade, California K-12 schools have been scrutinized based on multiple-choice tests primarily covering two subjects: Reading (Language Arts) and Math. That may explain why many schools, especially “lower performing” ones, have narrowed the curriculum to what’s tested. In many instances, subjects like history, science, world languages, the arts, and career technical education courses have been pared down, and in some cases eliminated, to make room for test-taking and study skills classes. Although some school and district leaders have attempted to maintain a broad curriculum, most have capitulated to the need to save their own hides and raise test scores.

All K-12 students need a breadth of knowledge as well as an understanding of how that content (and the world around them) is interconnected. Parents and community members need to stand up for supporting a full offering of courses for their children. History and science (including STEM), world languages, the arts, and engaging 21st century electives should be offered at every site. In K-6, students should have exposure to a balanced and relevant curriculum that appropriately integrates math and reading.

But effective K-12 education is more than just ensuring a broad array of subjects. Students need to transition from K-12 with skills that they can use and apply to succeed in college and careers. The ability to eliminate the wrong answers on a bubble does little for them other than getting a pizza party or other rewards. Business and higher education leaders lament that more and more students cannot write, communicate, work effectively in groups, and apply knowledge to real problems. They blame K-12 when K-12 has been shackled by the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind and the California High School Exit Exam.

Increasingly however, parents and particularly business and higher education leaders have become aware of the mismatch between K-12 accountability measures and what really needs to be taught.

Fortunately, something is being done.

Over the last several months, the California Coalition Partnership for 21st Century Education has deeply discussed and outlined an overarching purpose for public education that will inspire and unleash the collective potential of 6 million school children. This newly formed group consists of business leaders representing forward-thinking corporations such as Dell, Disney, Apple, and Verizon; educational leaders from the California State PTA, ACSA, school boards, CTA and CFT, the California Science Teachers Association, and the California Mathematics Council; and community organization leaders (see for a full list).

Building on the energy generated by the California Coalition for P21, Assembly member Julia Brownley and State Sen. Lou Correa are sponsoring two bills (AB 250 and SB 402, respectively) that will give all stakeholders renewed purpose for K-12 education. Correa’s bill would require “each curriculum framework to describe how content can be delivered to intentionally build creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication into and across each content area, to the extent the description is deemed appropriate by the board.”

Currently, curriculum frameworks are written without regard to interconnection and interrelationships among content areas, and do not support application of content knowledge to real-world challenges.

If passed, SB 402 will begin to take pedagogy beyond teaching to the test. Imagine classes where students are asked to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create their own original thoughts through writing and speaking about real-world problems and issues. The Common Core standards will help further the emphasis on performance assessments, having students “show what they know” through writing and speaking (including collaboration), which stimulates critical thinking.

As nationally recognized writing teacher Kelly Gallagher, author of “Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading,” says, “Any teacher worth his or her salt knows that if you really want to measure the level of student thinking, you have to have students write. Answers to multiple-choice questions can often be faked; answers to essay questions cannot. As a staunch advocate for change integrating more thinking and writing, and a member of the California Coalition, Gallagher warns, “We end up with a school system that raises multiple-choice thinkers in an essay world.”

AB 250 attempts to reform several important areas calling for the update of frameworks (aligned with Correa’s bill), professional development, instructional materials, and assessments to align and support the new Common Core standards, which will be implemented in 2014.

Although there is so much at stake if the governor’s anticipated June ballot measure fails, it is discomforting to be forced to ask for voter support when there has been no clear goal other than meeting rigidly prescribed multiple-choice metrics. Those involved with the California Coalition P21 believe that the Brownley/Correa bills will give public education a refocused raison d’etre that can begin to propel our state back to greatness.

For more information about what you can do to change the course of K-12 education, please see

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District, and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.

Author: Michael Matsuda

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District, and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.

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