Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Moral Decision Making & Standardized Learning: A Reply to David Brooks

Today in David Brooks's column, If It Feels Right, he shared findings researchers (Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog) report about the capacity of 18- to 23-year-olds to think about moral dilemmas. The news isn't encouraging.

Brooks states:
Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Marchers at SOS March (M.A. Reilly, Washington D.C. 2011)


Well not if you are a public school educator in the United States toiling beneath the push for greater and greater standardization. We have been raising our voices to say what the researchers found for  more than a decade.

Frankly, I find little surprising in what David Brooks reports and want to suggest that on the current course of standardization we can only expect diminished capacities for learners to think deeply about moral issues. Cultivating 'moral intuition' requires imagination and will always reflect the depth of thinking/feeling and the practices inherent in the institutions (schools, family, communities, religion, workplaces) in which our young people come of age.

Mr. Brooks, for nearly 30 years I have been an educator and have opposed the forced standardization of thinking that is clearly framing how learning occurs at public schools throughout our country.  Each time you feature in your column a superman-type school reformer, I cringe knowing the whiplash response will be to lessen what little remaining control I and others who actually reside in public schools will have to make local decisions.  It is ever so trendy to get on the reform bandwagon, but know this: learners' diminished moral thinking is one result of such trendiness.

It's difficult to occasion deeply thinking young people when schools are forced to become more and more standardized through common core curricula, commercialized curriculum products and programs that are forced into schools in receipt of grant monies, and mistaking scientifically proven programs for teachers. Thinking the teacher can be removed as thinker and replaced with "scientifically researched" programs and then ordered to teach from prescribed scripts written at another time in another place by someone else is faulty.  This epic construct kills children's aptness and will to think.

Moral dilemmas require flexibility of thought, the capacity and willingness to recognize other, and the practice of embracing ambiguities. None of these dispositions fit neatly in multiple choice tests or in a nation that overly privileges standardized lessons, programs, curricula (see Common Core) and believes that testing children 9 times a year in mathematics and reading and ignoring everything else is an evolved practice. Consider that we have rested in the hands of a few people (elites similar to the composition of the Committee of Ten) the decision as to what should be taught to150 million children annually and they have returned to us via the Common Core State Standards the edict that story, yes story Mr. Brooks, should be severely lessened in what young people read and compose.

Lind Darling-Hammond Speaking at SOS March (M.A. Reilly Washington D.C. 2011)
Only fools fail to understand that story is the means by which  all cultures, all people here on earth transmit and have transmitted values, beliefs, fears, theories, concerns, joys, sacrifices--all potential examples of moral decision making in action and rendered through written, visual, musical, movement or hybrid/remixed forms of text.


And the Common Core folks would order across all public high schools a reduction of story making so that at the high school level it represents only 20% of what young people compose. Similarly, high school learners will be limited to reading 8 full length literary works for their entire high school career. 8 works.

Mr. Brooks, we cannot occasion young citizens who think carefully about moral dilemmas and have participated in moral decision making when we routinely strip agency from teachers and students, story from schools, and decision making from all who actually reside at the school house and instead value business models, business leaders' ethos, market values, superheroes, and the very narrow and standardized curricula that is remaking American education into routinized factory experiences where one curricula fits 150 million learners and decision making is not allowed.

Moral decision making arises from local context. Remove the local and what are you left with? William Carlos Williams told us years ago that when we are controlled by vacuous laws we are left with "a corpse wrapped in a dirty mantle."

Winding Home (M.A. Reilly, South Dakota, 2010)
It is time for every learner to say no through the political process at the local, state, and national levels to the dehumanized practices associated with school reform. We must offer alternatives that rebuke the single idea of school as THE place of learning and our alternatives need to be local to their own ground--ones that value the funds of knowledge citizens bring and engender.

We must imagine alternatives that return agency to corpus, voice to the masses. In a few weeks  a publication will be released about disrupting the status quo of schooling.  I am pleased to have written the opening to that small book and will post a link for you here so that you can read the full text.

Mr. Brooks we need your voice. And we need it to be informed not by the trendy, but by the deep story--  that which you make your trade doing.  Please come visit schools and listen.


  1. People learn to make good decisions by being required to make lots of decisions, particularly open-ended decisions where the outcomes are uncertain.

    I certainly agree with you that the US's overwhelming amount of standardized testing doesn't help promote critical thinking or give time to construct a sensible holistic view of the world.

  2. I would add to David's comment that, "People learn to make good decisions by being required to make lots of decisions, particularly open-ended decisions where the outcomes are uncertain" and reflecting and analyzing those and others' decisions.

  3. @David, the standardization is problematic. Agree with you and appreciate your comment that the open ended decisions are most critical when outcomes are uncertain. This is key.

  4. @ADK Jack Yes important components are analysis and reflection. Both are important.

  5. Mary Ann - Thank you for continuing to "fight the good fight" and directing your comments to the people that need to hear them in such a focused and timely fashion...