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January 14, 2005

what should we expect from local work?

When students frame, study, and address local problems, they are likely to acquire local knowledge. For example, if a high school class studies a nearby watershed, develops a restoration plan, and presents it to the local government, the students will surely learn more about the watershed itself. I see three ways of assessing such learning.

1) Maybe the only point of education is to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that would apply anywhere. Thus students in the imaginary watershed project should understand science better (thus scoring higher on instruments like the NAEP Science Assessment) and also perform better on CIRCLE's "Indicators of Civic Engagement," which measures behaviors like voting, following the news, and attending meetings. We might also expect them to stay in school longer and have fewer disciplinary problems.
2) Maybe we should expect students to improve along dimensions that aren't well measured by existing standardized tests and surveys--but that could be so measured. For example, engagement with local problems over time could increase students' teamwork skills, capacity for public speaking, etc. These are generalized outcomes that we may not value sufficiently; but we could assess them.
3) Or maybe we should be glad that students have learned about the watershed itself. After all, nowhere is it written that the proper unit of analysis is always the nation. Just as we would like Americans to understand the Bill of Rights, so we might like residents of a county to understand the source of their own water--not because this knowledge will apply elsewhere or lead students to acquire generalized knowledge later on, but because it is valuable in itself.

If the third option holds any appeal, then it raises new questions about standardized tests. Almost by definition, they cannot adequately value local knowledge.

Posted by peterlevine at January 14, 2005 10:30 AM


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