Wednesday, April 28, 2010


In case you missed it, the draft version of the new Common Core Standards for K-12 education came out last month. The document was developed by the commissioners of education of 48 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, (Alaska and Texas, to answer your question), and its purpose is to set uniform academic expectations for public education across the entire country. According to the authors, "the draft standards... seek to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce." They "define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs."

Whether or not this is a laudable goal will be discussed in a moment, but make no mistake that it is a major paradigm shift. Public education as we know it has been around in this country for about 150 years - the first compulsory attendance laws were passed in the mid-1850's - and during that time curricular control has always been in the hands of local or, at most, state educational authorities. Over the last 50 years or so, the federal government has made efforts to control the outcomes of public education (the ubiquitous testing of the No Child Left Behind act is the most recent example, but such efforts date back at least as far as Sputnik), but never before have they attempted to control the inputs. To put this in perspective, it is akin to the difference between having an annual checkup to make sure you are staying healthy, and having someone dictate what you must eat and do in order to be healthy.

Now, to be fair, a lot of people do a lousy job keeping themselves healthy, and they would probably benefit from someone telling them what to eat and do. Similarly, local educational authorities have not exactly done a fantastic job of educating our kids over the last couple of centuries, and having common, cohesive expectations is very likely to help fix that. The problem is that in our culture we value autonomy. If people want to sit on the couch all day watching reality television and eating Big Macs only to die young from heart disease and diabetes, then they have the right to do that. The question is, does this autonomy extend to education? Is it a good idea for the federal government to kick the local authorities off the couch and make them go for a jog, or is that a violation of some deeply-held belief in local control and, more broadly, states' rights? Does Kansas have the right to teach creationism (oh, sorry, I mean intelligent design), or should the feds step in and prevent such folly?

To be honest, at first this seemed like a no-brainer to me. Of course there should be common standards. In an enlightened democracy (hey, we're getting there), the quality of your education should not depend on where you happen to grow up. Also, Kansas should not be allowed to decide for itself what constitutes science.

Then, on Monday, I toured my county's brand new high school for the arts. Housed in a beautifully restored and updated old theater building in the scrappy little downtown area of the county seat, this school represents the creative vision and superhuman effort of many, many people. For over an hour, I listened to the school's principal passionately defending the idea of a school for the arts against my hostile witness-type questioning. (You may not be surprised to learn that I tend to take an oppositional stance in just about any discussion. I'd like to tell you that this is a way to get all the information, but the truth is I just like to argue.) As I did, I began to wonder what the impact of top-down curriculum development would be on a school like that. Would they be permitted some kind of exemption? Or (more likely) would they be expected to meet all the standards for a typical high school and fit in their arts education, the core of their mission, around it? As it stands now, that is more or less what they do, but because the curriculum is state-mandated they have (perhaps) more flexibility than they would have (probably) under a federally-mandated curriculum. Would these new standards mean the end of schools like that, either actually or effectively?

Well, from there it's just a slippery slope, isn't it? I suddenly remembered what a disaster the intrusion of "standards" into early childhood education has been. Instead of play-based preschools and kindergartens where children experiment with activities that interest them and spend most of their time moving around, now we have four- and five-year-olds at desks being told to sit still and color inside the lines. This in spite of an ongoing stream of pretty conclusive research suggesting that young children need active, imaginative play to grow up into healthy adults. There is really no reason, then, to believe that the research on the value of arts education will be heeded any more. Or technical education. Or any other alternative path to adulthood.

And, for me, that's really the issue. One size does not fit all. Again and again, research has demonstrated that different kids learn different ways, and that to reach them we must have a wide array of flexible options for teaching them. Common core standards are fine in theory, but in practice will they mean a loss of that flexibility? Will the subjects considered "core" be taught at the expense of other things that are equally important for healthy development? The answer is probably yes. Treating kids as individuals is a lot of work. Expensive, too. Easier, and cheaper, to just give everyone the same thing and then test them on it.

Properly implemented, the common core standards could be a great thing indeed. But when was the last time anything in education was properly implemented? I'm nervous about this. Really nervous.