Core Standards For Education – Political Grandstanding?


Mostly everything that comes up and hits you in the teeth about the current controversy around “core standards” seems to be more political than born of actual knowledge.

This no surprise, really, since this is the reductionistic American mentality that makes it difficult to have meaningful conversations with the American Public without making them sound a lot like radio talk show rants.

With customary naiveté and sheer guts, I made the decision that I could not have an opinion about it without knowing what it actually was.

What I now believe is that some generally well-meaning folks have tried, but relied on “experience” and “common wisdom” to come up with something obviously divisive and inviting resistance, as it simply does not take into consideration what people are like and how they learn.

The reality of the thing is that years and years of standardized test assessments have shown that American students just don’t seem to have the same skill level as students from other countries.  As someone who completed graduate professional (medical) studies in another country (France) this may be more real to me than it is to others.

My French colleagues cited with (justified) pride the rigors of their Baccalaureate degree.  There was a great deal of memorization required, which American colleagues would have not tolerated.

The first thing evident to me when I walked into a French classroom and talked to my colleagues was that I had to ratchet up my memorization skills, and fast.

Only afterward did it become evident that acumen in skill sets like math (medical school included two semesters of calculus) and other scientific skills, like solving problems in chemistry, biochemistry, and human physiology.

Ironically, I was probably better prepared in terms of problem solving than memorization.  This actually makes sense, since the French students had been using memory skills to get grades since primary school.  The primary way to learn was to write and to recite out loud, using all kinds of memory to reinforce the lesson.  It sure worked.

It did not, however, work in the sphere of motivation.

Me — I was determined to be a doctor no matter what it took.  It was like nothing else in life.  Had the requirements included standing on your head or running around the block, neither of which I had the slightest talent or inclination for they were physical tasks, I would simply have done them.

There is an awful lot known now about how (and why) children learn.

I was lucky enough, once I got the moniker “gifted child,” to be in a class taught by the educational theorist John Holt, but he is only one of many.

The “core standards” fly in the face of all the theoretical knowledge, in favor of a political agenda.

I do not read the educational literature regularly.  The best reference I can recommend here are the TED talks, subject education, especially those of Ken Robinson.  You haven’t seen TED yet?  Free streaming videos and you can download the video as well as a transcript.  Highly recommended.

(For those who are really excited by this speaker’s presentation, you are going to LOVE his animated version!)

Objective data validates concepts like “inspiration” and “curiosity.”

Even if someone is going to know and reference the research, it might take a while to assimilate this.

Let’s go back to some really common really real common sense.

The single biggest hurdle to whether or not someone can become more intelligent is whether they believe they can.

Standardized tests may or may not correlate with real life implementation of skills.  But even the “softest” pass/fail system gives some people a very personal failure message.

Such message not only contradicts the “no child left behind message,” but pushes children behind.

The more articulate defenses of ”core” whatever seem to realize it is not a be-all and end-all, and take it as soft guidelines, that do not tell anybody how to teach.  But I do not think that is how teachers are living this.  They are living it, I think, as a threatening oppositionality.

When I went to a (girls-only) prep school, mostly everyone who graduated was conditioned to aim for the “Seven sisters,” viewed as largely the women’s equivalent of the Ivy League.  There was exactly one young woman who went to a “Teacher’s College.”  She was sunny and bright and loved children.  She probably has long-ago left that path to raise a family of her own.

God bless her — she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The best teachers are insightful and creative.  They are governed by a “bureaucracy” of accreditation which my father of blessed memory “grandfathered” into.  All the modern insights about how people learn seem to endorse that learning is most powerful when it is student initiated and continued and goes on for life.

I love learning.  I am smarter than I was when I was 19, for sure, but I am also smarter than I was yesterday.

I do not think I am unique in this regard.  Most of the people whose company I actually enjoy are somewhat like this.

In cultures where memorization and discipline and learning and knowledge are already valued, there is no need for a “core” anything.

“Common core” does not destroy “freedom as we know it,” and that is something I agree with the author of this article about.

However, saying “what people should be learning at each grade level” implies a homogeneity that simply does not exist.  Other countries have given the United States benign chuckles when I lived abroad.  They may now descend into guffaws.

I wish we had the guts to go a different route.  “Norming” people seems to be an outgrowth of capitalism, and has certainly diminished medicine into a science where we stratify groups and endorse a treatment on how many people respond to it.  When people work with outliers, those who fail to respond to frequent treatments, there is no guidebook.

Many of history’s geniuses have been outliers — from Albert Einstein to a genuinely competent neurosurgeon I once worked with, plenty of “differently brained” people can and will be not left behind but forced behind.

Treatment of folks medically; well, plenty of people care about making money off the process but I am results-oriented and willing to work with “outliers.”

I applaud this brave editorial by a teacher who “worked his way up” through what he saw as a meritocracy.

I am known to have a high standard of practice of medicine, and I am proud of that.  This is not a meritocracy.

It took me a lot of years of perspective to be able to discuss what once was an open wound.

I was rejected from every medical school in these United States.

Nobody accessible to me, except the French, was willing to judge me on my ability to do medical school work.  In the French system I had a perfect “carnet scolaire,” a perfect notebook of scholarship.  No tests failed, something my preceptor cited as uncommonly rare and basically unknown in a foreign (to France) national–in his praise of me at my (public) doctoral thesis defense.

Vive la France.

Far from being “No child left behind,” the core standards leave behind those who might — as I was — be a tad less than the top in 8th grade math.  Eighth grade was also when I decided science was my passion and clamored for more science classes but was forced to take Latin, and some kind of part-time less intense second class science.

I was one of the lucky ones, in an elite private school, that could accommodate me, although they had their own “core” standards.

Incidentally, I more than caught up on my mathematics acumen once I realized how essential it was to science.  I scored in the 750’s on the math part of my SATs.

In teaching, like in medicine, there seems to be a great gap between theoretical knowledge and implementation.

Maybe people are treating this like a political pronouncement, relying on seniority.

I have little respect for seniority.

I do have respect for things that work.

The “core” of standards is like the core of an apple — It is the part you have to throw out, because it cannot be consumed.

It must be removed, so you can get at the nutritious and delicious good stuff.


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