Common Core of Errors and Nostalgia: Where is the future of education?


How do you plan for the future?

Oh, yeah, I know the old story about the ants and the grasshopper.  But it’s really a story about traditional agriculture and the need to look no more than a year ahead, as usually told.  In the classic Aesop version, the moral is about the need to prepare for “days of necessity.”    The story doesn’t say anything about how the ants planned for the advent of DDT, Dieldren or Heptachlor, nor for an invasion of immigrants from Argentina, nor for the paving of the forested field they lived in.

And that’s probably the point.  How do we plan for what we don’t know will happen, for what we cannot even imagine will happen?

In retrospect, much “planning” looks silly.  Bob Townsend, the former head of Avis and American Express, wrote a book years ago that I wish more educators would read today, Up the Organization.  In one of its brief chapters he talks about having been appointed poobah (vice president? managing director?) of “future planning” at one of those corporations, and how proud he was to have the title.  A few days after he got the job his bubble was burst in a most unusual way.  He got home for dinner, and his wife asked him, “What did you plan today?”

(I don’t do the story justice.  Go get a copy and read the story.)

Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land demonstrates the folly that Townsend’s wife brought to light, the folly in thinking we’ve got a good grip on what the future holds, and especially on what skills and education and training will be required to get there:  “Common Core Standards:  A though experiment.”

Soon after the report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Education came out, and for some years after, there was much worry about just what was the “common core” of knowledge that a modern kid would need, both to be a successful student and prepare for a life of beneficial work, family raising, voting and tax paying.  Tradition and federal law had kept (and still keep) the federal government from writing a national curriculum, leaving that task to the states and local school boards — the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, plus territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico, and the more than 15,000 local school boards.  There is no national curriculum in the U.S., nor is there agreement from state to state or district to district on just what should be taught.  State standards exist, but they were supposed to be the floor above which students could soar, instead of what they have become, the too-low target at which students really aim in their drive to be good bubble-guessers.

Flanagan has a sharp and entertaining fantasy about what would have happened, if:

So now the Common Core Everything movement is worried about whether schools’ technological capacity is up to the task of constant, computer-driven assessment–and Bill Gates and Pearson are developing the aligned on-line curriculum that you always knew was just around the corner. Soon–all the pieces will be in place, and we’ll be on our way to that One Unified System that we’ve been pursuing for decades. At last. Too bad it’s taken so long…

Just imagine what could be in place if Ronald Reagan had leveraged the political will engendered by the “Nation at Risk” report to get Congress to agree to a set of common standards and tests.

Is it a glorious future?  Well, consider the standards for students to learn about business and communications:

The business career rooms are outfitted with zippy Selectric typewriters and dictation machines–Williams sees girls transcribing the tapes. He is especially pleased with the broadcast studio, where students can read the morning announcements over the public address system, meeting the standard for broadcast media. A group of students is taking French IV via distance learning there, watching a TV lecture, then mailing off their homework and quizzes. Elmwood could only afford one language lab, so Mr. Williams has phased out Latin and Spanish, deciding to offer only French in a four-year block. Rationale: the French Club can travel to France–but his rural students were not likely to meet Spanish-speaking people in the future!

Flanagan’s view is entertaining, and enlightening, even in that short glimpse.  Go read the rest of her fantasy.  If you agree — and you will find it hard not to — can you think of ways to prevent the obvious problems?  Can you think of how we could have dealt with those problems, in 1983 and 1989?  Are we avoiding those problems with our curriculum standards today?

Did any state plan to educate kids on the ethics of real estate deals, so they’d be ready to avoid the real estate bubble, or its bursting?  It’s still true that we are “ready to fight the last war.”

I responded:

Generally I argue, against those who claim any beneficial change in schools is “socialism” and should be fought, that we compete against nations who do better than we do, at least as measured by the international comparison tests — and every nation ranked above the U.S. has a national curriculum. So, I argue, there doesn’t appear to be harm in a national curriculum, per se.

But as you demonstrate, there could indeed be harm in a national curriculum set in stone that is wrong — or even the wrong curriculum set in Jello.

When I did quality work and consulting with big corporations, way back in 19XX, I often used the story about the difference between Nissan and GM on robotics. Nissan was seen as the wave of the future with fancy auto plants with lots of big robots doing high quality work in assembling autos. GM, on the other had, was struggling. GM sank $5 billion or so into a robotized plant in Hamtramck, Michigan — and had to close it down. Couldn’t make it work.

What was the difference?

Nissan used to make fenders by having metalworkers pound them out by hand. Nissan took a few of those workmen, and asked them to search for machines that would make their work easier. Those guys found some stamp presses, got expert on them, and Nissan was off to the races on automation. At each step, the people who actually did the work were brought in to make the next improvements. I saw one interview of a guy running several massive robots, and the interviewer asked what sort of education he’d gotten to get to that point. He said he’d started out pounding fenders with a hammer and anvil, years earlier.

GM saw those robots in that plant, and bought a whole plantful of them. When the robots were installed in Michigan, they began the search for people to run the machines, unfortunately having to let go a lot of the people who ran the old stamping machines, because they lacked the “necessary background.”

What is the equivalent front line worker in education today? What is the “necessary background?” Impose that on your story, you could get some good results.

By the way, I was handicapped greatly by my high school education. We didn’t have enough advanced math students to get a calculus class going. So I couldn’t get calculus. But, the district said, they had purchased a brand new machine to get going in “computer math.” It was a card compiler. Students could learn to punch IBM computer cards, and that would give them a leg up in the computer world . . .

35 years later, my kids needed help with their calculus homework. They took some of my old debate cards, on old [computer] punch cards, to school for show and tell. Antiques. ( I didn’t have any programs to send — I couldn’t fit the computer math into the schedule opposite “student council;” my counselor advised me to drop out of student council for computer math, a decision I probably would have regretted in my years in Washington.)

I spoke with one of my high school English teachers last year — she’s the doyen of the computer lab today, an after-retirement job.  Turns out the computer lab really needed someone who could teach kids to write, someone who knows grammar and a bit about reading and judging sources for research papers.

What did you “plan” today?

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One Response to Common Core of Errors and Nostalgia: Where is the future of education?

  1. Thanks for the shout-out and good conversation.

    Here’s my answer to your comment over at Teacher in a Strange Land. It was nice of you to visit–y’all come back, now.

    Thanks for the great response, Ed. The money quote?

    “At each step, the people who actually did the work were brought in to make the next improvements.”

    Like you, I see some value in a broad framework of what should be taught–and when. But the people and organizations now shaping the Common Core Everything movement are not the ones actually doing the work. They are, of course, exactly the people who will benefit from the boondoggle of educational materials, tests, and retrofitted “human capital” that will be necessary to roll out an aligned package of standards, tests and curricula in a nation as huge as the United States.

    It’s an incredible, lucrative market. And they’re shaping it with government approval and rhetorical support, although the feds have been careful not to admit that these are “national” standards. Just a little something the governors cooked up–we simply gave some grant money ($350 million) to a consortium.

    The thing is, the school Superintendent Williams walks through, in the blog, was state-of-the-art for 1989 and could have been preparing kids at very high levels. The only people fully prepared to roll with the punches and change curricula, technology and programs rapidly through the 90s would be schools, districts and teachers, however. Our national love affair with standardization and data makes us, in many ways and ironically, hamstrung in the face of rapid change.

    The Common Core Standards, used as framework, might be helpful. The more locked-in–through mandated tests and curriculum–this becomes, however, the more teaching becomes de-professionalized and schools become indistinct, just another franchise.

    Like this

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