What Is Wrong With Common Core Standards? Nothing.

January 30, 2015

James Thurber isn’t read much any more, which is too bad, because the humorist, who wrote his best stuff in the middle of the century past, could sum up a prevailing opinion in the guise of a character; and then somehow find a path to reveal the preposterousness of the opinion in such a manner to make you chuckle. Thurber didn’t seek the belly laugh; he sought to have his readers rethink a prevailing opinion and assist them see that the prevailing opinion, as held by the character, just might be silly. I particularly remember his story about his high school English teacher Miss Groby. Miss Groby, like some of my past English teachers, spent so much time harping about the grammar aspect of writing that the object of writing – clearly articulating one’s thoughts, was lost in the process. Thurber writing about Miss Groby with the limited vocabulary and specificity that is the result of an over emphasis on grammar in development of a writer, stated his conclusion about Miss Groby. “She seemed to miss the thing for the thing contained.” Thurber’s reflective conclusion, when fused with my own recollections of past frustrations, made me smile and even chuckle a little bit. I realized that I, too, had been forced to side step the main issue due to a disproportionate concern of someone with more power than I had, my teacher, about a minor issue. Consequently, the minor issue became the major issue turning, in its own way, the world on its head.

Common Core Standards. The articulation of the skills we all want our children to master seems to be on its face an admirable goal. Are there any among us who doesn’t want our kids to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, good communicators, good collaborators, and good learners? I don’t think it is too big a stretch to say those are the skills we want our kids to master.

So…if that is not the problem with Common Core Standards, what is? If what we all want for our kids is the “thing,” what is the “thing contained,” which is now causing so much consternation in North Dakota? What exactly do those who label themselves as anti-Common Core oppose?

From what I can glean from the statements I have listened to and the literature I have read, as produced by those who oppose the Common Core Standards, it is that the Common Core represent an overreach by government, particularly, the US federal government. There is no opposition to the Standards themselves, only that they were supposedly conjured up by the feds, or their minions, and have been imposed on North Dakotans by those same authorities.

Is that true? It doesn’t appear to be. It appears that great care was taken to ensure that the feds were not involved in creating the Common Core Standards, and that great care was taken in not prescribing how the Standards are to be met. In other words, we all have agreed these are the skills we want our children to acquire, but how each of them acquires the skills is best left to the local experts, the parents, and the students.

But can that really happen? Can the feds keep their hands out of anything that smacks of standards, that smacks of controlling peoples’ actions? My experience tell me, Yes, the feds can stay out.

For over twenty years I was closely involved in worldwide quality, safety and environmental management standards. Additionally, I worked with the group that oversees what are referred to as hard standards. Basically the management standards are about organizations making it clear how they manage the quality of their products, the safety of their workers and the products they produce, and the ways they assure the public that they will not adversely impact the environment. The hard standards are those classifications of products that tell the purchaser what the purchaser can expect regarding agreed to characteristics. What standard does the PCV tubing you purchase meet? How much weight can the support beam you are installing in your house bear? Under what conditions could the hair dryer you used this morning give you a shock?

For twenty years I was told by many people that ISO standards were federally imposed. They were wrong. All of the standards which I described above, were and are, volunteer standards. They are standards that the organizations, which provide the products that we all consume, have imposed on themselves. Organizations worldwide concluded it was in their best interests to develop standards for the products and services that they provide. How else could they trust the products and services that they provided one another; and most important, how could they assure their customers that their products and services were as good and as safe as they said they were? The International Standards Organization (ISO) is this vehicle. ISO is a non-profit organization that writes standards for many business and industry sectors.

It is true that in some cases, federal governments have adopted the ISO standards, as their standards. But also by agreement, doing so has no impact on the standards. An ISO standard cannot be used if it is altered. When ISO changes or upgrades a standard, any entity using the standard, including federal governments, must change or upgrade their standard(s).

My point? Standards can be imposed without governmental involvement. Standards imposed for the common good are not inherently bad, especially when the standards are self-imposed and are developed by the people who do the work, produce the product, provide the service.

The goals of skills mastery are certainly acceptable to a majority of parents and most citizens in general. That is the “thing,” the main thing. The “thing contained” is a perception by some that our federal government is attempting to enforce its will on matters that are better controlled at the local level. The feds aren’t in this case.

Grammar has little to do with the creation of ideas and the formation of expression. But if one is led to believe it does; it will. That is, worrying about grammar at the wrong time in developing something to be communicated will almost certainly stifle the idea and limit the expression of it. Worrying about a non-existent federal government conspiracy can in the long term hurt, not help, our kids.

Common Core Standards are the main thing. Education needs them; our kids need them. Let’s keep the main thing, the main thing. (Gee, I sure hope I punctuated that last sentence correctly.?)

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