AFTERBURNER: The Cookie Cutter Curriculum

In this installment, Whittle takes on Common Core. It’s actually a bit of a surprise that it took him as long as it did to address the subject, given how hot tempers seem to run where Common Core is concerned.

The gist of it – national standards for anything don’t work. Competition and choice works. Therefore Common Core is a lousy idea; it’s a product of the old Industrial Age mentality in which everybody had to be treated in one-size-fits-all fashion, and that’s completely obsolete in the Information Age.

More after the video…

I get asked all the time about Common Core and what I think about it. I have friends on both sides of the issue; lots of them are Tea Party folks who see things from Whittle’s perspective and sometimes go even further to see a Bill Ayers/George Soros/Agenda 21 thing behind it. And I have other friends who say that Common Core is a good thing because if you don’t force objective standards on teachers in classrooms, what you’ll get is what you can expect to get when you make a whole class of impressionable public school kids a captive audience to some of the loons public schools hire. Namely, the kids will know exactly how they feel about math – and they’ll have zero clue how to do math. Which means they’re largely unemployable unless the economy develops a sudden need for more diversity coordinators or LGBT outreach workers.

I think both sides are probably right, and I think regardless of Whittle’s criticisms of Common Core – some of which might be wrong where the specifics are – he has it right that the market will do a much better job of commanding the skills the economy needs than some education bureaucracy, whether that’s a multi-state collaboration or the federal Department of Education.

Frankly, the whole construct of public education sucks. Public education as practiced today is basically the same model that the early Progressives copied from the Prussians in the mid-to-late 19th century. And the Prussian model – 25 kids sitting still in a classroom as a teacher lectures them, according to tidy class schedules, with bells going off to signal shuffling from one class to another, and grade progressions on a year-by-year basis with kids stuffed into cohorts – was put together for the expressed purpose of building soldiers for their military.

That model has virtually zero use in an Information Age economy, and it wastes time that could be spent learning.

There’s a terrific Wired piece from a couple of weeks ago about a completely new model of education being tried out around the world which beats the bog-standard public education model in America, and how the theories of Sugata Mitra, a British education researcher of Indian descent who champions a complete departure from what we currently do in terms of how kids learn, drive far better performance…

And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.

The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.

Common Core defenders can say – and probably with some justification – that if you put together a set of standards in math and English that everybody should meet and then leave the schools alone to meet them, you can get where you need to go. I don’t have an argument against that. What I would say is that you’re not going to create that wide-open educational marketplace by putting those standards in place; you create that marketplace by creating that marketplace. Once it’s been created something like Common Core might well have value. But first, let’s get rid of the Department of Education and let’s get rid of the command economy in which our kids are forced for their education. When people have the freedom to choose the educational product that best fits them, THEN you can attempt to set benchmarks for the results.

But not before.

There isn’t enough momentum behind the decentralization of educational delivery to make it safe to centralize the metrics of the results. That’s why Common Core is such a contentious issue, and it’s why Whittle’s main point is correct even of some of what’s in this video might be a bit off base.

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