Want an Amateur Doing Your Splenectomy?

You’re on the operating table, trying to remain calm. The anesthetist holds the mask over your face with her left hand, while adjusting the flow of gasses with her right. Just before you slip under, she says: “Your splenectomy will be performed by Dr. Killdare, who received his degree in Surgery Appreciation from MSU. He’s never actually operated on anyone, but he knows everything there is to know about the way surgeons think about surgery.”

According to software architect and former Department of Education adviser Ze’ev Wurman, that’s essentially the way the national “Common Core” standards treat science:

This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. [It] simply teaches our students science appreciation…. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.

After reading through the document (twice), Wurman was deeply distressed to discover only a single mention of algebra, a single equation, and no mention of calculus or trigonometry. Most people would not want to be cut open by someone who has only studied Surgery Appreciation. Similarly, a student who has only learned to appreciate science, rather than to actually do it, is not well equipped for a career in research or engineering.

This is one of the utterly obvious problems with homogenizing educational standards at the national level: get them wrong, and you ruin education from sea to shining sea.

The other utterly obvious problem is that children learn different subjects at different paces. Some are ready to study algebra in elementary school, while others might have to wait for high school. And, as demonstrated by Khan Academy and others, it is easy to allow each child to learn as fast as they are able.

The fact that many intelligent people have nevertheless convinced themselves that uniform national standards tied to age/grade are a good idea bears witness to the impressive human capacity for self-deception.

Yes, math is the same from Connecticut and Colorado (as national standards advocates are so eager to point out), but children vary dramatically in their aptitudes and interests even within a single family. In generations to come, people will marvel at our inanity for plunking every student down on the same conveyor belt moving through every subject at a pace determined by their age. Current efforts to elevate this travesty from the state to the federal level, through national standards, will no doubt elicit the fiercest scorn and most profound incomprehension.