July 27, 2010 5:07PM

Duncan: One Size Fits All = Bad; Uniform National Standards = Good

Touting the latest states to make the finals for Race‐​to‐​the‐​Top funding at the National Press Club today, education secretary Arne Duncan declared that:

We are a very long way from the classroom in Washington and if we have learned one thing from NCLB, it’s that one‐​size‐​fits‐​all remedies generally don’t work.

While secretary Duncan claims to recognize the futility of one‐​size‐​fits‐​all policies in education, his and the president’s own “Race to the Top” program extorts states into adopting the mother of all such policies: uniform national curriculum standards. Signing on to such standards is one of the key criteria by which the RTT funding was doled out.

As anyone who has ever met more than a handful of children might be expected to know: kids differ from one another. This creates problems when you try to teach them all the same things at the same time. Here’s how I put it earlier this year:

Any single set of age‐​based standards, no matter how thoughtfully conceived, will necessarily be too slow or too fast for most children. Consider a concrete example. The new CCSSI math standards place trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, etc.) well into the high school curriculum. Students would be taught this material in their mid teens. What good would that do for someone like Dick, who wrote this:

[W]hen I was eleven or twelve, I had read a book on trigonometry that I had checked out from the library. … A few years later, when we studied trigonometry in school, I still had my notes and I saw that my [theorem proofs] were often different from those in the book. Sometimes, for a thing where I didn’t notice a simple way to do it, I went all over the place till I got it. Other times, my way was most clever — the standard demonstration in the book was much more complicated! So sometimes I had ‘em beat, and sometimes it was the other way around.

Dick — Richard P. Feynmann — told many other entertaining stories in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann … like the time he asked a Time magazine reporter if he could refuse the Nobel Prize in Physics (“no”).

How does teaching (or re‐​teaching) trigonometry to all children at the same age help math whizzes like Feynmann? How does it help kids who find mathematics rough going, and lag behind their peers no matter how much support they receive from parents and teachers? The answer is obvious: it doesn’t.

Anyone who follows politics will be used to a certain level of ambient hypocrisy, but it is nevertheless staggering to see Duncan acknowledge the futility of one‐​size‐​fits‐​all solutions at an event celebrating his policy for deliberality orchestrating one‐​size‐​fits‐​all standards for 50 million kids.