What do standards prepare us for?

A basic premise of standards driven reform is that all students should know and be able to do basically the same things at the same times.

Why? That’s not what is expected of them in college, where distribution requirements vary greatly in scope, and can shift dramatically based on the choices students make. (The academic experience of an engineering or pre-medical student looks very different than that of a sociology student.) Nor is it what is expected of them in the workplace, where only the least desirable jobs are so rote that they require identical knowledge and skill sets from all employees.

The students who will be most successful beyond high school are those who figure out what they love to do, and then get really, really good at doing it. But it’s hard to get there when they have no room to explore, no chance to figure out what’s important to them, no experience learning something because they need to know it in order to achieve some larger goal.

At least up until this point, standards have substituted programming for exploration and preparation for experience. In the quest to make students “college ready” in the narrowest sense, we have inadvertently made them less prepared to be real, successful, self sufficient learners and workers.

The good news is that the newly adopted Common Core Standards create a lot more opportunities for students to do real thinking and real work in school. They stress analytic and reasoning skills along with writing and communication, they don’t go overboard in mandating specific content, and they don’t try to consume every minute of every school day. The question – and frankly, the concern – is what happens to those standards when they become textbooks and tests. As well designed as they are, it would be all too easy to turn them into just another script.