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The False Premise of National Education Standards

The education world is abuzz with the release Wednesday of draft curriculum guidelines by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. CCSSI's draft is closely watched because the Obama administration plans to withhold billions in federal funding from states that refuse to adopt it, or something very similar.

The whole idea of imposing a single set of age-based standards on all students rests on a false premise: that children are identical widgets capable of being dragged along an instructional conveyor belt at the same pace, benefiting equally from the experience.

But kids are different -- not only from one another, but when it comes to their own varying facility across subjects as well. 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.