Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Standards: Agreements and Assurances

When we talk about standards, we are really talking about two different things-- and only one of them is real.


For a while it was in vogue to compare educational standards to manufacturing standards like the standards for electrical outlets.

Those sorts of standards represent an agreement-- the interested parties come to an understanding that in order to play together successfully, we will all agree to play by the same rules. These agreements do not always come easily-- while the AC power that flows into all our homes may now seem like a no-brainer, it is, in fact, the victor of the War of Currents, a battle over whether US homes would be powered by AC or DC power. Think also VHS vs. Betamax, HD vs. Bluray, and Microsoft vs. Apple operating systems. Think about how many various charger cords you have for electronic devices; standards don't always get worked out.

When they do get worked out, it's a matter of folks saying, "Let's make it easier to play together by all driving on the right side of the road" or "Let's make it easier to make money by all using the same currency" or "Let's keep refusing to use the metric system."

Some times the terms of agreement can be dictated by power players. If I control the game, then you must agree to my rules if you want to play. "We control access to the North American continent, so if you want a piece of the action, you must build your railroad cars to our agreed-upon gauge." Microsoft and Apple have not set universal standards, but they dominate the market so effectively that they can dictate the terms of agreement for anyone who wished to play in their sandbox.

Folks who want to set the terms of agreement have two basic avenues open to them-- seduction or force. Seduction has been the preferred method in game platform wars-- "Buy our console and you will get to play the awesome new game Robotic Beavers Disembowel Ninja Cowboys" on the front end and "Create a game for our platform and you'll make a gazzillion dollars" on the back end.

Seduction works best with quality (Betamax) or opportunity to profit (VHS), but when you don't have either going for you (asbestos removal), you need brute force. That would be the part where John D. Rockefeller bludgeons the rest of the oil industry into economic submission, or the part where Wall Street makes sure that the standards for ethical and responsible behavior set by the feds do not actually forbid unethical and irresponsible behavior.

The architects of the Common Core Standards used seduction successfully with industry insiders ("Pearson, this is going to make you so rich") and tried hard to wrap their product in Robes of Excellence (Thanks, Fordham), but ultimately they had not fully reckoned with the millions and millions of end-users of their product who were unwilling to enter a standards agreement either way. That led to the use of brute force (Race to the Top, waivers, and the installation of Core-enforcing goons in state capitals). But sensing that was a long bridge to cross, the CCSS-pushing forces also tried to portray the Core as the other type of standard.


People love standards because every standard is a promise-- Do X and you will be sure to get Y.

Do this and you will be sure to get rich. Do this and you will be sure to get a spouse. Do this and you will be sure to get great children. Do this and you will be sure to go to heaven.

There are folks out there making small mountains of money writing books that make these claims. People want to know what rules to follow to get the outcomes they want from life. The marketing genius of the Core (and all its attached education programs) is to say to parents and legislators, "If your kids do this, they are sure to go to college and get a good job."

Standards as assurances appeal to the human desire to Know What To Do. They promise a clear future, with clear choices leading to the desired outcome. And they are completely imaginary. All standards of this sort are completely imaginary. Nobody can tell you exactly what you have to do to become successful or have a happy spouse or rear perfect children. At best, people can tell what has often worked for many people of a certain type under certain conditions at some times in the past. But none of that guarantees that any person who follows those standardized steps will be certain to arrive at the same destination. Insisting that life be whittled down to just the narrow path described by such standards does guarantee that you will miss a great deal of what could have been good and rich and rewarding in your life. You will be the person throwing away diamonds because your rulebook told you to look only for gold.

Promising that following these standards will make every child college and career ready is codswallup. It's baloney. We don't even know what "college and career ready" actually means, and we certainly don't know a set of steps to follow that will bring every student to that place. Collapsing education (and life) down to a single narrow path is for cowards and fools. It's trading the richness of life for the empty promise of a guaranteed future, a promise on which no standard can deliver.

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