Creating school standards that make sense for NC children

The late Edward Deming, the Quality Process guru, once told me that the biggest inhibitor to problem solving was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. This is why the commission appointed to advise the N.C. Board of Education about the Common Core Standards has a difficult job. The commission can bow to political ideology and Grandpa’s curriculum or it can base its assessment on standards that will best assist our children who will live most of their lives well into the 21st century.

The truth is, we don’t really know what my 7-year-old granddaughter will face in her life and work 20 years from now. In fact, it’s likely most of the jobs needed in 2035 haven’t even been invented yet.

So how is the commission to hit the bull’s-eye on its recommendations when it doesn’t have a clear target? Well, we do have some indications about trends based on what has evolved over the last 15 years. Those clues suggest some important variables, all of which have been developing with great speed and for which our learning skill standards are seriously inadequate. We know that:

▪  Human knowledge is doubling every year and that interconnectivity increases transfer at a level that is way beyond our ability to keep up. We no longer have the luxury of years, let alone decades, to adapt and respond. Knowledge is now a free commodity and is instantly available on a global basis.

▪ Advanced communication skills as well as the use of empirical reasoning will be increasingly required to understand and express ideas.

▪ Teamwork and collaboration across what may be called silos of specialization are important to discoveries and products.

▪  Problem-solving will require higher order thinking skills along with much more imagination and creativity.

▪ Social reasoning will be vital to understand other people’s perspectives, explore ethics, to look at issues historically and gain diverse views.

Future trend analysts and authors Tony Wagner and Thomas Friedman conclude that we have left the old industrial economy behind and are rapidly shifting from a knowledge to innovation-based economy. It’s no wonder that the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests support the new 21st century standards for learning proposed in the Common Core Standards. A workforce that is energized, creative and capable is in their best economic and social interest.

Some say our graduates are overschooled but undereducated, that schools are out of step with our workplaces, which are now less concerned with what employees know and much more interested in what they can do with what they know.

According to the 21st Century Ed Tech website, recent surveys of employers indicate that critical thinking and problem-solving, information technology applications, effective communication skills, teamwork, and creativity and imagination and diversity are the most preferred skills. I would add empathy and adaptability to this list.

Those who want to understand what this has to do with my grandchildren, North Carolina schools and the Common Core Standards should visit a school (public, private, charter ) to see how remarkably familiar it is. Yes, you will find no chalk dust, but otherwise much of the curriculum and organization will look pretty familiar. We still use Carnegie Units (1910) for course credit requiring some 120 hours of seat time per unit just as we did in the last century. Much of what is learned and tested by standardized tests (memory tests of fragmented knowledge) is nearly 100 years old. We use compartmentalized specialization. We operate only certain months of the year so kids can help harvest the crops, and many classrooms, more likely at the secondary level, are cultures of passivity and risk aversion.

Moreover, student motivation is difficult as schools are hopelessly outgunned by what many students can do outside the school, which is much more stimulating and relevant to their lives and interests.

We must change. Our global economy requires people who can make good judgments, think on their own, be facile with technology solutions and use creativity and imagination to solve problems.

The new Common Core standards have shortcomings, but they do offer an initial stimulus that is future-focused and can provide a powerful beacon for our schools.

It doesn’t matter what we name them. Some may believe that Common Core sounds too unifying – as if it would be too much to expect that the world’s foremost democracy should be united around its educational goals and standards. N.C. Life and Workplace Skills for the 21st Century would be OK as long as they require rigorous thinking and stimulate classrooms that use children’s natural curiosity and passionate interests.

The commission and the State Board of Education should promote a practical solution rather than a political one for these far-reaching standards. We cannot expect our students to meet the demands of the 21st century workplace and society with the current standards anymore than we would expect our soldiers to use WWII equipment and training.

Even if we cannot seem to muster the fiscal and moral support our dedicated teachers deserve, let’s at least give them updated and powerful standards to work with. The children of North Carolina are counting on us to get it right. Let’s not disappoint them.

Andy Overstreet, a former superintendent of schools in Virginia, recently retired from N.C. State University College of Education.