Written by Tim Pope
For those that listen to the radio show Prairie Home Companion, you immediately recognize the title of this posting as part of Garrison Keillor’s traditional description of the children of Lake Wobegon (Coincidentally, this is also the town where all the women are strong and the men are good-looking). Our culture seems to have an insatiable need to be better than the other guy. This need is significantly influencing education policy and the implementation of the Common Core.
The effect of exceptionalism on education is not a new concept. Math and science education took giant strides forward in the 1960s when we feared we were losing the space race to Russia. The emergence of high-stakes testing in Texas in the 1980s gave us the ability to put a simple number on how our school/student performance/community is better than yours. More recently, international assessments have led to headlines such as “Poor U.S. Test Results Tied to Weak Curriculum” and “Competitors Still Beat U.S. in Tests.”
The cultural reality of exceptionalism in America is stated without judgment. However, the spirit of exceptionalism may have created a dynamic of delusion. For example, while American children may struggle with math, they excel at feeling good about themselves. More notably, as parents we feel good about how brilliant our children are (as the father of five, I am often glared at when I proudly profess my children all seem to be stunningly average).
The collision between exceptionalism and delusional brilliance is coming to a head with the new standards and assessments. Texas has adopted new standards and assessments (not the Common Core, as Texas has its own brand of exceptionalism). Policy makers there are backpedaling as parents are realizing that many students will struggle with the new assessments, and Texas has now gone from requiring four years of math including Algebra 2 to simply passing the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam for graduation. Other groups have developed resistance to the Common Core as potentially limiting the learning of gifted learners. Everyone seems to want to define career and college ready and to have their definition a.) be better than others, and b.) work for their children.
By and large, the Common Core (and the accompanying assessments) have done and will do a fine job of advancing the quality of mathematics education in America. Many students will struggle with the greater demand just as students struggled 15 years ago when most states determined every student should take Algebra 1 (the argument on how these courses may have been diluted to achieve success for all will have to wait). Rather than saying the Common Core is helping to move all students to the same end point, I believe the better articulation is that the Common Core will help move the entire continuum of learners in a forward direction. Will the Common Core enable more students to be ready for success after high school? Yes. Can someone somewhere write a better set of standards? Maybe, but it’s not worth the argument. Now, on the other hand, arguments around the assessments and how they will be interpreted….