Column: Common Core standards could hurt kids

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Last week, my daughter-in-law, Beth, was helping Ric (my 4-year-old grandson) complete pages in his new math workbook. After a time, she had to attend to other mommy duties and told Ric to go do something else. “NOOO,” he wailed, “I don’t want to play. I want to do more math.”

Meanwhile, Kenneth, my daughter Miranda’s 6-year-old, has drifted away from computer games and spends a good part of his day reading his visual dictionary, fascinated by its accounts of everything from airplanes to prehistoric animals to architecture.

Miranda and Beth take very different approaches to child-rearing, but they’ve both instilled in their kids a fundamental principle: Learning is fun. Partly they’ve done this by setting good examples: Both of them love to learn themselves, and their kids pick up on this. But they’re also creative in the way they approach learning. Beth recently made a huge fabric number line for her hallway, and every time the kids go down the hall, they jump down the number line counting by ones, twos or threes. Miranda supplies her kids with markers, Play-Doh, stickers, finger paints, glue sticks and lets them loose — and if her living room walls sometimes end up with the equivalent of cave painting, so be it.

Learning through play works at every age, and it’s often a good strategy for teaching at the high school and college levels. In early childhood especially, it’s finding that element of fun that makes for engaged, high-achieving students.

When child development experts in South Dakota got together some years back to establish early-learning guidelines, they stressed the importance of learning through play. Every one of their standards begins with the qualifying phrase, “Through their explorations, play and social interactions” — an important reminder that selecting a developmentally appropriate teaching method is essential to teaching success.

One of the problems with the No Child Left Behind program was that its narrow focus undercut the learning-through-play-and-social-interaction principle. Lots of creative and fun learning activities went by the wayside, and it’s no wonder that many of our most creative teachers were overjoyed when the federal government provided an opt-out. Anything had to be better than NCLB!

Unfortunately, “anything” turned out to be a radically new curriculum and testing regime tied to the so-called Common Core standards, a move that many fear has the potential to destroy American public education. Early childhood education experts from all over the country warn that the K-3 standards in particular are ill-conceived, and more than 500 of them added their names to a petition urging the National Governor’s Association to back away from the Common Core.

When criticized, the Common Core advocates claim that their opponents misunderstand what the standards are “really” about — an ironic complaint from people who constantly boast about how “clear and coherent” their standards are.

What is clear is that the Common Core is a radical educational experiment, an experiment that uses our kids as guinea pigs. This is one educational game we shouldn’t play.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at americannews@aberdeennews.com. The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.