Thomas Friedman Accidentally Kicks Over the Common Core Sandcastle

In his column “How to Get a Job at Google,” Thomas Friedman talks about the views of Lazlo Bock, Google’s head of hiring. Those views explode the assumptions about education behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that are being imposed on American schools and that will continue to change (if fully implemented) what college professors can expect from incoming students. Instead of coming from a regressive test-centric, skills-centric education fostered by CCSS, Bock wants to see candidates for hire who look forward to new possibilities. He does not want to see ones who can only look back to the needs of an older era.

It’s a little puzzling that Friedman extols Bock. At the Education Writers Association national meeting in 2013, according to Patrick O’Donnell:

Friedman praised the imminent Common Core standards. He said that beyond raising expectations of students, having multiple states using the same standards will allow programmers to write materials that serve a broader audience instead of the fractured one now.

“You’re going to see a huge amount of innovation coming off the Common Core,” he predicted.

O’Donnell writes that Friedman went on to also praise Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). “’This is the beginning of a real revolution,’ he said” about them.

Well, the MOOC revolution came and went without impact… the medium will remain, but simply as another tool for teaching, not as a world-changing possibility… and CCSS, we are discovering, is focused not on innovation but on meeting the needs of 1964, certainly not on preparing students for the unknowns of the future. In his comments, Bock, without addressing either directly, makes that clear. Friedman recounts Bock’s five hiring “attributes”:

  1. Ability: “general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability.”
  2. Leadership: “when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead.”
  3. Ownership: “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in.”
  4. Humility: “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.”
  5. Expertise (the least important).

The only item on this list that is addressed (and not at all well, at that) by either the MOOC or the CCSS is the last one. Clearly, CCSS will never help anyone get a job at Google. Candidates have to prepare for that on their own, by developing the requisite skills outside of the classroom (unless, of course, we abandon CCSS).

I don’t know if Friedman is in the midst of a change of heart (I hope so, but that would be too much to expect), but it is a little odd that he is writing about Bock now, more than half-a-year after the interview he references. Last August, fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about “the entirely praiseworthy, up to now bipartisan effort to create a Common Core curriculum.” I am hoping that was the high-water mark of enthusiasm for CCSS and that since, in the face of reservations across the political spectrum and from educators at all levels (including in the universities CCSS is supposed to facilitate by better preparing entrants), the pundits, both good (Krugman) and mediocre (Friedman) are beginning to recognize the smoke and mirrors of CCSS for just what they are.

The jobs of the future cannot be prepared for by aiming to succeed on tests over material extracted from jobs (and knowledge) of the past. The best way to prepare for the future is to learn how to learn–enthusiastically and with willingness to fail and get up and try again. Unlike Bock and Google, CCSS does not understand this basic fact of contemporary life.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Friedman Accidentally Kicks Over the Common Core Sandcastle

  1. I doubt that it’s a change of heart. Mostly Friedman just doesn’t think things through very carefully and fails to see that what he advocates with his left hand actually contradicts what he supports with his right. But good catch here.

  2. One of my best students ever, who was valedictorian of her class and then attended Cal Berkeley, did a summer internship at Google. There she encountered co-founder Sergei Brin, who was also a graduate of that same high school, and introduced herself. Upon graduation from Cal she went to work for Google as a computer engineer.

    Sarah was brilliant. She was also a caring individual. It took her a while to learn that her superb intellectual gifts were insufficient. She wrote me from college that when she was a high school sophomore she was somewhat insulted when I told her that the fact she could get high A’s in her school work was an insufficient use of her talents – she needed to be at the point of taking risks, even occasionally failing, to learn to go in depth far beyond what might be required in a course. By her senior year at Cal she had come to realize I was correct, and that she had been moving in that direction ever since that conversation at the end of her sophomore year in high school.

    By the way, she flew back home early her senior year to attend my retirement celebration.

    The Common Core did not exist, and would have offered her nothing she needed. What she needed was to be challenged and provoked outside her comfort zone.

    She has learned how to do that on her own.

    She is the kind of employee most companies are not lucky enough to have.

    She is exactly what Bock is looking for at Google.

    He’s lucky to have her.

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