09/17/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Common Core Standards: What to Make of This Problem

The new school year has begun, and one of the issues on the lips of every educator and every parent is this: Common Core Standards. For those who don't yet live in the nightmare that is public education, Common Core Standards represent an overhaul in the educational system--a set of standards for learning outcomes held, not by separate states, but our nation as a whole.

Parents often find themselves perplexed by this new game-changer. Is such a move worthwhile? Will it promote greater learning? Will it ensure college admission? Will it prove a boon in the job market? How do you get a handle on it?

I suggest approaching the issue with this idea: Common Core Standards can best be likened to the new nutritional standards that have driven reforms in the school lunchroom. Just as the Obamas have attempted to rid our nation of childhood obesity and the specter of diabetes, so they have put our minds on a diet, too.

But viewed this way, there are still nagging questions. On the one hand, these new standards seek to elevate the situation of youth, bringing a benchmark of excellence to intellectual attainment. On the other, these new standards also seem to pose a threat--creating a series of standards that are less about education but more about bureaucracy.

In other words, Common Core Standards really seem to represent an entirely new set of boondoggles--intellectual labor that involves the filling in of ditches with the dirt dug from different ditches, the kind of work that is fruitless. Those who oppose Common Core Standards argue that this measure only creates needless problems for educators and parents alike, who now must learn new methods to "teach to the test."

I am of two minds about this pickle. This comes from the fact that I straddle two worlds: first, as someone who has experience in the machinery of higher education, and second, as someone who has watched parents--many of them professors who have spent a lifetime as picky consumers of learning--proceed with the business of educating their own children. Let me relate something about these two very different worlds.

This past summer, I spent my time once again teaching students who have been accepted to my university for matriculation in the Fall. And I recognize the importance of something we might optimistically call "Common Core Standards"--standards of excellence, standards of competency. These students find themselves in an elite institution where they will compete with the very best to eke out a spot on the Dean's Honor Roll. Some will go into massive debt--upwards of 80K--so that they can claim the laurels accorded to honor students.

But many of these students could not write grammatically cohesive sentences; they did not know the difference between a run-on and a fragment; they could not identify a preposition. Most could not tell the difference between a subject and an object, nor a dependent and independent clause. Their thesis statements were entirely ungrammatical; their topic sentences, less an expression of standard English, more an exercise in Esperanto.

For these students, Common Core Standards probably would have proven a necessary anodyne. But these students themselves came out of a world where bureaucratic measures of excellence often result in mediocrity. None of these students went to private school. Most hailed from working class backgrounds.

I also come from a world of well-heeled upper class people--a world populated by whip-smart folks drawn from the NPR set, who are professors and professionals who themselves have produced progeny who will exceed the Common Core Standards. These people are the intellectual one percent. The children of this elite will ultimately move into the upper echelons of intellectual attainment, and ease their way into world-class universities, corporations, board rooms.

Guess what: none of these parents will ever think very deeply about Common Core Standards. They don't make that the focus of education. The kids have lunches packed by folks at Whole Foods--organic stuff that is local and cruelty-free and vegan. Their parents are interested in much more arcane questions both of nutrition and learning, like whether or not their quinoa was handpicked by indigenous people who are receiving a fair percentage of the profits.

So in the end, I have come to this sad realization: Common Core Standards is the equivalent of a steamed burrito in a plastic pocket--enough nutrition but not enough nutriment. Common Core Standards are nutrition for the masses and may--or most probably may not--contribute to better learning outcomes. But those who are truly feeding their minds, and those of their children, are not seeking their intellectual calories from what, essentially, are empty warming trays of mystery meat. They are looking elsewhere--looking beyond--for their outcomes.