Common Core Confusion – ASCD Edition
At the ASCD Convention this afternoon, Brenda Hales of the Utah Department of Education gave a presentation titled, “Rolling Out the Common Core Standards.” It’s a topic that I’ve been wrestling with recently, and about which I wrote a recent blog post. I’m not convinced that the common core standards are necessary, and not convinced that they will lead to good outcomes.
But then, even setting aside concerns about the necessity or effectiveness of these standards, I’m deeply, deeply skeptical that, with politicians in charge, we have much chance of avoiding the worst possible abuses of the standards. The potential for narrowed curriculum and punitive ratings and rankings is all too real, and the huge amounts of money that will flow away from classrooms and schools should concern any school stakeholder, or tax payer.
Brenda Hales said all the right things for someone in her position. The Common Core Standards is not a national requirement. It’s not a national curriculum. It will help ensure that students in all (participating) states meet the same high standards for college and career readiness, which will… help us win the future! (No – she didn’t really say that; her exact words were “America’s future and the economy depend on it”).
From my vantage point, Hales is offering a distinction without a difference, for most of us in schools. Nearly every state has signed on to the Common Core Standards, the textbook companies and education consultants and test publishers are charging full speed ahead. Many teachers are getting a super-fast introduction to new standards that were revised and adopted on a Race-to-the-Top timeline, and may be implemented before they’re fully understood. I heard from Carol Jago, former president of NCTE and the only teacher involved in creating the standards, that the state of North Carolina rushed through a law that mandated textbooks aligned with the standards, but based on a fundamental misreading of the standards. (Jago said that the N.C. law requires English textbooks for high schools to contain 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction, when the standards are suggesting those percentages for a student’s overall high school reading, not just reading in one subject).
Those who support the Common Core Standards assure us skeptics that the standards do not dictate what to teach or how to teach – and technically, they’re right. Technically, states can opt out of NCLB too, if they’re willing to forego federal money. Technically, NCLB didn’t tell anyone to narrow their curriculum or adopt pacing guides; however, those unintended consequences were foreseeable. Now, still in the grip of the NCLB nightmare and watching Race to the Top competitors rush into a set of unproven reforms, with budgets slashed to the bone (or through it), and with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) still pending in a divided Congress with a
Democratic party-ambiguous President – now, of all times, we’re supposed to trust that these new and improved standards are going to advance American public education without sinking us deeper into the testing and fake-accountability quicksand.
They tell us these tests are better, smarter, more complex instruments. At this point, I just hear: more expensive. It will all be computerized, they say. Will they provide the computers, too, or do the imagine we already live in that 1:1 computing world? And in case you missed it, some of the human beings in the testing industry have been blowing the whistle on fraudulent practices in the testing industry when humans score non-bubble tests. How many teachers’ jobs are disappearing so we can continue to pay for fraudulent testing?
The implementation is still going to be messy in any case, in large part because of differences in interpretation. Catherine Gewertz examined this issue in EdWeek and captured much of the confusion.
If it were up to me, I’d put this project on the shelf. I think it’s too late for that wish. Our governments, professional organizations, and national unions have already endoresed the move, and the change is underway in most states..
Still, we can be well-informed in the ongoing battle to keep the standards in place and not let them exacerbate our existing problems with testing and standards. In my prior blog post on the subject, I quoted and linked some other opinions on the issue, including Professor Yong Zhao on the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization, and this Alfie Kohn commentary in Education Week.
Mary Ann Riley’s blog post takes issue with ASCD’s participation in the Common Core implementation; she contends that the standards do not have a meaning independent of the intention of their authors, nor can they lead to authentic learning when they ignore context, and bypass teachers and learners to jump straight from theory to expected outcomes.
Ultimately, I find myself quite convinced by the critics and barely reassured by the advocates of Common Core Standards. I am not persuaded that this approach meets the educational needs of students or the instructional needs of teachers and schools, and even if it does, only to a degree much less than it meets the political needs of government officials and the profit needs of well-positioned businesses.
What’s left to do, then?
For parents, students, and the general public, we must watch the actions more than we listen to the words. Follow the money. When policy makers spend at will for tests without supporting schools or teachers, make their hypocrisy known. If the testing burdens prove to be too much, parents and students are realizing that they have the ultimate power, in their decisions about whether or not to comply with the testing.
For teachers, we must be the experts in the standards, and we must press our unions and professional organizations to stand up and protest if the implementation strays in directions I expect it will. For example, the suggested literature selections in the language arts standards have some flaws, and in any case we’ve been assured that the list of examplars is not supposed to become a curriculum. So, when it happens anyways, what will be the response from the education organizations that are assuring us it shouldn’t happen? I’d call on our organizations to criticize the offending district or state for failing to understand and properly implement the Common Core Standards. A greater challenge would be to call on our professional organizations to refrain from selling or endorsing books or educational services that abuse the standards’ supposed principles.
We didn’t fight NCLB enough when it came along – too few dared to oppose the policy, draped as it was in the idea of leaving no child behind, and the goal of having every child develop proficient skills. This time around, policy makers may not have engaged teachers in the formation of the standards, but we’d better be willing to engage them in a fight for the quality of our students’ education
if when they begin implementing these standards in detrimental ways.