UPDATE: This column appeared in a slightly altered and improved form on Anthony Cody's blog. As much as I appreciate your attention here, you might want to go read that. And while you're there, read through the rest of his most excellent work.
A recent recurring refrain around and about the comments sections is the notion that the Common Core standards are, in and of themselves, quite fine, and if we could just uncouple them from the testing and implementation regimens, all will be well. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor stand in the way of fine new standards just because their ugly testing step-cousin is trying to sneak through the door with them.
The CCSS are really pure and decent; we just need to find a good exorcist to cast the testing demon out of them.
I can remember thinking like that. I can remember looking at the standards and thinking, "Many of these are actually fine." (I should note that I teach at the high school level, not elementary.) In fact, one of my earliest complaints about the CCSS was that they were one more example of folks telling us to do things that we already did. And I don't think there's a teacher alive who wouldn't relish the promise of freedom to pursue the standards in any way they deemed best.
"You know," I thought at one point. "If it were possible to just use these standards as a rough guide to follow as a thought best, and we got the government to stop testing, I could live with this."
And that was the moment when I knew that, no, the CCSS were not pure of heart and I would never learn to love them.
Because what would decoupling look like, after all? What incantation would exorcise the testing demons? Would teachers go to government and say, "Thank you for these guidelines. Trust us-- we will use our best professional judgment and produce the best-educated generation of students ever. Just step back and watch us work." No, that would never work, and it would never work because the CCSS are not for us. They never were.
People who like the standards are looking at them as a guide, as that helpful assurance that teachers sometimes like that we are on the right page. We like standards. We like standards like drivers like white lines. And we think of standards as a map, a tool to help us find our way. To us standards say, "Here's a map. We trust you to find your way."
Not the CCSS. The primary purpose of the CCSS is to call teachers out. It says, "Here's what you are supposed to be doing, or else. And we'll be checking up on you every step of the way." It is not a tool to be used by teachers; it's a tool to be used on them.
The CCSS say, "Here's what you must prove you're accomplishing." If you tell your students that you expect them to study and learn the chapter about Torquemada and 15th Century Spain, they know there's a test coming. Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition. The CCSS are not about helping us teach; they are about holding us accountable, so they are meaningless without testing (and some parts are meaningless with it).
They are also, of course, about making money. NCLB also wanted to bust into the big piggy bank that is public school funding, but NCLB was a big blunt hammer; CCSS is a more sophisticated pry bar.
But the biggest-- the hugest, in my opinion-- reason that CCSS cannot be cleansed is reflected in the difficulty all of us who write about education these days, and it is probably the biggest lesson that the powers that be learned from NCLB.
The biggest mistake in NCLB is that they gave the whole thing a name. The testing, the state standards, the punishing evaluations, the funding pressures-- everything was gathered under the No Child Left Behind banner. Oh, how we loathed it. We called it funny mocking names. But even when we couldn't see the full picture, we knew its name. We knew its name.
This thing that's happening now? The contempt for teachers, the drive to privatize, the evaluation-based punishment, the dismantling of our profession, the destruction of public education, the redirection of billions of tax dollars, the secrecy, the ill-conceived standards-- we can see all its pieces, but it does not have a name.
That's a powerful choice, because it fosters the idea that these are all separate and discrete pieces, not part of a giant machine chewing apart the entire American institution of schooling. And it leads to the belief that some of these separate pieces can be cleansed and saved, that we can accept and somehow leave the rest behind.
People who believe in the cleansing of CCSS are like the characters in the story of the blind men and the elephant, only they are saying, "This tail piece is slim and pleasant; I'm going to take it home with me. But the parts you two are describing sound nasty. leave them here." You can't just take home a piece of the elephant.
The Common Core standards are part of that whole nameless beast, and the creators of that beast will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out any more than it was its own thing when it was the spine of NCLB. If you want only one arm of the octopus, you can't exorcise the rest of the animal. You can only have one limb when you have killed the whole beast.