I write a lot about what I oppose, so as a sort of thought experiment, today I'll try to imagine if there are ways to accomplish reformster goals that I could live happily with. The posts in the series include Imagining Charters, Imagining Teach for America, Imagining National Standards, Imagining Vouchers and Choice, Imagining Teacher Evaluation, and Imagining National Assessments.
On the subject of national standards, I am bit more out there than some other public school advocates. I don't support the Common Core. I don't support national standards of any kind. But can I imagine under what conditions I would support them? Let me try.
We'd be trying to come up a list of all the things that every single student in America needs to know. That's either a very long and specific list, or a very short and vague one ("student must know how to properly use a parallel structure in a sentence constructed to provide organization and emphasis in a longer essay" vs. "student should be able to write well.") The long specific one would spark a million arguments, while the short and vague one would not be very helpful when it came time to evaluate mastery. So that's our first hurdle.
Our second hurdle would be actually coming up with the list. To do something like this on a national scale means calling together Big Time Experts, and the problem is that you end up calling together experts in the art of managing a national scale commission on educationy stuff instead of actual educational experts. A project of this scope is exactly what the government is excellent at doing badly. Heck, even David Coleman and his buddies understood this when they bypassed any sort of democratic government involvement and just whipped up Common Core alone in their garages. Of course, that ends up highlighting the problem with that approach which is that you end up with a product that represents the biases and inclinations of the small group of writers (double-problematic if they don't really know anything about education).
Is there a way past this? Well, we do have the internet-- would it be possible to crowd-source a set of standards by plugging in seven million teachers plus a few hundred thousand more edu-scholars? You could probably cut those numbers down by getting 50-70% of the teachers to say, "I trust Mrs. McSwellteach. She can speak for me." It might be doable.
You'd need some sort of review process, which would mean hiring a office full of people to just mind the standards store-- take feedback, push it out to a review board, manage some sort of regular QA process.
Plus we've established that there's a problem with publishers who claim to be following the standards but are just making shit up. So somebody would have to be in place to review materials and keep an eye on that.
Of course, all the review process stuff could happen at the state level, because I think it would be necessary for each state to have the freedom to adopt or not, alter or not, the standards. Now, if you put them together with actual representation from all over (and not just, say, some guy out in his garage), there would be considerable more bottom-up pressure to adopt, but I think you have to leave the states free to accept, reject, or rewrite. That would also keep the standards vibrant as each state performed its own little experiments that spread through success.
These standards would be designed to help teachers teach; they would not
be designed to be measured. Many of the standards that we would agree
on would be untestable. That's okay. The object of these standards would
not be to try to measure and compare success; the purpose of these
standards would be to give each teacher in the nation a comparable guide
to where they should be and what they should be trying to do. It's up to each state, district and school to decide how they'll determine if the standards were met or not. This may not make the people who want to evaluate and stack-rank schools on a national scale happy. Too bad. My national standards are not for them-- for many reasons, not the least of which is that having assorted bureaucrats able to rank and compare schools does not help teachers teach.
Granted, I am talking about an "if" the size of Uranus, but if we could do all that, we might have national standards that would be both useful and supportable.