Brookings, an outfit that is usually a reliable provider of pro-reform clue-free baloney, offers an interesting question from non-resident senior fellow Tom Loveless: Has Common Core influenced instruction?
It's a worthy question. We've talked a lot about how CCSS has affected policy and evaluation and assessment, but has it actually affected what teachers do in the classroom?
The proponents of the Core never developed a way to answer that question because their assertion has always been that we would see the effects on instruction in the flowering of a million awesome test scores. But the 2015 NAEP scores turned out to be a big bowl of proofless pudding, and so now we're left to ask whether the Common Core tree fell in the classroom forest without making a sound, or if it never fell at all.
William J. Bushaw blamed "curricular uncertainty," while Arne Duncan went with the theory of an "implementation dip." Loveless's brief piece includes this masterpiece of understatement:
In the rush to argue whether CCSS has positively or negatively affected American education, these speculations are vague as to how the standards boosted or depressed learning.
In other words, Core fans are unable to get any more specific than their original thoughts that Common Core Standards would somehow magically infuse classrooms, leading to super-duper test scores. Of course, they also assumed that teachers were blithering incompetently in their classrooms and that adhering to awesome standards would mean a change. Loveless notes a 2011 survey in which 77% of teachers said they thought the new math standards were the same as their old math standards. So there's one vote for, "No, the standards changed nothing."
Then Loveless drops this wry observation:
For teachers, the novelty of CCSS should be dissipating.
Yes, the "novelty" is surely fading away. I could jump to the conclusion that Loveless is one more deeply clueless Brookings guy, but he follows that up with these lines:
Common Core’s advocates placed great faith in professional development to implement the standards. Well, there’s been a lot of it. Over the past few years, millions of teacher-hours have been devoted to CCSS training. Whether all that activity had a lasting impact is questionable.
Loveless cites some research that tells us what we mostly know-- after a new change is shoved on us in professional development, there's a "pop" of implementation, and then it mostly fades away.
Loveless doesn't try to explain this, but I'll go ahead and give it a shot. Every teacher is a researcher and every classroom is a laboratory. And every instructional technique, whether it's in my textbook or pushed on me by edict or sold to me in PD or is the product of my own personal research and development efforts-- every one of those techniques is subject to the same rigorous testing and data-driven evaluation.
Does it work in my classroom?
I can find you numerous elementary teachers who took their newly purchased Common Core math textbooks, tried the recycled New Math instructional methods and pacing in the texts (because most of us will try anything once or twice) and then said, "Well, my students are confused and can't do the work. So I will now add a few days to the suggested pace of the book, and I will teach them how to do this The Old Way so that they can actually get a handle on it." The "fading novelty" looks a lot like "adapting or rejecting new ideas based on the real data of the classroom." And since Common Core's novelty is the product of well-connected amateurs and their personal ideas about how school should work, the novelty has indeed faded swiftly.
To the extent that we are allowed to (and that is the huge huge huge problem facing teachers in some districts-- they are no longer allowed to exercise their professional judgment), we do what meets the needs of our students. We do what works. We don't stick with something that doesn't work just because some textbook sales rep in a PD session or some faceless bureaucratic ed amateur in an office said we should stick with it.
Loveless suggests there are two plausible hypotheses. 1) As educators get better at using CCSS techniques, results will improve. 2) CCSS has already shown all the positive effects it ever will. I'm going to say that both are correct, as long as we understand that "get better at using CCSS" means " steadily edit, revise, change and throw out pieces of the Core based on our own research and knowledge of best practices."
Loveless does highlight one measurable effect of the Common Core-- the increased emphasis on non-fiction and the concurrent de-emphasis on fiction. He has data to back this up. And he also knows what the shift really means:
Unfortunately, as Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky have pointed out, there is scant evidence that such a shift improves children’s reading.
He also notes that more non-fiction doesn't necessarily mean higher quality texts, noting that two CCSS supporting groups provide completely different ideas about curriculum.
Loveless notes that analysts tend to focus on formal channels of implementation and ignore the informal ones. It's a good catch. A top-down directive from a state department of education can carry much less power than teachers sharing the video clip of CCSS architect David Coleman explaining that "nobody gives a shit what you think or feel." And politics are involved in the Core (and always have been, since the Core was imposed by political means).
Finally, he notes that implementing top-down curriculum and instruction reforms always runs afoul of what transmitters think, and boy, do I agree with him on this one. Every top-down reform is like a game of telephone, and each person who passes the program along reads into it what they personally think should happen.
As the feds tell state departments of ed and the department tells its functionaries and they tell their training division and they tell superintendents and superintendents tell principals and principals hire professional development ronin-- at each handoff of the baton, someone is free to see what they believe the program "must" require.
Loveless uses the example of non-fiction reading, postulating that an administrator who had always wanted to dump fiction for non-fiction would be given protective cover by CCSS. But that rests on a pretty explicit reading of what CCSS says about itself. This sort of top-down implementation also gives rise to policies that involve reading between the lines, such as an administrator who wants English teachers to teach less grammar and uses Common Core as justification. And of course the standards have been completely rewritten by test manufacturers, who interpret some standards and leave others out entirely.
In fact, some folks make a curriculum argument based on what the standards don't say at all. The rich content crowd insists that implementing Common Core must involve rich, complex texts from the canon of Important Stuff, and their argument basically is that because Common Core doesn't really require rich content because otherwise, it would just be a stupid set of bad standards emphasizing "skills" while leaving a giant pedagogical hole in its heart where the richness of literature should be. They must mean for us to fill in the gaps with rich text, they argue. Because surely the standards couldn't be that stupid and empty. (Spoiler alert: yes, they are).
In fact, in an otherwise pretty thorough brief, Loveless misses another possibility-- the Common Core Standards are limited in their ability to influence instruction because they aren't very good. Can I influence the work of cabinet-makers by putting bananas in their tool boxes? Can I influence how surgery is performed by telling surgeons to wear fuzzy slippers into the operating room? The implementation problem remains unchanged-- it's impossible to have a good implementation of a bad program.