Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's Not the Implementation, Stupid

One of the favorite fallback positions of beleaguered fans of the Common Core has been, "The Standards are actually swell. It's the implementation that's messed up." From national union chiefs to thinky tank wiseguys to people who make their living pushing the Core to-- well, there isn't anybody else. But they are all in agreement-- it's just this one feature of how we've rolled the standards out that created the problem. We could make it all better.

I don't think so. I think the way the CCSS were rolled out is the only way they could have been rolled out. Let me 'splain why each of the usual suspects cannot be convicted of the crime of bad CCSS deployment.


It Was Too Fast

This theory supposes that we just did the whole thing too quickly, and if we just took a year or two more to roll out the Core, it coulda woulda shoulda been as smooth as silk chocolate pie.

But it was never going to wait, and here's why. Folks make a lot of noise about Race to the Top and its roll in shoving CCSS down the states' collective throats. But we need to remember the ticking time bomb that was No Child Left Behind. From the moment that it became clear that Congress was incapable of successfully reauthorizing NCLB, all fifty states knew they were just counting down to the day when every single one of them was going to be in violation of federal law.

That day, of course, is today. This year we were all supposed to have-- by law--schools where 100% of the students were above average. The rollout of CCSS could not wait. It was never going to wait. Its backers didn't WANT to wait. They didn't want discussion, they didn't want comments, and they didn't want states to have time to think about whether this was a good idea or not.

The speedy high-pressure rollout was not a bug. It was a feature. It wasn't an error. It was the plan.

We Should Have Waited for the Tests and Materials To Be Ready

See above. We were not going to take that kind of time. And actually, some companies got out the door pretty quickly with some of those books and materials (almost as if they were the same people who wrote the standards in the first place).

It doesn't matter anyway. the day the actual CCSS tests arrive is the day we throw the CCSS out the window. We already know parts of the CCSS don't matter-- cooperative learning will never be on the test, nor will any true close reading (which takes more than one quick, time-crunched look at a chunk of disconnected text).

What we really need is for the tests not to be linked to student and teacher fates. The fact that the tests will be high stakes (the highest stakes ever for tests in this country) guarantees that we all will, in fact, shortly be teaching to those tests. The CCSS were sold as a good predictor of what would be on the test, but we've already seen this movie, and in it, the tests turn out to be a hodge-podge of badly designed trick questions only nominally related to the standards. Bottom line--tests first, tests last, tests and standards at the same time, we'll still be facing the same problems; making up paperwork to make our curriculum's look aligned while we scramble for any materials that give our students an extra edge on the useless tests.


More Teacher Involvement

Well, yes. But there's only one way that would have helped, and that's if teachers had been involved in creating the standards in the first place and can we please for the love of God stop telling that same stupid lie about how they were?

See, here's the logistical problem with top-down initiatives. It's not just that involving the people who will have to implement your stupid idea allows them to say, "Hey, that won't work," and it's not just that you get them to buy in and take ownership so that they actually care whether this lumbering beast succeeds or not.

It's that with top-down initiatives, only the people at the top know what's supposed to happen. The story of the CCSS rollout has been the story of legislators, college professors, consultants, publishers, school administrators, state ed bureaucrats, and all manner of education middle men trying to come up with an answer when classroom teachers ask, "So what exactly is it that I'm supposed to do?" Specifically trying to come up with an answer and either A) failing and shrugging or B) making shit up or C) passing on the answer they got from someone else who didn't really know either.

The brave gallant leaders who cobbled together the CCSS revolution put out the battle cry, and then as the troops assembled, they went home. If you or your school or your state education department want to go talk to the people who created this so that you can get clarification, you literally can't do it. The CCSS are the classic scam where you go back to the guy to whom you wrote that huge check and you find an empty office because he's out working on his next job.

So the only way to implement a top-down program successfully is to stick around to nurse it and train your footsoldiers. The only way to avoid that problem is to involve the footsoldiers in the planning process. Neither of those things was ever going to happen here.

Well, But, Theoretically

Yeah, sure. You know what else looked great on paper? Communism. Folks in the twenties and thirties loved it. Heck-- George Orwell loved it. Why do you think he was so bitter and angry about how it actually turned out.

Ideas cannot do anything as ideas. A song is not really a song when it's in my head; only when I sing it or play it. Saying, "Well, it's a great melody until you actually hear it" is nonsense. Putting on paper wings and saying, "Well, this would totally work if the laws of physics were different" as you jump off the roof is cold comfort to your broken limbs.

"This would be great except for the ways in which it clashes with how people really act and think and learn and behave and just, you know, reality" is nonsense.

Various Minor Tweaks

No. Just no. These are "deck chairs on the Titanic" suggestions.

It was never possible, by the very nature of its top-down, ill-conceived, time-pressured, amateur-concocted foolishness, for CCSS to be implemented successfully. We are not experiencing bumps in the road that could or might still be smoothed out with better implementation. We are getting exactly what this Reformy Stuff could be predicted (and was) to give us. You could get in the Wayback Machine and try to re-implement CCSS a thousand times, and every time will turn out just as ugly as this one.


  1. "The implementation" is not a fallback position. It's the explanation for why CCSS is failing in NY and succeeding in states doing a good job, like NH.

  2. Not possible to do a "good job" with rigid, copyrighted, developmentally inappropriate standards tied to high stakes testing tied to teacher evaluation. Sorry, NH, not possible.

  3. Anyone who thinks he is doing a good job with this must be Marquis de Sade!

  4. "This year we were all supposed to have-- by law--schools where 100% of the students were above average. The rollout of CCSS could not wait."

    Let's see how this goal compares to some of the top PISA scoring countries in the world that the US is often compared to.

    Finland: 54% graduate from high school on an academic track and 45% from vocational high schools. 25% of Finland's population has earned a college degree.

    Singapore: 66.6% have a high school diploma and 47% a college degree.

    China: 199 million students attend K-12 but only 15% earn a high school diploma and 11.6 (5.8%) million graduate from college.

    South Korea: The vast majority of South Korean youngsters graduate from high school, and of these, 82% go on to university. This is the highest rate in the OECD and, for a country which had an adult literacy rate of just 22% in 1945, it is an extraordinary achievement. With the high cost of tuition though—and a lack of decent jobs available for the vast numbers of graduates that the nation's universities churn out every year—many are now asking whether South Korea's education fetish has gone too far.

    Japan: Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, as of 2005 94% of all junior high school graduates entered high schools and over 95% of students graduated successfully from them compared to 89% of Americans. About 46% of all high school graduates go on to university or junior college.

    Did anyone see 100% anywhere? If no other country demands this of their public schools---and on one ever has in the history of the world until Presidents G. W. Bush and Obama---then why is this happening in the United States?

  5. But using PISA scores is in itself buying into the world-wide educational deform movement (or GERM, as Pasi Sahlberg has labeled it: I'd steer clear of using international standardized test scores against the Common Core, lest they be turned against you five seconds later.

    Far better to step outside the entire institutional box of US public education, on my view. As long as you play within the rules that have helped get us into our current mess, you're unlikely to be making moves that get us to a better place.

  6. The problems in education reform in this country are so immense and so beyond our control as educators. I'm so tired of feeling like a pawn in this system. I love H.L. Mencken's quote, "The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality." That's what happens with standardized testing when you link it to teachers' effectiveness ratings and to students' grades. Many times I have offered a creative idea to teach or enrich a standard only to be shot down by my peers because "that's not how they will be tested on this standard on the test." We are losing all motivation to think outside the box, and what is worse is that we are in jeopardy of losing our jobs if we color outside the narrow lines they have mandated.

    I'm so glad to see other teachers with blogs like this. I just started my own a few weeks ago!