Sunday, August 3, 2014

Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars

On the eve of his ascension to the top spot at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Michael J. Petrilli wrote a post to reflect on the current state of the "Common Core Wars," a term which in itself demonstrates Petrilli's gift for precision in language (see, it's the Common Core that is embattled, not American public education).

He hits a couple of points on his Update from the Front, all worth looking at.

Who's winning?

Petrilli says its the opponents in the air, and the Core on the ground. It's the foes of CCSS who are making the most noise and garnering the most attention, but they haven't actually kicked the Core to the curb anywhere but Okalhoma (though he notes that Louisiana is getting pretty noisy). We could contest either part of his evaluation, but I think a better question is-- what will winning look like?

It's an important question. A good case can be made that the Great European War (1914-1918) dragged on because nobody knew what the hell victory would look like (except, eventually, France and Belgium, whose goal eventually was "Get everybody to get the hell out of our country"). If you don't know what victory looks like, you A) have a hard time moving toward it and B) have no way of recognizing it.

At this point, neither side in the battle for the soul of public education is going to get what they want. The pro-Core dream of 50 happy states united in one big educational marketplace of universal standardization is not going to happen. The pro-public ed dream of the Core being wiped away and the clock being rolled back to fifteen years ago as if none of it ever happened-- that's not happening either. Until we know what destinations we're considering, we won't know who "won" or "lost"-- or if the metaphor of war and winning and losing even makes sense for the issues we're dealing with (spoiler alert: I bet it doesn't).

What Common Core concerns are legitimate?

Give Petrilli credit on this-- he knows when to give a little ground.

I’ve never argued that decisions to adopt (or retain) the Common Core are a slam dunk or that you have to be done dumb or crazy to oppose them. As with any policy issue, there are plenty of pros and cons.

So what are the legit concerns of Common Core foes?

* Federal overreach. Petrilli points out that Glenn Beck's story of the Core's origin is cockeyed, but he puts forth his own version which still assigns the lead role to the CCSSO, who respond heroically to cries from thinky tanks (like Fordham) that education needs an overhaul (oddly, the well-funded-by-Gates TFI neglects to mention his heroic role in Core promotion). Then some governor's foolishly hit up the feds for some incentives, and the federal too-much-involvement was born, and hard righties began the freaking out, which Petrilli sympathizes with, but really, there's no need and they should all just chill. Good luck with that one.

* The standards aren't perfect. "Opponents are right: they aren’t perfect. We said as much back in 2010. But they’re pretty darn good and much better than what most states had before. Yes, they can absolutely be improved."

This position would be a shade different from the Petrilli who said, in response to the OK uproar, "If there is this pressure to just make sure the standards are different from the Common Core … it's going to mean that teachers who have been working for four years to get trained on these new standards, to update their curriculum, that all that work is going to be thrown out the window." 

But let's stipulate that the pre-CCSS position on rewriting has changed considerably from the days that the CCSS Forefathers put a copyright on the standards and declared that states may change nothing and could only add 15%.  The understanding these days seems to be that nobody anywhere has any intention of trying to enforce that copyright.

Petrilli goes on to note that the standards aren't perfect, but they aren't as bad as critics say.

* Confusing, convoluted textbooks. Plug for Singapore Math and acknowledgement that many textbooks are now a mess, because some textbook companies botched the whole business and teachers aren't trained and everybody who meets a grumpy parent just blames it on the Core.

So when Petrilli says these are three "legitimate concerns," what he appears to mean is that the feelings are real-- they just aren't based in fact.

How to respond to legitimate concerns

Petrilli sees the federalism concern as the driver of the big bus of bile, but also the hardest one to fix. Can't take Race to the Top back, nor the $$$ that went with it. Can't seem to get Arne to stop acting like this is all his baby. I don't know-- we seem to have gotten all of the Obama administration to stop uttering the words "Common Core". Of course, it's also true that almost nobody, including Mike Petrilli, says the "State Standards" part any more. These are all words that have lost their luster as applause lines.

Duncan, Petrell says,  could probably help by declaring his intention to step away. Instead, he's ramping up to pick fights with various states for waiver non-compliance. Punishing OK for dropping CCSS will simply prove that the feds really are conducting this railroad.

Other concerns can be addressed by states, by snazzing up their own versions of CCSS Lite and by grabbing onto the very best in CCSS-approved text books.

We’ll also need to help parents and teachers understand that they aren’t powerless in the face of bad textbooks—that their own local communities still have the authority to decide which instructional materials will be used and that they don’t have to settle for schlock.

Petrilli rightly id's a sense of powerlessness as another driver of Core opposition. I'm not sure why he misses another chance to stick it to the feds-- the number one cause of powerless feelings might be the fact that the feds have said they will punish anyone who doesn't fall in line and get test scores on the mystery tests that, supposedly, can best be prepared for by grabbing anything with a CCSS Ready label on it.

Want to make people feel less powerless? Say something along the lines of, "We're going to put a stop to all high stakes testing until people have a chance to get up to speed. We'll be back in, say, five to eight years and you can show us a top-notch, well-designed, valid state-level test. Until then, use your best judgment." Wouldn't be perfect, but it would sure be better.Unfortunately, Petrilli has something else in mind:

My earnest hope is that the politicians—from Arne Duncan to Bobby Jindal and everyone in between—stop misbehaving and give educators the room to focus on the real work at hand: selecting good curricular materials, improving teaching and learning, and getting ready for the much more rigorous tests that will be given nine months from now. All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Right on track until that last part-- much more rigorous tests that will be given nine months from now. The only thing right about this is that his sentence correctly lists "improving teaching and learning" and "getting ready for the tests" as separate items, because it is true that improving education and getting ready for the testing rigorfests are two entirely different activities, and unfortunately, the latter is really getting in the way of the former. If we are going to give peace a chance, announcing our intention to unleash weapons of mass destruction in nine months is not the way to do it. 


  1. You've deconstructed Petrilli's arguments brilliantly. The only thing I'd add is that "not perfect" doesn't go far enough to describe the awfulness that are the K-3 expectations; I think "abysmal" might be better. (I'm about to experience the 4th-grade standards with my younger one this coming year, assuming I don't end up pulling her and homeschooling.)

    The movement to refuse those tests in 9 months has already begun. In my state, parents are already in touch with lawyers, and I know we aren't the only state with parents up in arms.

    Bring it.

    1. What state are you in? I agree about the K-3 standards - they are absolutely awful and will cause children to hate school from the very beginning.