Monday, September 22, 2014

CCSS: Set in Stone?

One of the ongoing side arguments in the education debates is the question of just how set in concrete the Common Core standards are.

The pro-Core talking point has become some variation of, "Pshaw! States can totally do as they wish. The Core are just like, you know, mild suggestions, and states can just rewrite them or modify them or whatever." This is a considerable shift from the days when CCSS was sold as a way to get every single state on exactly the same page.

Exhibit A in the rebuttal has been the fact that the CCSS are copyrighted, and that the original language of state adoption included a bit about adding no more than 15% to the standards.

The argument that CCSS are set in concrete (an argument that I've made myself) is both unimportant and important. Because the reformsters who are arguing that the whole copyright business doesn't matter actually have a bit of a point
Why the copyright issue doesn't matter

What difference does a copyright make if the people holding it have no intention of protecting it? The answer is "None."

If copyright infringement were going to be prosecuted, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be losing big time over its Pennsylvania Core Standards, which are a pretty transparent cut-and-paste version of CCSS. Likewise, several states have violated both the CCSS copyright and the 15% rule, and so far there is not the slightest indication that anybody has any intention of enforcing either.

Furthermore, the standards don't matter, and they have never mattered, and they never will matter. Schools learned many things from the years of NCLB (including "Never Be Excited When the Feds Offer To Help Schools"), and one important lesson was that you should just ignore all the blather about what the standards do or do not purport to value-- the only thing that matters is the test.

Nobody important (i.e. "with the power to withhold money from the district") is going to measure how well you follow the standards. They are going to look at one thing, and on thing only-- your test scores. So despite reformster protestations to the contrary (and is anybody more pro-test than reformsters), schools will arrange themselves not to teach to the standards, but to teach to the tests. Yes, some folks will insist that if we teach the standards real good and hard, the test scores will just fall into place. But we've seen that movie already

There are items in the standards that will never, ever be truly tested on the Big High-Stakes Standardized Tests, and so schools will dump those just as quickly as they dump art, music and recess. The degree to which the dumpage happens will depend on A) the severity of the punishments being used by the state to "motivate" schools and B) the spine and integrity of the school district administrators.

Put two piles in front of school administrators. In one pile, put copies of the CCSS. In the other, put copious sample questions from their state's High Stakes Do-Or-Die Standardized Test. Which one do you think the administrators will pick up and use to design instruction?

At the end of the day, we're talking about a copyright that nobody enforces or observed exerted over material by which  nobody is really being guided. 

Why the copyright issue does matter

So if the copyright on the CCSS doesn't really matter, why talk about it at all. Why is it even important?

It's important because it speaks to the intent of the Core architects. Intent has become a whole subspecies of reformster debate, because those dismantling public education have proven to be somewhat slippery and malleable (kind of like silly putty lathered in lard) when it comes to their arguments.

But between the copyright and the 15% rule and the methods used to foist standards adoption on the states, it's clear that the Core was never meant to be adaptable, changeable or interpreted fifty different ways. Note also that there was never (and still is not) a mechanism in place to revise or revisit the Core. There's no number to call with suggestions, ideas, or requests for clarification (I suggest 1-800-WTF-CORE). There's no formal announced review process by which the creators will get together every four years to course correct. In fact, the creators have all moved on to other well-paying jobs, like David Coleman, who in the finest beltway tradition has moved into the private sector where he can profit from the rules he created while doing gummint work.

So when pro-Core folks claim that the standards are intended to be adapted and interpreted by each individual state, they are selling pure grade-A baloney. It is true that the Pro-Core Crowd has shifted from "We must all walk around with identical team mascots" to "Dress it up any way you have to in order to save its life."

The Core could have been designed for adptability. Most obviously, they could have been open source rather than copyrighted and owned. They could have been crowd sourced on the web. They could have been written with broad open ideas rather than specific mandated techniques.

But they weren't designed to be adaptable; they were designed to be a one-ring-to-rule-them-all standard for every state. When you build something to be a brick wall, trying to repurpose it as a stylish poncho after the fact just doesn't end well.


  1. I think the stronger, more important, and just weirder point is that there is no process -- no ORGANIZATION -- for modifying the standards. Or for that matter *explaining* them. If you want a point of clarification on a specific ELA standard... ??? There is nobody to ask. Let alone suggest an improvement. That's just bizarre.

    If a private organization (or organizations) is going to write standards, they're going to be copyrighted. The old NCEE New Standards were. The NCTE standards were. It doesn't even seem like I can read the NCTM standards on their website at this late date.

  2. I think we need to understand that unchangeable standards mean that Pearson can produce a one-size-fits-all test and not have to deal with messy state by state test specifications. As my old history professor once advised me, "Follow the money."

    1. tbh, it isn't clear how much of an advantage one specification rather than 50 specs is for Pearson. Their role in all this is a bit cryptic, since as far as I can tell they have a strong hand in almost every likely scenario.

    2. The advantage to Pearson and other publishers is that having to only prepare one product for market is much more simple, efficient, and profitable than having to create fifty different products. Ka-ching.

  3. For what it is worth, the argument is equally strong that it will drive down costs. The messy state by state specifications keeps potential competitors out of the national market. I tend to think it is more driven by vendors (including) who are somewhat overoptimistic that THEY will be the ones to take over the new national market.

    The problem is that it just isn't much of a competitive market at all, e.g., I don't see any competitors publishing white papers ripping apart the flaws in Pearson's NY Common Core test (which would be pretty easy).

    If it isn't really a competitive market anyhow (1 test, 50...), the details are largely irrelevant.