Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What Common Core Won

I've said often that the Common Core failed in its creators' central goal-- to establish a set of national standards followed "with fidelity" by every school from Maine to Alaska. Every school would follow the exact same set of learning goals so that a child who left Iowa to attend school in Florida could make the switch without missing a step. The standards would be set in cement (remember the rule that a state could only add 15% additional Stuff) and we would all march together in lockstep into a fully-standardized perfect education future.

But the Core was revealed as both political kryptonite and amateur-hour educational junk. It entered the Bad Policy Witness Protection Program and took up residence in many states under an assumed name. Also, states took about five minutes to realize they could go ahead and rewrite, alter and add anything they damn well felt like.

David Coleman's dream of fifty states all yoked to his vision was dead.

But something else was not dead, and is, in regrettable fact, very much alive.

Once upon a time, school districts would plan curriculum, the whole scope and sequence and pedagogical approach as well as the actual content-- they would do all of that by consulting the experts that they had already hired. Maybe a curriculum director if they had one, or some other administrator if they didn't. Certainly an assortment of their actual classroom teachers. Those folks might consult some other reliable sources as well as using their own professional judgment to develop the district's educational plan.

But that was once upon a time.

Now the goal is standards-based curriculum.

Instead of curriculum conversations that begin with "What do we believe a graduate of our school district should know?" we now get conversations that begin with "Let's take a look at the standards." And then schools use them as a checklist. Let's work our way down the list of standards and make sure that we have something written into the curriculum that allows us to check off each one so that we can say it's "covered." And let's be double-certain when it comes to the tested standards.

Here are the questions that are not answered (and sometimes not asked) in attempts to build standards-based curriculum:

Where did these standards come from? Who wrote them, and is there some reason to believe that they know better than our own trained professionals what students in our district should learn? Are the standards based on any sort of research, and is that research valid and trustworthy?

What is not covered by the standards? Are the standards strictly focused on skills while ignoring content (spoiler alert: probably)? Are there areas of our course of study that we, in our considered professional judgment, consider vital, but which the standards do not address? And if there are are, given a finite school year, can we discuss setting aside some of the standards in order to make room for content and material that we consider important?

When the Common Core wave passed, it had swept away the notion that actual teachers and administrators are experts in education. Instead, the standards-based school district now assumes that nobody in the school system actually knows what should be taught, and that the most they can be trusted with is to "unpack" the standards and create a checklist-certified list of education activities that will meet the standards' demands. That's the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, the district doesn't believe that trained education professionals can be trusted with even that much, and should just be handed materials that dictate the teacher's every move, throwing aside their professional judgment and replacing it with the judgment of some bureaucrat or textbook publisher.

Worst of all for the long run, this approach has infected schools of education who prepare their few remaining future teachers to accept this, to envision for themselves a diminished role as content delivery specialists or instructional facilitators or classroom coaches.

Common Core was pitched against a definite enemy-- the teachers who insisted in teaching things in their own classroom just because they thought those things were worth teaching, the teacher who insisted on using her own professional judgment, the teacher who wanted to function as an autonomous individual. Ironically, even though the Common Core did not conquer the nation's school districts as it had hoped, it did manage to deliver a serious defeat to its chosen enemy.  We now understand in (too many) districts that we must adhere to the Standards, which have descended manna-like from some mysterious, magical higher power. They are not to be argued with or contradicted, nor will there be any discussion of the educational wisdom (or lack thereof) behind them. They are to be treated as our compass, our grail, our North Star. Teachers should sit down, shut up, and start aligning.

And that defeat of professional educators, that clampdown on teacher autonomy-- that's the one victory that Common Core State (sic) Standards can claim.


  1. Yep! Here in MD we still have Common Core and it's still tied to PARCC. Lots of the experienced teachers have been urged to retire so we are left with content delivery specialists. The curriculum in a can (because teachers don't write it) is pulled off the main frame computer. It's teach to the test and RUBRICS for everything. I hate rubrics!

    1. Here in the next county over from you we have "Curriculum 2.0," basically MCOS's version of Common Core. At least it was our own teachers who developed the curriculum, but it's still a big Common Core checklist, and teachers are pretty much expected to deliver it lockstep in a MP[X] Week[Y] Day[Z] manner, come hell, high water, field trips, or snow days. It's useful when kids move to other schools in the county and they're no more than a couple days off much of the time, but otherwise it's grueling especially for younger kids.

      And until Smarick & Finn are out the our DoE, I don't see the deal w/PARCC leaving any time soon. I can't speak for the rest of MD, but here in my county, Algebra1 and English10 PARCC tests are now graduation requirements. :-( My younger child will be taking PARCC in 7th grade for the first time ever only because she's now in Algebra1 and we may as well rip off that band-aid, and my 10th-grader will be doing the same this year for English (tempted as I am to homeschool them for their final semesters and graduate them myself if PARCC is still a requirement then, they LIKE school, go figure!).

  2. Peter Jonathan Greene! One of the most salient points you have ever made. The 21st century model of “standards-based” instruction is alive and well and inflicting untold damage on children and teachers. Constraining, developmentally inappropriate, devoid of content, and insulting don’t begin to tell the tale. I’ll let the latest set of “Next-Gen” science standards do all the talking:

    Analyze data to determine if a design solution works as intended to change the speed or direction of an object with a push or a pull.

    Communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air, and/or other living things in the local environment.

    Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.

    GRADE 1
    Plan and conduct investigations to determine the effect of placing objects made with different materials in the path of a beam of light.

    Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.

    Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help offspring survive.

    GRADE 2
    Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose.

    Make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made of a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object.

    Compare multiple solutions designed to slow or prevent wind or water from changing the shape of the land.*

    GRADE 3
    Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.

    Ask questions to determine cause and effect relationships of electric or magnetic interactions between two objects not in contact with each other.

    Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.

    Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.

    Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change.

    Make a claim about the merit of a design solution that reduces the impacts of a weather-related.

  3. Teaching high school Spanish has given me the latitude to not have to search through Common Core standards to check off. My colleagues and I still look to to the highly generalized and thoughtful ACTFL standards to gauge our units- Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. When asked for standards from our admin, these standards work nicely, and have been around for many generations of teachers.

    While many incursions of the Common Core come from our top down admin and professional development leaders from outside our discipline, I encourage dialogue, such as, “when you say that all students in our level 1 language classes should write an argumentative essay, are you hoping that they do this in the target language? Might it be appropriate for us to use the 2-3 year old toddler standards for language acquisition, whereby “no” is an effective argumentative tool?” Or, more seriously, we can select a discussion we might have already included in our curriculum, such as, “should languages have genders, and how many should there be? Or, ¿is it better to have question marks at the beginnings as well as the ends of interrogative sentences? Or, the great historical debate a Spanish 1 teacher might uncover in English- “What parts of the statement, ‘Columbus discovered America’ are erroneous?” Thankfully, these edicts come down less often now that the Common Core Fever has diminished, but anything one thoughtfully does in their class can potentially and creatively be used to check off the standards inflicted bureaucratically from above.