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High Standards Without High Stakes

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Over the course of about a year writing this blog, I've written a few things that probably left some people scratching their heads. Abolish the school board? Argue that the rich need public schools as much as the rest of us do? Get rid of final exams? Crazy talk, I know.

Of all the apostasies, though, supporting Common Core may be the toughest one for some readers to get their heads around. I get it. For starters, there are a lot of Common Core critics who want to believe that people who support the standards are corporate apologists funded by the Gates Foundation. That's not me; you're just going to have to take my word for it.

I've also said many times that I'm not a big fan of high stakes standardized testing, and yet I have written a number of columns arguing that Common Core [State] Standards (that's for all of my fellow bloggers who prefer to insert [sic] in there) might actually be a good thing. My argument rests on two ideas. One is that every kid has a natural right to a good education. That's just something I believe. And I also believe that if we're going to come close to delivering on that promise we're going to have to do a better job of coordinating what teachers do and how they do it. As a teacher educator, I can say that nothing is more frustrating than trying to prepare young teachers to teach to standards neither of us know yet. It's like trying to hit a moving target.

The other idea is that if people that I tend to disagree with on almost everything else have a problem with something I probably should be asking more questions about whether I support it or not. You'd be surprised how much the people you disagree with can help you figure out what you actually believe in.

Still, the actual Common Core standards don't excite me all that much. What does is the notion of sharing a common set of ideas about what we want schools to accomplish. See, I spent a lot of my time in graduate school reading John Dewey. Dewey was a pragmatist, and that means something more than just "practical." He believed that people are at their best when they work together—when they work cooperatively instead of competitively. Dewey understood that people have been endowed with special mental faculties that make us capable of predicting the consequences of our actions, which makes us really good at solving problems—if we want to be. And really good at solving social problems, especially.

Because he cared about social problem solving, Dewey also cared a lot about education. He is, of course, most well known for advocating "child centered" educational practices, but his ideas are often misintepreted. He wasn't arguing that teachers should just defer to kids and let the kids do whatever they wanted; remember, he was deeply interested in problem solving. That meant focusing the activities of students and directing them toward meaningful work. Children can learn a lot on their own, of course, but they can learn even more with the guidance of a seasoned and knowledgeable teacher. Teachers, for their part, have to understand children in order to teach them well, and they have to be able to direct students toward goals that are worth pursuing. Ultimately, to Dewey, that meant goals that encourage social cooperation.

I have no idea how John Dewey would feel about Common Core if he were around today, but I do know that he lived in a very different world than the one we inhabit and I think he would understand that just trusting everybody to do the right thing might not be enough. Dewey cared about the relationship between the individual and society and he saw schools as places where individuals could learn to live and work cooperatively with others by honing social skills. He also knew that subject matter mattered—but as a means to an end, not an end unto itself. This might explain my comment about final exams: in too many schools, they have become an end unto themselves. Take the exam and move on, for better or worse.

If he were here today I think Dewey would be persuaded that establishing common standards of professional practice for teachers is not only worth pursuing but essential to ensuring educational success for as many children as possible—especially in a society as unequal as ours. Moreover, if you recognize academic standards for what they are—goals to be met, not specifications about how to get there—you might come to see them differently. If you also understand that standards are not curriculum you'll be less susceptible to the lies people tell about what standards do and don't make possible.

That's all well and good but it leaves us with a question: are tests necessary to ensure that students have learned? High stakes tests are sold to us (literally sold to us) as a necessary evil; you can't have standards without tests, we're told. But is that really true?

Only if we want to be able to generate a number that tells us in simple terms if the standard was met or not. Only if we want to obsess over whether teachers are doing their jobs. Only if we want to give rewards and punishments to people we think are contributing to making our system a "failing" system. In short, only if we believe that accountability and efficiency are the two most important factors to consider when making education policy. I value accountability and efficiency as much as the next guy; I just don't see them as central to my mission as an educator. Dewey was fortunate to live in a time when support for public things, especially public education, was seen as crucial to the progress of society. We don't, at least not right now. But that could change.

How? A first step might be to decouple standards and high stakes tests. Doing that would allow us to re-envision education as a cooperative enterprise, not a competitive one. See, when standards are attached to high stakes tests, students, teachers, and the standards themselves are pitted against one another, especially when accountability is held in such high regard: pass the test or someone pays. When the test is removed from the equation, teachers and students are free to work together to accomplish a shared goal without any more pressure than the pressure of meeting a challenge. Isn't that what getting educated is all about?

Of course this only works if we believe that teacher and students really want to meet the goal—and that, apparently, is hard for some people to believe. But most of those people are not teachers, or at least are not teachers who have seen what can happen when students are free to learn without being pressured to do it a certain way. We can have high standards—and common ones, at that—without high stakes. In my next post, I'll say more about what that might look like.

In the meantime, consider this: change is a natural part of life, and it should naturally be part of the social institutions we create too. If Dewey was right about anything, he was right about that.

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