The other day, I expressed the hope that Monday's hard-hitting anti-Common Core manifesto would prompt the Common Core-ites to elevate their game and start to more seriously address concerns about their efforts. I hoped that proponents would stop regarding the Common Core as something that "right-thinking" people must reflexively embrace and more diligently seek to make a coherent case for what they are doing and why critics need not fear overreach.
Happily, things are already looking up. Within hours of Monday's post, Mitch Chester, board chair of PARCC (one of the two Common Core assessment consortia) and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, sent me the kind of measured justification of the Common Core process that's been sorely lacking. I'm not sure I agree with his take and it doesn't seek to respond to the skeptics so much as it offers a bit of context and a window into his own thinking. But it's the kind of reasoned effort to justify the Common Core and to spell out its limits that's been lacking amidst the cheerleading, assumed inevitability, and impatience with skeptics. Please note that one thing that's especially welcome is its lack of defensiveness and willingness to countenance criticism. Anyway, I asked Mitch if I could share his take with you, and he kindly agreed.
Here's what he had to say:
I think you did a great job with today's blog on the counter-manifesto. For the record, I was not a signatory to, nor is what follows intended to defend, the Shanker Institute manifesto.
I continue to think that concerns about an imposed, national curriculum are misplaced. For me, the Common Core Standards, Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), Race to the Top and corresponding curriculum development efforts are not about federal oversight or standardized curriculum. Instead, they are about raising the bar while providing a scaffold upon which local districts can upgrade their instructional programs.
Every stop in my career (in Connecticut, Philadelphia, Ohio, and now Massachusetts) has reinforced for me that local practitioners rarely have the capacity to develop curriculum on their own, often make poor choices when it comes to selecting curriculum materials, and welcome the opportunity to be exposed to exemplary curriculum resources.
Development and dissemination of curricular exemplars were not seen as core responsibilities of SEAs (or even of LEAs, in the case of Philly when I was there) as we implemented the standards-based reform agenda over the past two decades. Districts with the expertise to provide high-quality programs of instruction thrived while those with limited capacity lagged (often relying on narrow test-prep strategies). The "best-in-class" performance of Massachusetts' students, which some assert will be ruined by participation in the Common Core and PARCC, is a case-in-point. Excellent standards and assessments by themselves did little to ameliorate vast discrepancies in the quality of the curricular programs--and thus performance gaps--that Commonwealth students experience from classroom to classroom, school to school, and district to district.
The lack of local capacity and the hunger for resources has convinced me that the development of exemplary curriculum modules is an appropriate role for SEAs (individually or collectively) and holds the potential to provoke stronger curriculum in districts with weak instructional programs. I am convinced that districts (charter schools, too) will welcome the opportunity to import, adapt, and build their own units based on the exemplars. The fact that some states will be using federal funds to develop these tools doesn't make them a national--or federal--curriculum; it simply is one way in which federal funds can support much needed state and local improvements.
I don't presume that there is any silver bullet--curriculum exemplars included. It is through a coherent approach to standards, assessment, curriculum, and staging their implementation--along with policies that exit low performing institutions and welcome new, promising ventures (including technology-enabled)--that we will orchestrate widespread, high-quality instructional programs.
The gauntlet you've thrown down is well aimed. We need to do a better job of stating what we are and are not about.
With any luck, we may now be embarking on a tougher, savvier discussion of the merits of the Common Core effort and whether it's being pursued in a manner that will deliver a happy result. Like I said on Monday, "Now it gets interesting."