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Why It Matters If the Common Core Is Less and Less 'Common'

The Washington Post's Emma Brown has a solid piece today on the fact that the Common Core is becoming less "common." Forget the states that are seeking to abandon the Common Core; other states are backing away from the Common Core testing consortia, modifying the standards, renaming the standards (which will make it easier for future officials to modify them), and more. This matters—a lot—but it's often been lost amidst the back-and-forth between those who've glorified the standards and those who revile them.

What's often been lost amidst all the talk of "higher" and "career-and-college-ready" standards is that the Common Core was initially propelled by two distinct claims. One was that the standards were much better than those that states already had in place (e.g., they were "fewer, clearer, and higher"). The second was that they were "common," and would thus allow educators, producers of instructional materials, teacher trainers, and others to coordinate and focus their energies in more productive ways.

Rhetoric has tended to focus on the first, even though I always found the second more plausible and potentially convincing. After all, the faith in "higher" standards rests on debatable assertions and—if one were to concede the point—then assumes that more impressive mission statements actually matter.  And, if higher standards lead to goofy classroom practices or problematic materials (as seems to be the case in too many instances), they can actually hurt teaching and learning.

On the other hand, the claim for commonality rests on the more prosaic assumption that common standards (even if not obviously better than what came before) offer a number of potential benefits.  As I noted in National Affairs last fall:

[Common standards] make it much easier to compare the performance of schools, students, and educators (at least in tested subjects). They make it much easier to compare the effects of different instructional interventions or training approaches. They allow the people who create learning materials and provide professional training to design with a consistent standard in mind. Common standards make it much easier for teacher-preparation providers, charter schools, and digital providers like the Khan Academy or Florida Virtual School to operate in multiple states and compete on quality without having to accommodate the quirks that characterize 50 sets of standards. They also make things easier for families that move across state lines by ensuring that students receive more consistent instruction nationwide.

Standardized measures have been used outside of education with great success. For example, it's not necessarily "better" to require all plumbing systems to use pipes that measure 5/8 inches rather than 9/16 inches. But having standardized gauges and sizes means that all pipe makers will supply uniform pipes and that all plumbers will have the tools they need to repair them...The benefits of common standards, however, depend mightily on the "how" of implementation. Unfortunately, the hurried campaign to make the Common Core a quasi-national enterprise has undermined the venture's promise in profound and debilitating ways.

Whatever the hypothetical merits of commonality, it's vital to acknowledge that common standards entail real risks (even more math/ELA-centrism, stifling homogeneity, enshrining bad ideas on a vast scale, etc.). One way to mitigate these is to ensure that the process of adoption is genuinely voluntary and taste-tested by a coalition of the willing. This possibility was, of course, prevented by federal incentives through exercises such as the Race to the Top and ESEA waivers.

But the most interesting thing to me in all this has been how Common Core advocates have seemed ready and willing to toss commonality overboard in their quest to get states to make a paper pledge to adopt "higher" standards. Secretary of Education Duncan has repeatedly taken to insisting that he doesn't care whether states use the Common Core tests or embrace the tenets of commonality, so long as they embrace "career-and-college-ready" standards (whatever that means).  But he's hardly alone. That tack seems to be the default setting for Common Core advocates.

The decision to abandon commonality while embracing a rhetorical commitment to "higher standards" seems to have been a tactical response to the blowback that so caught advocates by surprise. After all, while it's easy to critique federally coerced commonality, it's hard for anyone to sound reasonable while saying, "I'm against higher standards." In that sense, I understand the tactical shift and the rhetorical ploy.

But, along the way, advocates have been forced to imply that a paper commitment to their preferred standards is going to make a big difference for students and schools—even as the standards, tests, and exercise grow increasingly fragmented. I think that's a dubious assumption and one that makes it likely that, for all the fuss and fury, the whole exercise will ultimately yield little or nothing of import.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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