Will Common Core Kill Creative Teaching?
In case you missed it, Ian Willey (a.k.a. "I.C. Will"), an assistant principal and former Teach for America recruit working at KIPP's Washington Heights Middle School in New York, released a rap video recently that he made with 66 of his students and a couple of willing colleagues. It's well worth the four and a half minutes of time it might take from your day to watch it.
In addition to having lots of today's appealing teacher boxes checked off on his resume—former TFA recruit; young, energetic professional; part of the KIPP network; urban educator—Willey also is obviously a very clever and creative guy. He is the kind of administrator I wish every kid could have, including my own. Let me lead here by saying that I love this video and what it represents to me: a professional educator channeling his own creative energy for the purpose of engaging kids in school, and maybe even inspiring them a little bit. And don't let it escape your notice that the title of it is "Bored of Education."
The backstory on this is interesting too. Willey apparently gave his students a choice: go to a Columbia University football game for free, or stick around to help make the video. You can imagine how the comments on this news went when it appeared on various social media outlets. Of course there were the obligatory "Columbia has a football team?" jokes that reinforced our cultural assumption that "smart" schools don't have football players in them. So there's that.
As it happens, not all the comments were about football. Before long I noticed a trend: people wondering about the connection between Willey's creative video and the common core state standards. Specifically, several commenters on a version of the story published on Facebook said the implementation of common core would be the end of projects like this—the standards would, they said, stifle creativity by preventing teachers from being in control of what they do. Worse, they said, the standards threaten to turn us all into the rough equivalent of the government bureaucrats of your nightmares: clad in shades of grey, devoid of feeling, emotionally unresponsive. Just what you would expect from a nanny state takeover of your child's education.
But what if it's not true? Let me reiterate something before we go any further: I like this video. I'm on the fence about the whole "would you rather go to a football game for free or make a music video?" thing, but I like that Willey found a way to bring his own creativity to school with him and I love that he engaged his students in what looks to have been a fun experience. That's worth something to me; in fact, it's worth a lot. Kids are learning all day every day when they are in school, even if what they learn isn't what the teacher intended to teach, and I get the sense that these kids learned something here that was worth teaching them.
But it's right here that standards become relevant. What is it, exactly, that I.C. Will's students learned? I'd like to think that they all internalized some of the sharp commentary embedded in their assistant principal's rap ("tell me why they're staring like they're mad at 'em/I guess in some schools they're not into having fun"; "don't call it insubordination it's imagination/I'm imagining a nation that evaluates the motivation/so much debating but tell me what is changing/we're bored of education/it's time to wake up!"), but I have no way of knowing if that's true. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not. Just the experience of making the video might have awakened the creative sensibilities of a student or two. But stories like these are click-bait for national media outlets because they reinforce a dangerous idea—the idea that kids need, more than anything, to be engaged, and that engagement is an end unto itself. Sure, they learned something, I'm led to think. I have no idea what it is, but it looked like fun. We just have to take their teacher's word for it.
I'm not belittling Willey's video—far from it. What I'm suggesting is that without respectable standards for instruction, all of the great things that educators like Willey do on the periphery of projects like this can easily be lost. Standards can actually protect creative teaching by making it possible. When the best teachers in a world without standards do great things, it's easy to write them off because there is no way to know what makes the creative work so distinctive. Worse, it's harder for teachers to do creative things when defining good teaching is a moving target. Make no mistake about it: standards for instruction do exist, but not in the form I'm arguing for. Sometimes they are explicit (and often they are overly prescriptive); sometimes they are implicit. In fact, I would argue that since the academic standards adopted in many states are bloated with irrelevant detail we essentially allow each school—indeed, each teacher—to establish standards of their own. I find that counterproductive.
I find it counterproductive because letting teachers set their own standards shortchanges the kids who don't get good teachers. Instead of that, I would like to see education policy move to a place where we establish some agreement on what we want our schools to accomplish. It's easy enough, and sometimes kind of fun, to rail against authoritarian control and demand the freedom to do whatever we want. But what is the price of devolving all decision making to the nearest local level? It seems to me that we have become so accustomed to deregulation in every aspect of our lives that we have let it seep into education policy as well. How's that working out for you economically? Unless you're in the 1%, I'm betting it's not working out all that well. Politically? Unless you're well connected in the age of Citizens United (or unless you're a union or a corporation), there's a good chance your voice is not really being heard. What makes us think this approach will make for good education policy?
The big question before us, from my perspective, is this one: do we trust each other? Do we trust the people who prepare teachers to prepare them well? Do we trust teachers to faithfully execute the responsibilities of teaching in a way that enables students to learn? Could we trust students to take school seriously if we created schools that took them seriously? With regard to standards, do we trust the people who would make them to restrain themselves, to create academic standards that respect the professional status of teachers?
The answer to all of these questions right now, obviously, is no. That's why we have the accountability mechanisms we have. But it doesn't have to be.
We could be having a much more productive conversation about standards than the one we're having. We could be having a more focused conversation on the profession of teaching and what good teachers do well—a conversation that allowed teachers to begin policing their own practice, which is a pre-requisite for professionalism. Teachers won't truly be autonomous until we have established some standard for professional practice. That has to begin with some shared sense that teachers can be trusted.
I trust, on some level, that Ian Willey and his charges at Washington Heights are doing outstanding academic work, even if it's not all present in this video. But I'd like to know more. To borrow from the old proverb: I prefer to trust but verify. What if we built an educational accountability system around that idea?