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John Thompson: Common Core Is the Essence of the "Status Quo" -- That's why I Support It

Guest post by John Thompson.

Last week, attending a great conference in Oklahoma City, Vision 2020, focused largely on Common Core, I kept worrying how I could articulate my support for the effort without angering my friends who are skeptical of it, or needlessly antagonizing Common Core supporters who hold the weird belief that it will be "a game-changer." Finally, I decided to just put my thesis on the table. I support Common Core because it embodies the essence of the educational "status quo." I support Common Core because it is like the educational establishment and American democracy in being the worst of all systems, except for all of the rest.

Twenty years ago, when I shifted from an academic career as a historian, I loved education conferences where teachers presented a range of workshops on pedagogies that had worked for them, stimulating a cross-fertilization of ideas. Few presenters claimed that the best practices that worked for them could be scaled up as "silver bullets" for the entire nation. These conferences also offered a window into my new profession's scholarship. In contrast to many other career-changers who became school "reformers," I fell in love with the work of the late Gerald Bracey, Larry Cuban, David Berliner, Lynn Canady, Diane Ravitch and, later, Robert Balfanz and the Consortium of Chicago School Research. I concluded that the educational research informing these seminars was the intellectual equal of any other social science genre.

I was not confident that the emerging "Standards" movement would have an effect on inner city schools like mine but, when read as scholarly documents, the original standards of learning were outstanding, and I mourned their defeat by the scorched earth politics of the 1990s.

Rather than stay the course and work within the system for another set of higher standards, a new generation of accountability-driven "reformers" adopted the Lee Atwater/Dick Morris tactics of demonization. They set out to destroy the "status quo." According to the "brass knuckles" school of reform, if education schools, school boards, teachers unions, and educational progressivism were wiped out, then "disruptive innovation" would produce "transformational" change." Standards morphed into standardization. Bubble-in testing became the point of the spear in a war by newcomers to the profession against veteran educators, as well as the social science that questioned their quick fixes. Eventually, many of the leading accountability hawks described themselves as "the Fight Club," and concentrated their efforts not on improving schools, but on destroying education systems in the righteous belief that something better would magically rise from the ashes.

Now, we have "déjà vu all over again," as the Common Core seeks a collaborative effort to organize instruction and assessments in order to provide engaging instruction so that students can learn for mastery. The contemporary Common Core effort is like old-fashioned educational progressivism in that it is based on the current state of the art of educational research. So, of course, many of its core tenets will later be proven to be mistaken. But, Common Core is a back-to-the-future political process where all stakeholders have been consulted.

As with the educational status quo of the 1990s, testing companies and consultants have more influence than I would like. Common Core advocates continue to insist that they do not intend to intrude into the way that practitioners teach the new Standards, as they continue to try to micro-manage instruction. Teachers will need to push back as the policy-makers over-emphasize assessments and become overly proscriptive. And, probably, it will go overboard in replacing too much fiction with nonfiction. We should remember the wisdom of Core Knowledge's Robert Pondiscio, however, who explains that Common Core does more than cut fiction, it also "restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum. (Emphasis in the original)

But, has that not always been the case in our schools? Are not all of our social institutions the results of "reforms" that prompt pushback, and that thus evolve in a non-rational manner? Is that not also the history of our constitutional democracy? The difference is that the test mania of recent years is an existential threat to public education. Common Core is not.

Prospects for Common Core would be far brighter if it was 1992 and we had not just followed the dead end path of test-driven accountability. Today, we have far more resources for designing new Standards and assessments. The billions of dollars wasted on bubble-in accountability gimmicks, however, will be missed. It will be tough enough to fund the curriculum supports and to implement the professional development necessary to prepare teachers. In the short term, we will not have a fraction of the resources necessary to provide the supports that our poorest children will need in order to learn for mastery. (I am not convinced that the sponsors of Common Core have any idea how much it will cost to align high-quality interventions that are needed before it can improve the toughest schools.)

Even so, we must recognize the opportunity that Common Core represents.
After a decade where educational leaders had to twist themselves into pretzels, maintaining that it was possible to have high-stakes testing and engaging instruction, it was liberating to attend a conference where educators and politicians of all stripes agreed that the teach-to-the-basic-skills-test regime of the last decade has failed. Similarly, I did not meet a politician, vendor, administrator, or a teacher who claimed that value-added teacher evaluations and test-driven accountability can co-exist with the transition to the Common Core. After all, test scores are bound to crater in our toughest schools as the curriculum is turned on its head.

Value-added accountability is a tool for destroying the teachers' part of the "status quo," but Common Core seeks to build a new barn and not just kick the old one down. The consensus I see as emerging is that the most likely next step for data-driven accountability is to return to the skill that we know forwards and backwards. If we want Common Core to survive, systems will apply their practiced talents in fabricating data and creating loopholes in order to keep value-added models from driving teaching talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores, and where the transition to Common Core will be most difficult.

During the next couple of years, educators will receive a mixed message. We will be told to prepare for a brand new adventure in teaching for mastery. In enlightened districts, educators will get a head start and will be allowed to abandon the teach-to-the-test basic skills approach that has been driving the love of learning out of our classrooms. In other schools during the two-year transition period, educators will still be required to engage in the same educational malpractice of the last decade and, then, they will be expected to turn on a dime and teach analysis, critical thinking, and synthesis. Finally, there is no guarantee that "reformers" won't again become impatient and turn the technology necessary to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a step toward real educational equity.

We should remember that the short-term pain of the abrupt change schooling will be tougher on our students. Kids are resilient, though. In another contrast to data-driven reform, if Common Core survives the rocky road ahead, it will be our poorest kids in our most challenged schools who will have the most to gain. It would be nice if the billions of dollars spent on computers for command and control could be redirected towards the socio-emotional supports that are necessary before low-skilled students can excel with a legitimate college-prep or career-tech curricula. The key to success, however, is rejecting the quick fix mentality that looks to Common Core, or any other single reform, as being more than a step by which our schools, and the rest of our so-called "status quo," bend the arch of incremental change towards justice. Common Core Is the Essence of the "Status Quo"



What do you think? Could the Common Core work to improve our most challenging schools?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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