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The Common Core: Policy Triumph or Commercial Bonanza?

"Now we can start sharing, collaborating, and really refining what we're doing." Susan Patrick, CEO of iNACOL


There's a disingenuous, breathless-anticipation quality to the discussion around the Common Core Standards and their byproducts--the Common State Assessment consortia outcomes (take your pick: do you want to be Smarter and Balanced or Ready for College and Careers?) and the curriculum maps now aligned with the Common Core. The latest flutter of excitement centers around standards-based e-courses which can now conceivably be offered to any student in the United States, a breathtakingly massive and wide-open market.

Everyone's on the same virtual page now, buddy. Problem solved! Bring on the standardized on-line courses!

But wait! Checker Finn gives us the proverbial bad news/good news synopsis:

"The bad news is nobody has materials that are aligned to common-core standards, therefore somebody is going to have to invest significantly in developing suitable materials and lessons and online assessments, which takes time, money, and talent. The good news is that these materials and lessons ought to be able to be used across most of the country, rather than having to be customized for every state or every city,."

"Somebody" is going to have to invest significantly...but from then on, it's a goldmine! And isn't it a relief that materials no longer need to be "customized" to meet individual student needs or interests--or those pesky, non-uniform state curriculum benchmarks and goals? One size fits all! Efficiency triumphs yet again.

But wait! This is not going to be quick or easy, the experts say. Brian Bridges, Director of the California Learning Resource Network, noted that the Common Core high school math standards are laid out in strands, rather than "courses."

"They're not courses, but lists of standards under different topics. That's the dilemma for us."

I--and thousands of American math teachers--feel your pain, Mr. Bridges. We've always had to cope with the difficulty of taking a chunk of essential disciplinary content and turning it into a "course," with specific time limitations and little leeway in adapting to other context- based variables: student characteristics, background knowledge, need for remediation or acceleration, access to instructional materials, etc.

The Common Core standards--and their offspring--are a done deal in 43 states and counting. Unlike some of my teaching colleagues, I think that flexible national standards frameworks for disciplinary content are a good and useful idea, mostly for a reason mentioned only fleetingly in the Ed Week piece: student transience. It's nice to have an outline and sequencing of key content--and it's good to know that your content targets are generally aligned with other good teachers' goals, across the country.

I also believed in the efficacy and value of the "old" voluntary national standards--the ones created by teachers and their disciplinary organizations in late 20th century. I spent a decade productively using the MENC National Standards for music in my classroom. I attended national conferences and workshops where teachers "shared, collaborated and really refined" what they were doing with the music standards--across state lines, no less. We also created our own aligned assessments and standards-based curricula, tailored to our individual schools and classrooms.

Those standards were free for the taking, by the way--tools for smart teachers to use.

Perhaps, soon, someone will be able to "significantly invest" in training (not educating) teachers to leech all the creativity, judgment, passion and other unique characteristics out of their work, too. Common Core instruction--it's only a matter of time.

The option of mass-delivering standardized instruction electronically is only the icing on what could be a very lucrative cake for commercial education materials developers, courtesy of the Common Core. There are three reasons educational institutions and systems adopt technology to improve their work:

#1) Technology serves and streamlines the system, making it more efficient.

#2) Technology enhances the act of teaching, making it more exciting and engaging.

#3) Technology makes it possible for students to take control of their own learning.

In spite of some optimistic talk by innovators like Tom Welch, who thinks that Common Core standards could "open the door for [student] autonomy," this looks like a boondoggle for proponents of #1--and an unprecedented business opportunity for savvy publishers and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps a topic for the Educational Enterprise ski weekend?

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