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Winning the Common Core

Perhaps because Americans as a nation have a gift for organizing, we tend to meet any new situation by reorganization, and a wonderful method it is for creating the illusion of progress at the mere cost of confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.
Charles Ogborn

There was another one in my inbox today--an irritating guest column from a grinning "business leader" urging Michiganders to get behind the Common Core State (sic) Standards, thereby supporting greater learning for our "future entrepreneurs, innovators and talent." (Read: low-level employees.) There was a total absence of entrepreneurial innovation in this column, alas, which seemed to be a cut-and-paste of the usual faux international-comparison stats, puffed-up claims about standards and outright fibs about the convincing "evidence" underlying the CCSS.

I have long held that the CCSS are a thoroughly political response to a nagging, century-old problem: our national inability to eradicate poverty via education alone. Pretty much everyone knows that standards, by themselves, have absolutely zero magical transformative power. If test scores improve as a result of the imposition of CCSS, it will be because teachers decide--one at a time, school by school--to reshape their own instruction, conforming to these national standards and the aligned tests.

Standards, however, were something we could do. It wasn't all that difficult to weasel a way around the federal proscription against a national curriculum, hire a bunch of writers and consultants, get something down on paper, then hit the road to publicize the new policy and make commercial goods-and-services hay.

Getting support for standards was a whole lot easier than the hard work of re-thinking our national education goals, utilizing available technologies in creative ways or--here's the biggest barrier--providing equitable opportunity for all kids to access a high-quality education.

So it's interesting that this sure-fire political win-win has gone all wobbly. There's the 30% drop in test scores just announced in New York (which parents aren't going to take lying down), serving as canary in a national testing coal mine. There are the growing concerns about storage and use of student data on identical state tests. There is also predictable, justifiable hand-wringing about whether the federal bar has been set too high--or too low--for every individual child in America, Mississippi Delta to Wyoming ranch to Manhattan.

And then there are the folks who are muttering about government takeover of parents' rights and Agenda 21. These black helicopter parents are easy targets for those trying to win the Common Core war. However--it matters why you are wary of or outright oppose the Common Core, on what substantive grounds. If you're a classroom practitioner who is finding useful things in the Common Core standards, that matters, too. This is educators' core professional work, after all--or should be: standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment. This needs to be a serious conversation, one guided by practitioners.

Because: the Common Core isn't going away in the immediate future. The super-heavy CCSS push in education publishing and professional development industries has practically guaranteed that it will be a factor in K-12 practice and marketing for a long time, even if many more states withdraw their support. It's aligned--or will be--with the SAT and ACT tests.

This is hardly the first time that K-12 schools have absorbed a contentious major shift in thinking and practice, pressed on them via market forces or legislation crafted far from the classroom. Some of those things turned out to be OK, eventually, and others disastrous. But we need to hear, right now, from real teachers and school leaders about how helpful or unhelpful this Common Core roll-out is to what they do every day in the classroom.

Is there a way to preserve what's useful in the Common Core and discard what isn't? (This happens all the time in education, by the way.) What if the CCSS were considered a grant-funded gift to public education, a model set of standards from which states and districts could cherry-pick what they liked and fit their students' needs? What if we could selectively use the content, but skip the benchmarked levels of attainment?

Minnesota has rejected the CC math standards, but adopted the language arts standards. Are they a harbinger of a movement to allow choice around CCSS? And if not, why not? Isn't choice the reformers' ultimate goal? What if states could re-adjust inappropriate development levels for early childhood standards, too?

What if states were free to choose the CCSS, but construct their own assessments? Georgia and Oklahoma just voted to go that way, worried about the technological expense of administering the federally-supported PARCC assessments (among other things). Suppose CC-aligned states could opt in or out of the de facto national tests, substituting their own assessment models, goals and timetables? Could we live with that?

Because--truth be told, I'm not a fan of the Common Core standards, but see them as more of the same-old educational blah-blah, on a national scale, rather than looming apocalyptic danger. They were designed to rigidly standardize, foster data competitions and embed "rigor"--precisely the wrong way to nurture civic engagement, encourage curiosity, tap into those aforementioned entrepreneurial talents. Another big policy initiative with lackluster results, the Next Big Thing to promote. But by themselves--just loose targets.

It's the tests, the uses of the confidential student data they generate, and the Gates-Pearson online curriculum, aligned--naturally--with the CCSS, that freak me out. Those are the things worth going to battle for, and they're rolling down the tracks right now. If there's going to be war, where do we draw the line?

When it comes to the Common Core, the conversation shouldn't be about winning. It should be about what to do next. Because guess what? Kids keep coming back to school, wanting to learn.

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