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Taking a Long View on the Common Core


Carl Finer

I'm not at all surprised by the present declining support in the polls for the common core. I'm also not certain how relevant that data is to gauging what will happen in the long term. 

On the face of things, few are questioning the idea of a common set of learning standards. The ideal of consistent national standards (stripped of any potentially loaded messaging in polling) intuitively makes sense. Why should basic expectations for reading or math be all that different across state lines? Why should students in one state have the bar set much higher or lower than in a neighboring state? Why should a student or teacher who moves find that their skills aren't immediately transferable or aligned? Especially in a country steeped in the ideal of equality of opportunity, having different learning standards doesn't make a ton of sense.

But as we moved from idea to implementation with the common standards, enthusiasm was all but certain to wane. Making plans is always easier than the hard work to execute those plans. This is a difficult transition, requiring whole systems to change and straining capacity. Even in the best cases, a transition of this magnitude stretches our collective limits to grow and craft creative solutions. In the worst, it spotlights shortages in capacity or capabilities and results in poor or haphazard implementation. As the common core takes root, people will define and judge it by what it looks like to them personally.

The broader ideals of common core are also running up against more personal questions of identity. The desire to feel in control of our own lives can't be overlooked or underestimated: Much of the backlash against the standards has revolved less around actual policies than around feelings related to power and control. Case in point: There are the states that have rejected the common core ... and then adopted similar standards under their own designated name.  And there are teachers who have long taught using practices similar to those emphasized in the standards because it was simply "good teaching" ... but who now denounce the standards as an imposition on their personal practice.       

So I think the future of the standards depends less on today's opinion polls and efforts at "rebranding" (which seem disingenuous) and more on real efforts to address immediate implementation challenges and on long-term efforts to support the next generation of teachers in owning the standards as a natural part of their professional identity and within their personal control.    

It's not likely many states will completely turn their back on the standards, given the enormous investments of time and money already devoted to transitioning teaching materials and infrastructure. States that have changed course at the last minute, like Oklahoma, have brought protest from teachers upset about the addition of even more uncertainty. But there are real implementation challenges still to be addressed for things not to return to "business as usual" while nominally under the guise of new standards. 

Much work lies ahead to ensure that teachers have the necessary opportunities for meaningful collaboration, training, and quality curricular materials that would result in real changes in practice.  And the transition to new assessments and their usage has been a flashpoint across the ideological spectrum that is yet to be resolved in most states. How well the new assessments and their usage actually align to new teaching practices and values will deeply influence what common core looks like in the end.  

The future of the standards is really in the hands of the next generation of teachers and families, who won't see them as a transition at all.  As education schools and teacher-preparation programs across the country shift towards training teacher candidates on the shared content knowledge and teaching practices of the standards, and these future teachers become comfortable in applying them through their student teaching and in using new collaborative tools to craft their lessons, they will simply know them as "the standards." And they will be bemused to learn from older veterans about the time when there weren't shared expectations, not unlike our discussions today with more senior teachers who talk about a time before there state standards at all. 

I've observed what this may look like at my school. I came on board at a new middle school in its second year of operation, with few precedents established, just prior to the transition in standards. As new teachers were hired for my department, most fresh out of education schools, we all started using the common-core standards early:  Why bother making a transition at all for new teachers were just forming a foundation for their practice, and who would find the new standards simpler, clearer, more rigorous, and more applicable to the modern world than the old ones? As the new teachers have found their stride as third and fourth year teachers, using the new standards and practices has not been a matter of controversy, but simply what we do. 

If the shaky transition to the new standards manages to hold, I look for precedent outside of education at other progressive nationwide programs that also had wobbly beginnings but later found invested constituencies. The creations of Social Security and Medicare, for example, were attacked from both the left and the right, for example, largely due to deeper questions about how they related to personal identity.  Social Security was seen on the right (like by Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon) as an imposition on individual rights, and on the left (like by populist Huey Long and by communist activists) as a scheme to provide security for the rich while not truly addressing the problems of the poor. Ronald Reagan, at the time still best known as an actor, warned that the adoption of a predecessor to Medicare would be lead to other federal programs that "will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country," while industry trade groups (like the American Medical Association) warned of an inevitable decline in the quality of care as well as against the "intrusion of politics" into something so personal as our health. 

Both programs eventually survived in the long term because they created constituencies that were personally invested in them and that saw them as a fundamental part of the landscape, connected with their place in society. 

By whatever name they go by, the future of the common standards rests on the teachers and families of tomorrow.

Read all the entries in our latest Teaching Ahead roundtable discussion.

Carl Finer just started his 11th year of teaching in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood, spanning seven years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and four years in Green Dot Public Schools, a unionized charter network. He currently teaches middle school English and journalism. His Twitter handle is @CarlFiner.

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