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Is Common Core the Enemy of Autonomy?

The most damaging assumption of the NCLB era was that test scores and student achievement are the same thing. In the Common Core era, the most damaging assumption might be the following fallacy: Moving toward a coherent national system will bring about a loss of autonomy for teachers.

Greater rigor and better assessments are important components of Common Core. But one of the biggest advantages is also the most controversial: the movement from a patchwork of 50 state systems to a more national system.

A few years back, a speaker at the Education Commission of the States conference pointed out that NCLB had gotten its approach dead wrong. Every state could choose its own tests, some rigorous (Michigan) and others ridiculously easy (Mississippi), but the federal government micro-managed the way you reached that arbitrary measure. What makes more sense, he said, is to have a single national measure--so that 'proficient' has the same meaning whether you're in Alabama or Connecticut--but to give states more autonomy in how to reach that shared goal.

This balance seems to be embodied in Common Core.

Shortcomings still exist. Having two testing consortia rather than one is unnecessary. The five states that have opted out keep a few patches of crazy-quilt in our national tapestry. And plenty of administrators at every level still use a ham-fisted approach to implementation that seeks to reform teachers rather than work with teachers to reform the system.

But educational reforms shouldn't have to pass a perfection test. The question should be, "Is the new system better than what we have now?"

When my wife and I decided to get rid of our '86 Toyota Cressida, with its push-button start, the window that wouldn't roll down, and the radiator that needed more water after every hour of driving, we didn't ask if the '97 Accord replacing it was the perfect car. We knew it would be a step up from the Cressida with its 297,000 miles, and we traded up.

When we ask ourselves why America's school system has slipped so far relative to countries like Finland and Singapore, we rarely point out the obvious: most high-performing nations are just that--nations--when it comes to their education systems. They're not a confederacy of states.

When I drive across the state border from Arkansas to Oklahoma, I don't have to trade in my Arkandollars for Oklahoman currency. Interstate 40 continues to be I-40 through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, all the way west to California.

But if I make that drive, I'll pass through four state-run educational systems with different tests, different requirements for teacher certification, and different legislation governing everything from Pre-K to IEP's. Zoom in closer, and I'm also passing through dozens of districts with a hodgepodge of curricula, tests, and policies, where local school boards (elected with voter turnout that is often in the single digits) have tremendous power.

That's changing now. Common Core isn't going all the way in bringing about the kind of coherent national system that Finland and Singapore have, where there are purposeful links between teacher prep programs, schools, and the ministry of education. But it's a giant step in that direction.

The question is this: Will movement toward a more coherent national system bring about more or less autonomy for America's teachers?

Answers about the future usually lie in the past. Look at the history of our educational system. We've had a state-by-state, district-by-district system for a long time now, where the sanctity of local control borders on the sacred. Have teachers experienced great autonomy as a result? Are we trusted as professionals the way most teachers are in Finland?

For the majority of U.S. teachers, the answer is a resounding no. We've had a haphazard, decentralized system of policies, like a pile of random puzzle pieces jumbled together from 50 different jigsaw puzzles. The pieces don't fit together. But this jumble has been the worst of both worlds--low coherence, but low teacher autonomy, too.

The hysteria about Common Core is perplexing on many levels, but the strangest assumption I've heard is that if we move toward a more coherent national system, teachers will lose autonomy.

I teach in a school and district that could be a model for the direction we're moving with Common Core. We have coherence across the school and district: shared initiatives, shared assessments, and forward-thinking professional development that tends to involve decade-long initiatives in best practices like CGI math, ESL techniques, and the Gradual Release of Responsibility.

But we also have a system where individual teachers and grade-level teams have tremendous autonomy. Our opinions matter. Our expertise is respected. While we all have shared goals about what we want our students to learn, we have the freedom to exercise professional judgment about the methods we use to get them there.

Look at nations like Finland, where autonomy for teachers is an integral part of a purposeful national system. It doesn't take much imagination to envision a similar system being built in this country.

In President Obama's second State of the Union, he talked about the United States as a country that does "big things." If we can send the first astronaut to the moon, build world-class universities, and become one of the only nations on earth to elect a member of a racial minority to the highest office in the land, surely we can do one more "big thing": build an education system designed for both national coherence and professional autonomy.

In his second Inaugural Address, Obama said, "We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."

Our nation may have begun as a confederacy of states, with separate systems for everything from roads to militias. But 238 years later, we have realized that national coherence often brings national strength, whether you're building a highway system or the military. Maybe the time has come to reach the same conclusion about America's schools.

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The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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