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Can the Common Core Be Improved?

AFT, which has been relentless in its support of the Core, announced on Monday its awarding of Innovation Fund grants to teachers in New York and Connecticut "offer solutions to problems with their state's rollout of the Common Core State Standards." AFT president Randi Weingarten said, "The grant applicants has wide latitude, including critiquing the Common Core standards or writing new ones."

The AFT Innovation Fund was launched in 2009 and has picked up a cool million dollars from the Gates Foundation every year since, until Weingarten announced that the AFT would stop taking Gates money (for that particular fund, anyway). The fund's stated purpose is to help everyone submit to adjust to the Core more harmoniously. So there are many reasons to cast a suspicious on this whole business. But let's set that side for the moment, because the new grants suggest an interesting thought experiment.

Is it possible to rewrite the Core so that they are actually good? What questions must we answer if we are to create standards worth having?

Can we back away from the curriculum?

The Common Core dare not call itself a curriculum, because that would make the federal government's waiver-fueled CCSS mandate illegal. Core promoters are, mostly, careful to never refer to it as a national curriculum, even as they praise it for guaranteeing, for instance, that children can move from anywhere to anywhere without missing a beat. That trick only works with a national curriculum.

Standards for writing do not lay out the broad characteristics of good writing, but at some moments provide what is essentially an outine for every "good" essay that will ever be written. Math standards direct not just that a student will be able to add, but that they will add in a particular manner and they will think about adding in a particular manner and that teachers will use a particular pedagogy to teach these things.

If the Core is not a curriculum, it is at the very least a very specific outline for one. The Core needs to remove everything aimed at directing the curriculum of local districts.

Can we live without high stakes testing?

Built into Common Core is an assumption that A) teachers have been doing a terrible job and B) their feet must be held to the fire if education is to improve. We can argue about the false assumptions embedded in these ideas later. For our purposes, the important factor to notice is that Common Core and structures crazy-glued to it are designed to enforce accountability, not to aid and guide instruction.

It's as if the designers started by saying, "We need a list of things that we're capable of catching teachers not doing."

Nowhere is this focus on failure more evident than in the high stakes testing. HST is all about accountability and offers absolutely nothing useful for aiding or guiding instruction. Nothing. Zero, zip, nada. Narrow bubble test snapshots from last year provide me with nothing I can use to help my students-- certainly nothing more granualar, useful, or on point than the data I collect myself.

The testing has one purpose, and one purpose only-- to rank and sort teachers and schools. This guarantees that the Core Standards are actually irrelevant. You can include standards about writing quality, but nobody on earth has a clue about how to assess writing quality in a large-scale standardized format. Since everybody's livelihood depends on those test results, your curriculum will be How To Answer These Sorts of Questions To the Test Designers' Satisfaction. We don't how to measure what's important, so we just pretend that what we can measure is what matters.

Standardized testing is the 800-horsepower cart, and the standards are the horse being dragged along behind it. If you believe the purpose of education reform is to guide and advance instruction, the testing must go. If you believe that the purpose of education reform is to enforce accountability by stack ranking, then the standards are pointless-- the testing is everything.

Any standards worth having are testless.

Can we find a better purpose?

One of the worst aspects of the Core is the manner in which its architects shrank the entire purpose of education, both directly and indirectly.

Explicitly, the Core redefined the purpose of education-- to get students ready for college and a career (and really, the college part is just to get ready for a nicer career). That's it. Discovering the joy and wonder of being human? Finding the best version of yourself? Sampling everything human experience has to offer on the way to defining your own purpose and directly in life? Forget all that mooshy mularkey-- public education is about becoming more employable. We will view the collected sum of all human experience through one tiny, crimped lens-- will it get you a job?

I've often asked, but never heard an answer, to a simple question-- if the purpose of education is to become college and career ready, does that mean a young person who is committed to being a stay-at-home-parent should just drop out today?

But the Core's vision is even worse than that-- because it declares that the only measures of being "college and career ready" are math and language. That's it-- no matter what your college and career goal, what we want to know is how you do at math and reading and writing.

Any standards worth having must encompass the full broad range of human experience, human knowledge, and human possibilities. Standards that insist on transforming public education into a simple, not-very-good vocational training program are not worth having.

Can we find the one size that fits all?

Though advocates insist repeatedly that the Core are not national standards, there's nobody but a couple of interns at the Department of Education that actually believe it. They're national standards. They're meant to be national standards.

So can we come up with one set of standards that will be useful for teaching  rich kids, poor kids, kids who are ahead, kids who are behind, kids with learning disabilities, kids in great schools, kids in underfunded schools, highly motivated kids, highly unmotivated kids, kids for whom English is a second language, a future musician in Alaska, a future welder in Alabama, a future physician in a small town, a future elephant trainer in a large town, a future we-don't-even-know-what-because-it's-a-job-that-doesn't-exist-yet !

Can we come up with a set of educational standards that will be right every time for every student in every classroom with every teacher? I have a hard time imagining such a thing, or at least such a thing that wouldn't be so broad as to be vague and useless.

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Perhaps it's just a failure of my vision, but I don't believe that a useful set of national education standards can actually exist. Agreeing to answers for my first three questions is difficult; answering my last question is, I feel certain, impossible.

So I have to conclude that Weingarten is wasting the AFT's money (or Bill Gates's money) on a quest to find a way to turn lead into coal which can be squeezed by Superman until it turns into diamonds that can be whittled into whistles that, when blown by fairies, play a song that attracts baby unicorns that poop rainbows. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, but I think we'll all be in heaven before anyone turns the Common Core standards into something useful for public education.

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