Thursday, November 29, 2012

Common Core: Sound Education Practice or Bad Gamble?

Now that 45 states (and 3 territories) have adopted the Common Core Standards, edu-preneurs and opportunists have gone into overdrive, churning out tons of materials, programs, and trainings to help schools and school districts implement these standards. Not a day goes by that I don't receive 15 or so emails from companies and individuals offering their wares and promising successful and complete implementation of the Common Core Standards.

 By all this hype, one would be tempted to think that the whole idea of having national standards was more about providing enterprising individuals and other entrepreneurs another opportunity to make millions from the public coffers.  Is the Common Core just another opportunity for making money, or is it a 21st century policy decision? Or, is it a continuation of a outdated education paradigm that refuses to die? Could it be that the Common Core adoption is nothing more than a "wrong bet" as education researcher and author Yong Zhao calls it?

In his latest book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Zhao writes:

"The traditional education paradigm may have worked before but it is no longer adequate for the changed world. The efforts to develop a common curriculum, nationally and internationally, are simply working to perfect an outdated paradigm. The outcomes are precisely the opposite of the talents we need for the new era. It is the wrong bet for our children's future."

The thought that "If we just have the right standards, the right tests, then our students will achieve still blindly sees students as products to be developed. As long as we continue to view education as a process by which we bring students up to "standard" and not to their true potential, we are doomed to remain in the same cycle of education reform we've been in since the 1950s. Over and over, the political mantra has been, "We've got to raise educational standards!" Yet, little really every changes in our American education system. We are, in a word, hung up on a core assumption that education is something done to students rather than something they engage in.

I would like to hope that somehow the Common Core is an answer to our educational problems, but my own experience and knowledge tells me that it very well could be the "wrong bet" as Zhao calls it. Here's where some of my own skepticism lies:

  • There is no research that says having common standards is going to somehow better meet the needs of 21st century students.Some will say "Common sense tells you that having common standards will raise the achievement of all," but then again, "It was common sense that told us the world was flat too."
  • Common standards by its very nature assumes students have common capabilities, abilities and talents to some degree. Reality tells us something much different. Students have all manner of abilities and talents, and being able capitalize on individual talents and abilities rather than trying to standardize each child is what education should be about which is not what the Common Standards movement is about.
  • The Common Core Standards movement is at its core more about having "standards for comparison purposes" than it is about truly meeting the individual needs of students. When politicians, policy-makers, and education leaders are more interested in developing a system that allows them to say "Our education system is better than yours," the needs of individual students suffer. The assumption that "we need to be able to compare students" is perhaps faulty to begin with. Students, and human beings, are different, and can't be considered cogs in a system.
  • We are truly deceived if we think having the bragging rights of saying "US students lead the world in test scores" is going cause companies to suddenly relocate jobs and businesses in the states. Businesses move to other countries for economic reasons: they move to where labor is cheapest, period. To argue that "test-score bragging rights" will suddenly turn around our economy ignores the reality that businesses want cheaper employees, not necessarily more educated ones.
I know those who developed and have been trying to sell the Common Core mean well. Educators in the US have meant well all the way back to Sputnik and beyond. Still, I think it is important for us to remain skeptical as well, especially of initiatives like the Common Core implementation. A great deal of money and effort is being put into this education reform, and I can only hope it is more about the kids we teach every day, than business opportunity and professional advancement and political bragging rights. I just hope we haven't made the wrong bet.


  1. Dear 21P

    In my opinion, I believe we need to keep an I on the objective with CCSS as a “starting point”. Looking at other countries should give a broader educational perspective. For example, Finland is top rated in education. Yes, it is a small country but all educational pedagogy and paradigms are in sync and will continue to evolve. In the US, each state has it's own educational pedagogy and paradigms which range from bad to excellent, but we have never achieved a good baseline as a nation. Looking at the state size, factors and conditions in each state provide the precedence of educational schema developed and implemented. These factors all have a direct effect with the stakeholders in that state and not nationally.
    Basically, I am saying lets look to develop a national educational baseline for all states with CCSS. Use CCSS as a “starting point” then we can compete and evolve locally, nationally and internationally. We can keep building on this "baseline" with our educational innovation by empowering all educational stakeholders in the processes. Historically, without educational risk nothing will be achieved. “If we teach children the same way as we did yesterday, we rob them of the tomorrow.” John Dewy. It is impossible please everyone...that's life. Just being in the race can provide overall opportunity to grow, learn and develop. I sincerely believe having something to bet on in the race is better than thinking about weather it is a good or bad bet at all.

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    2. What exactly is the "objective of the Common Core Curriculum?" I know there are perhaps stated objectives, but there are also "hidden objectives" as well. Is it to give policymakers the ability to make comparisons for determining effective instruction and ed practice, or is it so politicians and others setting ed policy can "Brag about being #1 in the world, or having raised test scores?" The former rationale requires very cautious comparisons, because education systems like that in Finland are quite different from our own, not to mention the enormous differences in the structures and demographics of their society. The latter reason of "having bragging rights" assumes that what is being bragged about really has meaning. Fundamentally, I have not seen a test yet that was so meaningful as to have this kind of status. Then there's the whole idea of "competition" which assumes we are in competition with other countries on an educational level. When it comes to employment and jobs, businesses will choose the cheapest labor and workers over the most educated any day, especially if it is cheaper for them to train a person willing to work more cheaply. The whole assumption of education systems competing for economic superiority is a philosophical choice with which I disagree. Our school systems should be about building more than people to put in factories and furthering national economic interests. But that is a philosophical difference. Finally, the argument about "teaching children the same way" really does not apply with the Common Core. The Common Core by itself will do nothing to transform the classroom and classroom practice. In fact, it has the potential to reinforce what we've always done in the classroom, especially as tests come online and educators begin "to teach to the test." My skepticism about the "Common Core Gamble" is hardly answered by arguments that we need to do this because we need to compare, and we need the Common Core because we need to change the way we teach. First of all, I am not sure we can really compare nationally and internationally in any kind of meaningful way, and I'm not convinced that the whole idea of competition is going to do anything to bring about the education our kids need. Secondly, I am also not convinced that the Common Core is really going to change classroom practice. Efforts to influence classroom practice by changing standards haven't worked in the past, and I am convinced this is any different. Besides, there are much better ways to change teaching than by trying to implement new standards. I think healthy skepticism and criticism for the Common Core is very much warranted until it has proven itself.