Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Common Core

Three years ago, when I first investigated the idea of the Common Core State Standards, I thought they were a pretty good idea. Among their attributes, I admired that the CCSS were:

- clear and skill-based
- capable of offering a more meaningful way of assessing schools
- likely to lead to new research around what skills are predictive of success
- amenable to better professional development across the states
- going to lead to better continuity among districts and states

I've since changed my opinion, but not because I no longer value the qualities I listed above. Rather, I've begun to see the effects they've had on schools.

The Standards offer valuable skills for students to learn. But they are far from the only valuable skills. Any student talented in the many skills required of art, music, athletics, leadership, or automotive repair is unlikely to find any reason to enjoy school were s/he to discover that our public education system has trained its focus on standards that ignore their passion. This is especially a problem since (like virtually every other popularly proposed remedy for public education today) the Standards have been partnered with high-stakes tests.

The longer I teach, the more I'm dazzled by the vast array of useful skills that humans can acquire. As society moves forward, some of the skills humans have depended on for centuries die off and others replace them - skills we never imagined we'd need or could master. These skills, and the knowledge and habits that go with them, are done a grave disservice not by the notion of Standards, but by the way we're implementing them.

Students are individuals, with individual needs and strengths. We can agree there is tremendous value in helping all students develop numeracy, literacy and self-expression (as the Standards aim to do), but we also know there is tremendous value in helping students hone their strengths, whatever those may be. And while advocates may claim that the Standards don't stop schools from doing that, they'd be wrong given the way high-stakes tests affect so many schools.

At least a few times a day, I receive emails from one education company or another offering me the opportunity to spend money so I can learn to navigate the Common Core, or so I can learn what an effective lesson for a particular standard looks like. In my experience, the time and professional development put into the Common Core mostly take away from time talented teachers could use to develop relevant and engaging units of study for their students.

There are schools where students are learning the Standards - where teachers regularly ask students to pull the standards apart and reflect on how they've improved on them. I'll agree that it's useful for students to have an awareness about what they're supposed to be learning, but I'd rather find a new job than ask my students to read the Common Core. The Standards are boring and uninspiring, for teachers and students.

Should we articulate the things we want students to learn? Absolutely. Should we assume every student will learn the same things the same way and punish them if they don't? Absolutely not.


  1. I have to respectfully disagree. I think the standards give kids the basic skills they'll need to pursue their passions. These kids are going to change jobs several times during their career, so they'll need to be well-rounded and not just develop their strengths. Also, I think we need to separate the testing from the standards. I think a lot of teachers (myself included) have a huge problem with the testing, but not with the standards themselves. I hope we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Thanks for sharing your opinion and perspective!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that standards are can be good things. As you point out, it is mostly in how they're used.