Education Opinion

Common Core Standards: A Thought Experiment

By Nancy Flanagan — April 29, 2011 6 min read
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So now the Common Core Everything movement is worried about whether schools’ technological capacity is up to the task of constant, computer-driven assessment--and Bill Gates and Pearson are developing the aligned on-line curriculum that you always knew was just around the corner. Soon--all the pieces will be in place, and we’ll be on our way to that One Unified System that we’ve been pursuing for decades. At last. Too bad it’s taken so long...

Just imagine what could be in place if Ronald Reagan had leveraged the political will engendered by the “Nation at Risk” report to get Congress to agree to a set of common standards and tests. A thought experiment:

The year is 1989--just a little over two decades ago--and those standards are now completed and the accompanying national tests will be rolled out shortly. Creating the standards and tests was pure ed-policy sausage-making--horse-trading to make everyone happy. But they’re done, and in the hands of every K-12 school principal in the country. They are comprehensive, and include exciting new thinking about curriculum--there are standards for the burgeoning field of career education, for example. The standards will be updated every 10 years, using existing standards as template, although such review adds considerable legacy expense to the original cost estimates. Much of the standards work has been drawn from the latest books, on cultural literacy and mega-trends.

May, 1989. Superintendent Williams is walking the halls in one of the two high schools in Elmwood. He likes to enter the building through the vocational hallway, where a recent bond issue has financed state-of-the-art facilities to meet new standards. He passes the career education office, where students are filling out their new service learning forms, mandated by standards and designed to enhance civic engagement. He passes the wood shop, the metal shop where boys learn skills to enter the workforce as millwrights, the health sciences room where girls can be trained as Licensed Practical Nurses, and the auto shop where two boys are on their backs under a car, changing the oil.

The business career rooms are outfitted with zippy Selectric typewriters and dictation machines--Williams sees girls transcribing the tapes. He is especially pleased with the broadcast studio, where students can read the morning announcements over the public address system, meeting the standard for broadcast media. A group of students is taking French IV via distance learning there, watching a TV lecture, then mailing off their homework and quizzes. Elmwood could only afford one language lab, so Mr. Williams has phased out Latin and Spanish, deciding to offer only French in a four-year block. Rationale: the French Club can travel to France--but his rural students were not likely to meet Spanish-speaking people in the future!

To meet the new standards, there are classes in journalism, food preparation, sewing and fashion, court reporting--and an expensive darkroom for the photography class. Photography was the last addition to career cluster standards before they went to press, which pleases Mr. Williams, an amateur photographer himself.

The computer lab is just around the corner. The instructional technology standards were brand new in curricular thinking, and challenging to write--there aren’t many people with degrees in instructional technology. Mr. Williams is happy that there are national standards for technology, however--without them, he never would have been able to persuade the Board to buy the computer textbooks, which will drive instruction in the new standards-based technology classes for the next decade.

His computer teachers are early-adopters who know how to fix the printers when feed wheels break down. The textbooks include the history of computers, with consumable workbooks labeling all parts of the machine, explaining DOS systems. To get out ahead of the standards, Williams bit the bullet and ordered twenty blazing fast 386 models which will not need replacing for 10 years or more, loaded with brand-new Windows 2.0 programs. The lab is Mr. Smith’s proudest achievement--he got a steal on the computers at $3400 apiece with monitor and keyboard. They will teach students both Works and PC Paintbrush, adequately preparing them for careers of the future, he is sure--and meeting standards.

It is quiet in the social studies hallway. Mr. Williams frowns as he sees the Government class looking at a pull-down map of the USSR. Writing national standards for government and civics classes took longer than expected as turf-war infighting slowed the process of assigning hundreds of relevant topics, facts and concepts to distinct grade levels.

The political world is changing quickly, but the new tests will assess students’ knowledge of Soviet-style communism for the next ten years. The Economics class meets next door--a new addition, driven by the national standards. Mr. Williams is unfamiliar with economic theory, but has seen students discussing the Laffer curve and even ethics in economics (added in light of the insider trading scandals of the 80s)--and he feels that this new knowledge will forestall ethical lapses in the future.

Mr. Williams smiles as he passes the library, with its cutting-edge theft-prevention system. It was a big chunk of the bond money, but he knows students will be using these books to meet standards for decades to come. Spreading the cost over 25 years of the bond, the investment made sense. His own daughter, Jennifer, is in the library working on a term paper to meet another new national standard for research and academic writing. She is flipping through the card catalogue, adding to the research notes she keeps on 3 x 5 cards.

As he passes through the math and science hallway, Mr. Williams thinks about the recent Education for Economic Security and Omnibus Trade and CompetitivenessActs, which increased the national focus on math and science. Combined with more rigorous standards, Mr. Williams sees a bright future for science and mathematics education. He’s especially happy that the national math standards proscribe the use of hand-held calculators, which lead, in his opinion, to mental laziness in younger students. He knows that there are now machines which can solve quadratic equations, but thank goodness ordinary high school students will never be able to get their hands on them to cheat on their exams.

He whistles as he passes the band room and art studio. The new fine arts standards are drawn from the literature on core cultural knowledge--things that every American should know. Mr. Williams is in full agreement with the content children are required to master--nursery rhymes, Glen Miller, Bing Crosby--and arts topics that were rejected. Jennifer was listening to Bruce Springsteen and a group called U2 on the radio this morning. He’s an indulgent father, but he knows that this Springsteen fellow and U2 will not stand the test of time as a part of our cultural heritage.

The only cloud on Superintendent Williams’ horizon is thinking about the other high school in the district, Brightmoor, which doesn’t have the same facilities or equipment as Elmwood High. Brightmoor will also be remodeled and updated over the next five years, but it will be difficult for students there to meet the new national standards at first. Parents in Brightmoor are less involved in school activities and students there less likely to go to college. Perhaps a slight delay doesn’t matter as much on that side of town? No matter--the national standards will eventually prove to be a rising tide that lifts all boats.


The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.