Education Opinion

Not Common. Not Core, Either.

By Nancy Flanagan — March 24, 2012 3 min read
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My friend Claudia Swisher, an exceptional veteran teacher from Oklahoma, recently posted an update in Goodreads, a kind of virtual book club where we hang out together. We have challenged each other to read 150 books in 2012. While I have been ripping through mysteries and historical fiction, Claudia just notched a professional volume--Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards. (Interesting title, immediately bringing to mind Love in the Time of Cholera--but never mind.)

Claudia wrote a thoughtful mini-essay in her review, sharing some concerns and questions about what impact, exactly, the Common Core will have on teaching high school English, a field in which she has thirty-something years of experience. She did like the book, seeing it as valuable tool, “as we, once again, gear up to change our classrooms in response to edicts from policy makers who have never been in the classroom. We can do this...again.”

Claudia is not the only one wondering about the Common Core Standards (CCS). There seem to be lots of questions and plenty of opinionsabout the worth and utility of the CCS. Even George Will has joined the fray, neatly debunking the myth that “the states” cooked up the bright idea of national standards (and accompanying national tests and national curriculum that are coming down the pike right now). Will also writes:

We have been warned. Joseph Califano, secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration, noted that "in its most extreme form, national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas."

Perhaps you think that dangling RTTT money to entice states to adopt the CCS isn’t exactly the formula for engaging teachers and school leaders in what should be their own professional work. Perhaps you worry that a whole lot of money will be spent on standards, assessments and curricular materials that aren’t any better than what your school is using now. Or maybe, like George Will, you suspect some kind of socialist plot.Who knows? It’s unsettling.

If a loose framework of common national standards was the end point of this adventure, I wouldn’t worry so much myself. I can see value in a slim, overarching outline of essential content. It’s the standardized national tests andthe on-line curriculum Gates and Pearson are developing that freak me out.

In 2010, I was part of a group of teachers who used the CCS to develop model units to be taught or used as exemplars all over the state of MI. My take? The standards are...meh. Some things to like. Some things to disagree with. And some genuine professional arguments (like the war over fiction vs. non-fiction “balance”) that have not been illuminated through a national conversation among the people--actual K-12 teachers--who have been teaching them for years.

One thing is certain. The CCS do not represent a unilaterally agreed-upon set of common, shared values from the field about what is important--and how it must be taught. They were designed to frame out the narrowest, easiest-to-test “core” of disciplinary skills. Not common--and not really core, if you broadly define what kids need to know and be able to do.

In my experience, there are three groups of people who like and embrace the new CCS: The ones making money from them, the ones making political hay from them--and new teachers who entered the profession thinking nobody had ever created solid content standards before. (A false assumption--but I’m saving the history lesson about national standardsfor another blog.) If you’re a novice teacher, it would be a relief to embrace “common” standards to guide your work. And there are a lot of new teachers out there.

The CCS are indeed a fabulous bonanza for education publishers, authors, non-profits, professional developers and university researchers who need a new infusion of grants, material and trainings development, and policy work. You can’t possibly be against the Common Core if it generates business for your organization. Joanne Weiss, Arne Duncan’s Chief of Staff notes:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

For policy-makers, the Common Core Everything is a do-able accomplishment, unlike, say, effectively addressing childhood poverty or cultural disrespect for education. It’s a tangible outcome--a deliverable, wrapped in a overblown rhetorical promise that this massive expenditure will yield measurable results. And there’s no guarantee. But--full speed ahead.

As Claudia Swisher says-- veteran teachers can and will adapt. But the reason we’re adapting has little to do with creating exciting, rich curriculum, updated for the21st-century kids we serve. And everything to do with providing work for well-connected education entrepreneurs, keeping the educational machine rolling forward.

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.