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Standards Opinion

Common Core and the Food Pyramid

By Rick Hess — December 16, 2013 3 min read
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Back at the beginning, in 2009 and 2010, I never would’ve expected the Common Core debate to get this heated and impassioned. Why? Unlike a lot of folks, it’s because I thought (and continue to think) that the Common Core itself just doesn’t matter that much. Now, please stay with me a bit before deciding you disagree.

How can I say that, when so many luminaries (including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, College Board prez David Coleman, and self-impressed PISA Overlord Andreas Schleicher) have insisted that Common Core will transform schooling? To be frank, I’ve never quite understood where the enthusiasts were coming from. Standards are just a bunch of words on paper.

I always think of the food pyramid (the one that the feds unveiled decades ago, only to decide that it was offering families bad advice and needed to be revised and replaced by “food plate” that Michelle Obama has championed. Whoops.). When the pyramid was unveiled, I’m sure some amped-up nutritionists excitedly thought it would make a huge difference when it came to health and obesity. Turned out: not so much. Most people have never paid a whole lot of attention; after all, it’s just a bunch of suggestions assembled through a bureaucratic process. (And did I mention it was questionable advice?)

Now, there is one scenario where I could imagine the food pyramid having really mattered: If it had been used to set out new policies about what parents could feed their kids. Then it would matter a whole lot. Of course, what would matter would not be the guidelines about bread or cheese so much as the rules and consequences that policymakers attached.

And that brings us back to the Common Core. If the standards are better than those that many states had in place, swell. If more common reading and math standards make things easier for material developers and kids who move across states, that’s fine. But I don’t think that stuff amounts to all that much.

In truth, the idea that the Common Core might be a “game-changer” has little to do with the Common Core standards themselves, and everything to do with stuff attached to them, especially the adoption of common tests that make it possible to readily compare schools, programs, districts, and states (of course, the announcement that one state after another is opting out of the two testing consortia is hollowing out this promise).

But the Common Core will only make a dramatic difference if those test results are used to evaluate schools or hire, pay, or fire teachers; or if the effort serves to alter teacher preparation, revamp instructional materials, or compel teachers to change what students read and do. And, of course, advocates have made clear that this is exactly what they have in mind. When they refer to the “Common Core,” they don’t just mean the words on paper--what they really have in mind is this whole complex of changes. (For more on all this, check out my new book with Mike McShane, Common Core Meets Education Reform.)

This means three things. One, it explains why the battle over the “Common Core” is so intense. The fight is not really about the committee-generated verbiage--it’s really about all the stuff that’s attached to the Common Core, like test-based accountability.

Two, it’s why Common Core’ites have long been confused by the vehemence of the blowback, and why the two sides so often seem to be talking past one another. Proponents insist, “But these are nice standards. They’re fewer, clearer, and higher. Who could be opposed to better, smarter guidelines?” What proponents don’t get is that they think they’re talking about the food pyramid, but most skeptics are nervously eyeing the implied rules, consequences, and invitations to increased federal oversight.

Three, it’s why Common Core critics have enjoyed so much success this year. Because advocates have championed the Common Core as the key to a web of supposedly game-changing alterations to policy and practice, skeptics were given free rein to assert that intrusive data collection, dumb worksheets, troubling textbooks, or problematic test-based teacher evaluation are part and parcel of these expansive changes. The innocuous food pyramid is one thing but, as Michelle Obama has found, it’s a whole different story when it comes to dictating what kids can and can’t eat.

Is there a way out of all this? Unclear. After all, when they find it convenient, Common Core boosters seem to suggest they’re just proposing a food pyramid. This, of course, infuriates the critics, who think (fairly enough) that what the Common Core’ites are really after is to reorder schooling, soup to nuts.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.