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Standards Opinion

Common Core vs. Charter Schooling?!! Waving That Yellow Flag

By Rick Hess — February 18, 2011 5 min read
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Yesterday, I noted a few worrisome signs that the Common Core effort is moving forward with a lack of attention to how it may clash with other practical considerations or improvement strategies. The risk here is aggravated by the fact that the Common Core effort has now largely been handed off to state assessment directors, test developers, psychometricians, and overworked staff at a few national organizations--and these well-meaning people aren’t necessarily interested in or sensitive to the broader impact of their handiwork.

A particularly compelling example is posed by the looming collision that might occur when the unfolding effort comes to the attention of charter schoolers and school choice enthusiasts. Choice proponents--especially governors like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Mitch Daniels (not to mention state chiefs like Tony Bennett and Paul Pastorek) who have championed choice while expressing support for common standards--would do well to take note.

What’s the issue? After all, since A Nation at Risk, choice and standards-based accountability have operated as the complementary pillars of school reform. In theory, test-based accountability was a mechanism for ensuring that schools were performing, making it possible to reduce micromanagement, slash regulation, and boost school autonomy.

Now, in practice, any standardized assessment system is going to be constraining to some extent (by requiring that schools teach certain skills or materials in the course of a given year), but charter schools and choice advocates have largely made their peace with that kind of accountability. What’s unsettling about the Common Core push is how much more intrusive the assessments and prescriptions appear to be getting, without anyone having really thought through the consequences.

Recent conversations, highlighted by the papers and discussion at the ETS gathering in Atlanta, suggest to me that we’re rapidly blowing past the happy talk of “fewer, clearer, higher” standards and into the more potentially divisive question of how one designs assessments, curricula, and instructional materials that fit those standards. The party line has long been that a veritable raft of curricula and materials will all work just fine. Yeah...I’m not so sure about that.

The assessment experts are designing assessments to measure the various elements of those standards in precise ways. At that point, many of those championing common standards seem to think it only sensible to provide curricular units, lessons, and instructional materials that will link the standards and assessments. This should hardly come as a surprise, as it’s been the central argument of influential work by respected scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond and Richard Elmore for more than a decade.

The PARCC consortium, for instance, is looking to craft through-course assessments that will test students every nine weeks or so. “Through-course assessments” are tests that are administered at regular points throughout an academic year. The PARCC model envisions rolling these quarterly assessments up into the summative assessment.

Under such a system, all schools in participating states will need to cover that material in the prescribed timeframe or risk bombing on the assessment. To a layman, this starts to look a lot like granular prescription of scope, sequence, content, and instruction. And, despite the familiar assurances that the Common Core won’t impinge on curricular or instructional freedom, it may very well pose grave problems for charter schools or other schools that employ an alternative curricular or instructional model. (Which isn’t all that surprising, given the covetous glances that many of the designers cast upon centralized, highly prescriptive systems like those in Finland or Singapore.)

The AFT’s forthcoming manifesto, “A Call for Common Content,” for instance, flatly declares, “Attaining the goals provided by these standards requires a clear roadmap in the form of rich, common curriculum content.” It explains, “To be clear, by curriculum we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn.” The AFT manifesto also suggests it’s time for skeptics to get past their fears of “centralization, institutional rigidity, and narrow-minded political orthodoxy.” (Correction: Eugenia Kemble points out to me that the document is being issued by the AFT-affiliated Albert Shanker Institute and not by the AFT. Sorry for any confusion.)

When I’ve asked what common curricula and creeping granularity might mean for charter schools or other schools that rely upon alternative instructional models, I’ve thus far received no satisfactory response. At the ETS summit on “through-course” assessment in Atlanta last week, I received only a vague vibe of “we’re sure charters want to do what’s best for kids, so if these materials are good, they’ll obviously welcome them.” The notion that educators might disagree about such things seemed alien. Indeed, it’s not only charters that might face the choice of yielding to this kind of intrusive prescription or risk bombing on state tests, but any private schools that participate in voucher programs which require them to test publicly-funded students.

Charter operators and advocates have generally not been engaged in the Common Core assessment discussion and are largely unaware of the track down which the exercise is rapidly progressing. Moreover, in a worrisome twist, it seems to me that this tightly buttoned, narrowly drawn vision of curriculum and assessment, handled wrongly, could pose a grave threat to schools built around radical customization (like the School of One).

I sympathize with the push for the Common Core and regard many enthusiasts as close friends. But I think they need to do a far better job of thinking and talking about the real-world impact of their elegant stylings, or they’re going to build an exquisitely engineered project that is at cross-purposes with the practical concerns of an array of policymakers, parents, and educators.

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