College & Workforce Readiness

Should the Common Standards ‘Change Everything’?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 28, 2012 4 min read
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Not long ago, a survey of teachers found large numbers sizing up the Common Core State Standards as pretty similar to what they’re already teaching. The architect of the survey, William Schmidt of Michigan State University, saw in this a distressing sign that too many teachers don’t grasp the depth of the change the standards represent, so they might well resist embracing it (or, he theorized, they simply hadn’t read the standards).

That makes a new entry into the common-core conversation all the more interesting. Chester E. Finn Jr., the founder of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here in Washington, argues in a new blog post that the common core is so far-reaching that, if implemented properly and fully, it will “change everything” in American education. He details 20 aspects of our schooling system, from preschool to higher education, and textbooks to teacher training, that must undergo a significant evolution if they are to faithfully reflect the standards’ vision of a good education.

Since Finn is clearly on the advocate side of the common-standards fence, it’s unsurprising that he would call for a grand and thorough-going revision of all segments of education that are touched by them. To put an even finer point on his argument, he likens the need for thorough implementation to the importance of an overarching war plan guiding America to vanquish its enemies.

Whether this aggressive little metaphor will resonate, and with whom, and how, remains to be seen. I can’t help but imagine other metaphors for the same argument: conducting an orchestra, so all parts of the system affected by the standards play in harmony, perhaps? Maybe those who dislike the idea of a common-standards war on education wouldn’t be any more comfortable with their generating a symphony if they didn’t like the main melodic themes.

Digressions aside, however, Finn raises some of the thorniest issues facing the standards, and suggests that a lack of response—on a deep level—to the reality of the standards in enough sectors of American education could cripple them. How you feel about that prospect, of course, has everything to do with your view of the standards themselves, and, very possibly, with the early signs of how tests to gauge their mastery are shaping up.

One can reasonably ask whether the common standards will change everything, and also whether they should. There is outcry, on the one hand, when parts of the education world resist change for the wrong reasons (institutional sluggishness, for instance). But there is also a form of resistance based on reasonable disagreement. How does that fit into the grand plan to implement the standards?

Take, for instance, Finn’s contention that the current form of the school day and year will have to yield—presumably to something longer—to meet the goals of the standards. Even some of those who love the common core most dearly could reasonably disagree about whether this is a good idea, or even feasible. Is more, after all, necessarily better?

Finn reasonably notes that the common core has implications for the youngest children, since it sets forth certain expectations of what entering kindergartners should know and be able to do. There’s quite a gap between that vision and what most of our littlest ones can currently do. But how to respond to this gap is one of the most disputed aspects of the common core I’ve come across. There are open veins of anger and mistrust in the early-childhood community about how developmentally appropriate these close-the-gap efforts could be. How does a thorough implementation of the standards’ vision take that reasonable skepticism into account?

Another thorny area of implementation is the matter of curriculum and instructional materials for teachers. Finn suggests offering voluntary guides for teachers who might find them useful. But how will they know, in the dizzying swirl of material being produced for the standards, what truly reflects them? Here Finn wades into some really sensitive stuff, since he echoes an idea that’s been floating around for a couple of years now: someone, or a group of someones, that might rate how well materials are aligned to the standards.

The reason this idea has bopped around with no resolution is that it’s radioactive in a country accustomed to local control over what is taught and what materials are used. Whatever you think of the idea, there are many people who will reasonably disagree with you. Which raises the question, once again, about what thorough implementation of common standards looks like in the curriculum-and-materials segment of the landscape.

Who, Finn asks, will apply the publishers’ criteria that guide what materials should look like if they’re faithful to the standards? Who will rate those textbooks?

Who, indeed?

There are many flammable zones in this endeavor. Ones that even a well crafted battle plan might not be able to resolve.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.