John Merrow is an intelligent man. But his latest post, The Common Core and the End of the World, is disappointing. First, rather than address the concerns raised by Common Core critics, Merrow compares us all to religious doomsayers like Pope Innocent III (“The world will end in 1284") and Cotton Mather (“Yea verily, the world will end in 1697").
As Merrow should know, critiques of the Common Core by myself and other writers are well-supported by evidence and experience, unlike the end-of-the-world predictions he quotes to mock us.
Here are the statements I have made which Merrow compares to doomsday alarms:
The tests associated with Common Core are likely to renew the false indictment of our public schools. Proficiency rates are predicted to drop by at least 30%. There will be a significant expansion in the number and frequency of tests, and the technology needed to fully implement to Common Core will divert billions of scarce education dollars.
This statement is based on solid evidence. The first implementation of Common Core tests in Kentucky did indeed result in drops of roughly 30%, and significant drops are predicted in New York with the new tests students have just recently taken. Proponents of the Common Core have made it clear that these poor results will be used to pressure schools with fresh “evidence” of their ineffectiveness.
And in California, the state legislature has just voted to allocate $1.25 billion in one-time funds to implement the Common Core, with money being spent on a mix of hardware and teacher training. This is obviously money that could have been spent elsewhere, and does not even cover the expense of full implementation.
However, Merrow does not respond to the substance of my concerns at all. He just mocks.
My second quote:
And what about a democratic process? We are apparently about to be handed a set of standards that will dictate what is taught in millions of classrooms across this nation. How will these have been arrived at? Who, besides the Gates Foundation millionaire's club and the standardized test companies and the publishing companies will have been engaged in this profoundly civic process?
Again, is this true or not? That particular quote comes from a post written in 2009, as the Common Core standards were being written by a group numbering fewer than 100, that included only one classroom teacher.
But again Merrow ignores the substance, preferring to mock.
Merrow also quotes Diane Ravitch:
The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.
Once again, a factual statement, with no substantive response from Merrow. Just mockery.
Having dismissed critics without ever addressing the substance of our concerns, Merrow claims the Common Core will empower teachers to reclaim our profession. But before we look at this bright idea, let’s take a look back in time, to see what Merrow’s own role was in the Common Core saga.
Those paying attention might recall that, back in 2007, as No Child Left Behind was losing credibility, Merrow wrote a commentary for Education Week, entitled “Learning Without Loopholes.” The subheading was: “With NCLB reauthorization on hold, we should move toward common standards--and fewer excuses.”
Many of us had pointed out the flaws in a test driven accountability system, which was leading to a narrowed curriculum, and widespread teaching to the test. But this was not Merrow’s concern in 2007. Instead, he focused on various ways that states were maneuvering around the draconian effects of the law, calling these “loopholes.”
In order to close these loopholes, 2007 Merrow suggested the following:
Presidential candidates could be pressed to pledge adequate resources to allow states to develop common standards and tests. While state participation should be voluntary, once 20 or so states sign on, the rest will follow. And that would be a big step toward a healthy, internationally competitive public education system.
And lo and behold. A short two years later, we had the Common Core standards process, much along the lines Merrow had suggested. But Merrow has changed his tune now. When he speaks of the Common Core, it is not about closing loopholes and getting rid of excuses. Instead, he suggests:
The Standards themselves could get us out of the box we're now in- a narrow curriculum-because they call for critical thinking, speaking persuasively, listening, teamwork and some other skills that make sense, in addition to math and English.
After acknowledging that the Common Core tests are being developed by people whose mindset is that teachers cannot be trusted, he suggests:
The Common Core will fail miserably unless we trust teachers. Computers cannot assess speaking and listening skills, nor teamwork, nor about half of the skill set the Common Core values. That requires well-trained professionals.
So we have a choice: Rely upon computers to test that narrow band (of same-old, same-old stuff). If we do that, many teachers will teach to that test because they know they're being evaluated on those scores, and that in turn means that nothing important will change. Say goodbye to the spirit and essence of Common Core.
Or we can learn to trust teachers, teachers who will be better trained because we will, of course, get smart and invest in Professional Development.
Here is where we have to employ the critical thinking that the Common Core is supposed to train us to use. According to 2013 Merrow, the essence of the Common Core is all about trusting teachers to do great work in challenging their students to think beyond the capacity of our tests to measure.
But what was the thinking that drove the development of the Common Core? Merrow should know, because he was one of those thinking it. It was driven by the desire to “close the loopholes” in NCLB. It was driven by the desire to create a more rational, seamless system of standards, assessment and curriculum, as described by Bill Gates in 2009. Contrary to Merrow’s newfound wishful thinking, the Common Core was not built to free us from tests, and to empower teachers. And until that test-driven paradigm is overthrown, no set of national standards is likely to move us towards a place where teachers are trusted.
The Common Core standards are not a vehicle teachers can use to reclaim our profession. They are the backbone of the newest system of mechanization of our entire educational enterprise. We will reclaim our profession by asserting our capacity to determine, in close relationship with our students and communities, what ought to be taught, and how. We will reclaim our profession by rejecting the use of tests to measure the quality of instruction, the quality of our schools, and the quality of teacher preparation programs. We will reclaim our profession by offering high quality means of demonstrating student learning.
The Common Core is not the end of the world. It is, however, an obstacle to the reclaiming of our profession, rather than a vehicle. Merrow, who suggested them in 2007, ought to take a harder look at what his quest to close loopholes has brought us. Perhaps he might engage in a little less mockery and a little more reflecting on his own role in this mess.
What do you think? Are the Common Core standards a means by which teachers might reclaim their profession? Or are they an obstacle to that goal?
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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.