Improving Schools: Neither a Silver Bullet Nor a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
"The wonder drug has been invented, manufactured, packaged, and shipped. Doctors and nurses are being trained to administer the drug properly. Companies and consultants are offering products and services to help with the proper administering of this wonder drug. A national effort is underway to develop tools to monitor the improvement of the patients. The media are flooded with enthusiastic endorsement and euphoric predictions.
This cure-all wonder drug is the Common Core, short for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Cooked up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, this magic potion promises to cure America's education ills..."
—Yong Zhao (with a heavy dose of irony) in "Common Sense Vs. Common Core: How to Minimize the Damages of the Common Core"
Teachers, educators, and the public have every right to be skeptical. We've had two wonderful-sounding—and I believe initially well-intentioned—top-down education initiatives over the past decade that have left many scratching their heads and asking, was it worth it? The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which many have argued has caused more grief and problems than it solved, and the ultra-competitive Race To The Top initiative that pitted states against states and educators against educators. In both cases, implementation could be described as draconian, ill-resourced, and somewhat flawed.
And as this perpetual rolling stone of education reform picks up speed, we now have 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the U.S. Department of Defense that have signed onto the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Let's not forget that in between these initiatives, we have had states changing policies to introduce new regulations and restrictions on what schools can and cannot open, what can and cannot be taught, and how teachers can and cannot be evaluated.
Yes, teachers have every right to feel like they have been guinea pigs in this ever-changing environment. And so, for that matter, do students who we are there to educate.
So, what makes CCSS different? Well, nothing and everything.
Nothing because it is again a top-down imposition with poor roll out and heavy-handed requirements. It has been poorly funded and introduced and has led to as many questions as answers. It still focuses only on language arts and math, as if the range and breadth of learning outside these areas are, at best, complementary supports to these subjects or, at worst, irrelevant. As a result, several states are re-debating their involvement in CCSS or at least having to reinvigorate educators in the initiative.
"New York State—I can't say it enough—did a horrific job of rolling this out. ... [T]eachers didn't have resources for a full year and they hadn't been teaching the Common Core State Standards for a full year before the kids were actually assessed on it. ... It made the administrators job even harder and sometimes the administrator like me wasn't even on board at first."
—Peter DeWitt on the Whole Child Podcast episode, "Aiming High: Working Through the Common Core Shifts"
It also can be argued that it goes against what a modern, efficient education system should be focusing on: personalization and autonomy.
"Don't be fooled by the claims of the Common Core advocates. The Common Core will not make your children ready for college or a career. The future needs passionate, creative, collaborative innovators and entrepreneurs, not compliant, uniform test takers. The Common Core will not help the disadvantaged children do better either because the real problem is poverty, not standards in the classrooms."
So, how can it be seen as a change?
Everything because it focuses on many of the elements that a 21st century education system should be focusing on: depth of understanding, rather than breadth. It does not dictate how to teach but rather leaves this in the hands of schools and teachers. It provides for far greater autonomy in the classroom and around effective pedagogy—anyone remember the scripted curriculum of the NCLB era? By providing common standards, it can be argued that it allows—and almost requires—collaboration between teachers and across sites.
"[T]he standards are not simply an upgrade to what we've been doing, but rather a whole new approach, we have an opportunity to also address more comprehensively the needs of the whole child. In a sense, we're developing new unit plans, new ideas for instructional reinforcement, and new plans for formative assessments. This will offer us the chance to critically reexamine—in an extremely reflective manner—our own practice and, therefore, our own effectiveness as professional educators."
— Craig Mertler in "Common Core, Whole Child, Teacher Leadership, and Action Research: A Perfect Storm?"
It Is What We Make It
Some of the of the best examples of education systems that have grown, developed, and improved are Finland and Singapore, and both showcase the nothing and everything examples listed above. Finland, with no national standards or testing, has made great gains educationally over the past 25 years to where it is now one of the leading education systems in the world by multiple measures and, as a result, one of the world's leading educational tourism destinations.
"Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there external standardized tests or data used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work."
—Pasi Sahlberg in "Yes, We Can (Learn From One Another)!"
And Singapore, which has national standards, national testing, and has been held up as a great education example, is also developing a very diverse and progressive education system.
"We do not have a perfect system, but it is a good system built on sound fundamentals. There is a shared belief across Singapore society that education is crucial in building up individual and collective capacity, and in strengthening the cohesiveness of our nation beyond knowledge and skills. Parents, universities, and employers appreciate the rigour and strength of our system. Many parents I have met appreciate the hard work put in by our schools and teachers. Clearly, there is a high level of interest in, and support for the work we do."
—Singapore Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat in an opening address for the Ministry of Education Work Plan Seminar in 2011
What is similar about each of these countries is also what is needed in the United States and many other western countries: stability and long-term vision. Both countries saw and realized that change and success (however measured) would not come about in 1–3 years, rather in 10–15+ years. In each country, education reform was set above party politics, squabbles, and the clamor for short-term goals. Each country was able to raise the standard of education, the public perception of education, and the various means for measurement through a long-term commitment to a better society and the economy.
The challenge for the United States and for other countries battling education reform is to stick to a process and to forgo short-term wins. The battle now for administrators and politicians is to re-convince teachers that the CCSS are worth investing time and effort into, and the battle for teachers is to trust that the rug won't be pulled out from under them if they do invest time, energy, and resources.
"The Common Core State Standards are the right direction for U.S. public schools. It amazes me that one or more politicians can advocate for changing standards. I do not try to change medical practice, standards for the Interstate Highway System, building codes, or taxes. The reason that I do not attempt to get involved with these things is because I am a professional educator. A simple Google search can provide a glimpse at the groups who are rallying to eliminate the Common Core State Standards. I would appreciate it if politicians would consult with professional educators and ask them if the Common Core State Standards support teaching and learning."
—Steven Weber in "Common Core an Educator's Perspective"
The Common Core State Standards are neither the silver bullet that some are expecting, but neither does it have to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. The power to make it work and implement it in the way that teachers see fit (PDF) lies with the teachers in each classroom. Teach to the standards as you see fit. Delve deeper into discussions, debates, and projects and draw out the critical-thinking skills of your students. Teach as you believe they should be taught.
Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.
During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.