A Nagging Doubt About Common Core Standards

I have in general been a fan of the movement toward national standards. There is obvious sense in it: there is no such thing as Georgia algebra or Oregon reading. We are one (mobile) country, and local control of curriculum and assessment has led to a hodge-podge of courses and tests that have little relation to what students need once they leave high school.

In addition, there are the benefits of economy of scale. Already countless products, tech tools, and services have grown up in support of the Common Core, and that array of resources will only grow exponentially. It will also permit many more small product and service providers to find a niche than can happen in a non-system of 50 states doing different things.

The problem of allowing each state to do things its way has resulted in states low-balling expectations for kids on their tests. (Readers are no doubt aware of the fallout in Florida this year as the FCAT tries to move toward a saner cut score in the face of pushback from people who don’t get why the scores are lower.) We worked in Mississippi for 2 years and were stunned at how bad many of the schools were. No surprise, really, given the fact that it is dead last in the US on NAEP. But then look at their test results: they claim that over 65 percent of their 8th grade ELA students are “proficient” or “advanced” in reading based on state tests. Huh? By NAEP results only about 21% of MS 8th grade students are competent. A terrible scam has been going on for decades where kids and their parents are led to believe that graduates are college and workplace ready when they are not – simply because no one has had the guts to set a valid passing score.

So, yes, let’s make the K-12 system more seamless and more aligned with college and workplace readiness. Yes, let’s greatly expand available resources to support teachers to achieve these standards.



I keep asking myself this question: why is there only one set of graduation requirements in this modern world? Why can’t kids major in a favored area in middle and high school? Where are our plumbers and carpenters going to come from? Why can’t there be many different kinds of diplomas, as there used to be? (Common standards have wiped out many fine voc. Tech. programs in New York once the varied diplomas were abolished in the name of standards a few years ago). How will budding artists and musicians be fully supported in school? Given that so few people use higher mathematics in their jobs, why will we “fail” the weak math students who would otherwise be highly competent and productive members of society?

I wrote here about the idea of a different kind of high school diploma, one designed backward from adult life. I have little hope that such a diploma will come to pass. But it is certainly feasible – and desirable, as I am arguing – that we have a wider array of academic and career options for older kids than we now do in this wildly diverse world of ours.

Take my older son: he is finishing up at Musician’s Institute after dropping out of a fine liberal arts college. He is taking courses in the physics of sound and electrical engineering, business and marketing bands, and voice lessons. Why aren’t such options available to younger students? Why do we still assume – in a world of 16-year-olds doing Internet start-ups and the Glee project – that the liberal arts college track is what all students should do?

This is no pipe dream. When I started teaching in the early 1970’s, this was the world we worked in as teachers. There were few required courses. Most distribution requirements in our school in English, for example, could be met by courses such as Satire, Death & Dying, Existentialism, and Film; there was no bland English 9, English 10, etc. Laugh if you will: we produced really interesting and competent students, far more imaginative than many of today’s compliant high-schoolers – and they liked school because there were lots of great options.

Even more extraordinary: in the same school, when I was a student in 1967, I was able to take an entire term off from going to classes to pursue an independent study. I did mine on the history of rock n roll; using 2 reel-to reel tape decks (and a lot of hiss) I produced a multi-layered documentary that honored my deepest passion as a student.

Here’s the irony: high school bears NO relationship to college anyway. Look at schedules: most kids only go to class a few hours a day, and can take classes they like in college. Indeed my daughter, headed to Stony Brook next week, has her first class of the day every day at 4pm!! (As an athlete, her schedule was built to accommodate soccer). And she is finally able to take courses in meteorology and sociology after a long slog through courses she hated. Very little in high school actually prepares you for the freedom of college: we over-schedule and over-scaffold everything. My other son’s three former room-mates in two years all dropped out of Ursinus or were asked to leave because they couldn’t handle time-management. My kids all had more executive control of their learning in Montessori pre-school than they did as high schoolers. This is ‘readiness’???

In short: just because we will be living in a world of academic standards does not mean that we should be closing off options for kids or making their lives more grim and uniform. There are painful unintended consequences to national standards, and it behooves policy-makers and school-people to pay close attention to the most basic question of all: what approach to goals and programs will serve all students, not just those of a certain bent?

PS: Coincidentally, an interesting post by Catherine Gewertz in Ed Week on new players in the national readiness test game:

PPS: Check out this provocative post by Yong Zhao on the lack of correlation between high international test scores and entrepreneurialism.

PPPS: Fantastic video on student-run schooling for a semester in a MASS HS,

Finally: I have been taken to task in a few tweets for conflating standards and curriculum here. I know the difference. My point here was the unintended consequences of standards: everywhere at the local level, people are confusing standards with standardization (something I argued 20 years ago here) and I should have clarified that point to avoid the confusion. Indeed, central to our training for common core is to remind people over and over that standards ≠ curriculum, either in terms of course design or course sequence. I plan to address this issue soon in another post.

This post was originally published on Grant’s blog; image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations and cvconnel