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Clearing up some Misunderstandings about Common Core
06/11/2014Posted by on
Common Core is in the news again, and as per usual the only thing that news reporters and pundits understand less than religion is education. So, some simple bullet points on what Common Core is and is not, and a little bit about why.
Common Core is not substantive education reform. Education reformers do not agree on much, but they spend most of their time arguing with each other about how to improve educational outcomes: basically, ensure that more students learn more stuff and that the stuff that they learn is important. As you can imagine, there is virulent disagreement about what qualifies as important and even how learning happens. Common Core, on the other hand, is actually short for Common Core State Standards Initiative which is exactly what it sounds like: an initiative to create common standards across the several states. So why doesn’t common State Standards qualify as substantive education reform?
Standards are educational goals, not curriculum, assessment, or teaching techniques. A standard is a goal set by an authority (usually by state law) of what students are expected to know and/or be able to do by the time they end a certain grade. That’s it. For example, from the Common Core mathematics standards:
Interpret products of whole numbers, e.g., interpret 5 × 7 as the total number of objects in 5 groups of 7 objects each. For example, describe a context in which a total number of objects can be expressed as 5 × 7.
From Michigan’s old mathematics standards:
Explore properties of operations (e.g., commutative and distributive properties) and give examples of how they use those properties.
Standards are stupid. No, really, they are. They tend to squeeze lesson plans into ridiculous contortions as teachers take a lesson they actually want to teach and bullshit a reason as to why it helps reach an education standard for one. There is just way too many of them for a class to handle, and they’re insensitive to changing facts on the ground. Teachers, as a class, tend to resent them.
But not that stupid. Having some sort of standard is the only way that we’ll ever be able to measure educational outcomes, whatever they are. Standards are how you get a 3rd grade teacher to work with a 4th grade teacher as a team, without them having to ever speak to each other or even be in the same building. Standards allow commonality of purpose.
Diversity in education is usually good, but with standards it is bad. Imagine for a moment that there was no uniformity at all to spelling. Not just regional variations, but everyone spelled words how they felt like it. Or for that matter, spoke their own language. Drove on whichever side of the street they felt like. Or the colors and positions of stop lights changed. That would suck, wouldn’t it? We need a shared baseline. If there were 51 different ways that stop lights worked every time you crossed an invisible line, you’d have a really hard time driving every time you moved, whether for work or school, or just life’s various travails.
Common Core is about taking the 51+ state standards and making 1 state standard. Before Common Core we still had standards. We had a lot of different standards, promulgated by the different states. Some may have been marginally better than others, but there were still standards everywhere. So, if we’re going to have standards, why not make them uniform? Did you know that commercial contracts (contracts for the buying and selling of stuff) in the US is all done under 51 copies of the same law? All of the states and D.C. have adopted the UCC, with some variations, because it is a good thing when people can buy and sell goods across state lines. Well, Common Core is the same principle but for student education. When a student moves from one state to another, they’re already at elevated risk for bad education outcomes because of the disruption in their life. Add on the possibility of having learned completely the wrong things for their grade level, and you may be pushing them back a grade or two on top of it. Having a common set of standards removes at least one burden from children who move, and some children have to move a lot. They tend to be poorer and/or the children of military men and women, and any assistance we can give them is worth it.
Common standards also help at the back-end. When students graduate from high school, whether they’re heading into the workforce, community college, or college, a high school diploma will mean at least the same achievement of standards, which will make it a lot easier for a student in Michigan to go to school in Oregon, if that’s what they choose to do. Getting students ready for further ed or the workforce isn’t everything a school has to do, but it is a big part of what the school has to do.
Look, the genius kid on his way to Harvard won’t benefit, or the child actress on her way to an acting career, and neither will the brilliant slacker who tops Forbes 500 before she hits 25. Common Core isn’t about them. Neither, really, is education reform. Most of them will be fine pretty much no matter what we do, so we ought to be focusing at the medians and the margins and that is where Common Core will help
Education in America is in serious trouble, and Common Core will not fix it. The problems in American education go incredibly deep and the task is hard for reasons that most people don’t understand. A simple example: those high performing European and Asian educational systems do it in part by writing children off at an early age as too stupid for higher education. When you’re trained for a trade from elementary on, you bet you’ll be good at it, and if you wanted to try at being a lab researcher? Well, too bad for you. We don’t accept that sort of thing here, and we shouldn’t, but it makes the task a lot harder.
The bottom line: Common Core makes American education better at the margins for a lot of kids without making the problem worse. If we are going to have standards, they should be uniform standards – otherwise we get all of the downsides to standards and none of the upsides. America is not just a collection of states, it is a union. I think we all prefer the America where an unemployed worker in Michigan can take his family across the border to Ohio to get work without having to learn a new language and rules of the road. So why not give his son and daughter the same benefit for their classrooms?