Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why I don’t hate the Common Core

Multiple sources have accused me on multiple occasions of hating the Common Core and thereby the Common Core assessments. This is understandable. I am one of the few people to criticize the overall selection of behavioral statements as the paradigm for what we call an educational standard, and the Common Core follows that trend.

By “behavioral statement” I mean that our standards in education tell students what behaviors they should engage in: understand this, comprehend that, multiply two digit numbers, etc. As a curriculum guide such statements are extremely useful since that is precisely what a teacher attempts to do everyday: get students to behave in ways that further a students’ learning.

As the basis for a standardized test such statements are also more than appropriate, since such instruments are designed to allow for inferences about student performance relative to such behaviors and to other tested students—when used properly, which is another issue for another time.

But should such statements be allowed to serve at the elevated level of a standard? And, if we answer that question in the affirmative—which we have for nearly twenty years now—what are the consequences for having done so?

The easiest way to answer this question is to ask about the purpose of standards in industry and government, since their ability to transform broken industries, improve the quality of our air and water, create real and meaningful competition, and reduce the price of goods and services to the end consumer was the reason education decided it too could experience a similar transformational benefit from a rich set of standards.

But industry standards are most notably precise. They have to do with making the world more efficient (the size of gas nozzles), safer (clear air standards), cheaper (35 mm film as the standard that helped make cameras affordable for everyone), or even just better (minimum highway EPA for new cars). These standards care little about the behaviors that cause them to be met, but leave that up to those with the expertise to achieve such things. Rather, the standard allows for an infinite number of behaviors to lead to the standard being met, with the benefit to follow.

It is interesting that education chose the behaviors as the standards system. Had we chosen a standards system more in line with those that had created the types of changes we had hoped for, we might well have seen the types of transformations that industry and government experienced when they adopted such standards. Instead, we chose behavioral standards and yet we expect them to produce the exact same result as the more precise industry standards.

And what—to close out this entry—might a precise educational standard look like? Here are just a few examples:
  • All students must write well at least once in order to matriculate to the next grade, with the difference being the level of effort and time, but not the expectation.
  • In each year of schooling, a student’s teachers will select an assignment, project, or area of study that a student struggled with and reassign the work, with the additional requirement that the work be competed to an A standard, and provide the supports and scaffolding necessary to see that happen.
  • Over each three-year period of service teachers must present a paper, a research project, a content area project (such as a play or a novel) to their peers.
For a school to do any of these would require a whole range of behaviors that would differ by student and school. Differentiated curricular and instructional decisions would have to made against need, and the system of schooling would have to organize itself very differently than at present for these types of standards to be met. Instead, we now have a system that attempts to align the behaviors and then generate a similar outcome for everyone.

In education (and in virtually any field or endeavor) you have to pick: align the behaviors and you all but guarantee a differentiated outcome, since students will respond differently to those behaviors, or align the outcomes and allow the behaviors to differentiate against need.

The behavioral statements we position as educational standards bear no resemblance to the standards that created the desired level of transformation elsewhere. Education now aligns the behaviors and demands a similar outcome, when transformational standards define an outcome and leave the behavioral piece to those who truly understand how to achieve the outcome.

That is why I don’t hate the Common Core. As a guide to generate a rich curriculum it may be more than adequate or even amazing—I am not a curriculum person with the ability to make that determination and so I won’t try. But as a guide the opportunity still exists to differentiate instruction in anticipation of a similar outcome; as a standard the message is for instruction to standardize but then the guarantee is that the outcomes will differ.

I am disappointed in our inability to see what we have done: to repeat, we attempted to replicate a standards environment with real transformational power but then failed to adopt the type of standards that had actually produced such a transformation. The result is that we now standardize the wrong pieces.

We are left with the expectation of transformation when we failed to include any transformational tools anywhere in the educational package.

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