Some Advice for Common Core Supporters

659315_5ba9794c89Yesterday at TWIE I gave CCSS supporters a hard time for seeming to give up the affirmative case for the new standards:

These days supporters seem to dedicate most of their time to assuring us that the CCSS are not to blame for “fuzzy” math curriculua or “whole language” or questionable history assignments. We are even told that it’s just as well if states opt out of the Common Core altogether because they’re unlikely to gain much from implementation anyway.

On Twitter Morgan Polikoff asked what I would prefer for CCSS supporters to do instead of making these half-hearted defenses. Fair enough, though I don’t really think of myself as part of the team so take all of this with a grain of salt. I’d recommend the following, which are arguably all variations on one or two themes:

1. CCSS supporters need to acknowledge that they overestimated the potential for standards per se to improve curriculum and instruction. Reformers are rarely comfortable wading into the minefields that are debates over C&I, but one of the lessons here should be that you can’t just lean on standards to do that work for you. Frankly, the science of teaching is just not sufficiently advanced and accepted that educators and families will all fall into line if you just give them the right goals to shoot for. Teachers already think their pedagogy is about right for whatever learning objectives you want to establish; if you want them to think differently you need to convince them directly. It is also increasingly apparent that you can’t avoid nasty battles over curriculum by saying “standards are not a curriculum”.  You may as well wage that war directly.

2. CCSS supporters should acknowledge that the new standards are not really as unambiguous as they had thought. By convincing themselves that opponents just don’t understand what the standards “really” say, supporters end up repeatedly missing the point. That tactic may work in a few cases, but whether, for instance, they encourage “fuzzy math” is just not something you’re going to be able to conclusively establish using nothing but the standards themselves. To the extent that teachers think the standards encourage fuzzy math, the standards do encourage fuzzy math. Supporters need to realize that while the CCSS are not “to blame” for peoples’ pre-existing edu-confusions, those confusions are really what we should be dealing with. As with #1, wage those wars directly.

3. CCSS supporters should focus more on Common Core-aligned assessments. What the CCSS “really” mean will be determined in large part by the tests used to hold teachers and schools accountable. So while it’s all well and good to assure us that, e.g., the CCSS “require” a “content-rich curriculum”, that won’t really be true unless the eventual assessments require a content-rich curriculum. I don’t think I’ve seen nearly enough attention paid to this and we’re already pretty far along in the assessment-design process.

4. CCSS supporters should spend more time highlighting “good” Common Core-aligned lessons. Opponents are already more than happy to talk about “bad” lessons;  supporters seem to have decided the best thing for them to do is join in. This is contributing to a growing sense – however unjustified – that the CCSS promote all sorts of educational silliness. That’s a recipe for further political losses and it means that educators aren’t getting the CCSS guidance they deserve.

Personally, I’m agnostic about the Common Core standards. People whose judgment I trust often say very good things about them. At the same time, the new standards are extremely expensive and disruptive and there does not appear to me to be nearly enough in the way of consensus among supporters about what the standards “really” say to make me think they’ll be good for curriculum and instruction on balance. For every supporter who tells me the CCSS “require a content-rich curriculum” there’s another who insists that the new standards “prioritize skills over knowledge”.

So I am not always encouraged. But there’s still plenty of time for “the good guys” to exert influence over CCSS implementation if they’re willing to start playing offense.

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