Common Core: Okay is better than 90% crud

Gene Glass and David Berliner are starting in on a sequel to their 50 Myths book that came out recently. Gene Glass has a blog entry from March 12 titled Myth #51: The Common Core will save America. In it, he challenged me for the ambiguity in last year’s Bottom 10 Common Core blarney post.

I left Sherman’s page with a sense that perhaps he was a bit too forgiving of an effort from which I see no good emanating. He viewed them then as largely benign. I can’t agree. (Incidentally, if Sherman wishes to respond to this posting, perhaps on March 17, 2014, I will happily post his thoughts here.)

I obviously missed the cut for the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day, and also April Fool’s, so Gene will have to forgive me. In summary, here are his criticisms of the Common Core in the post (my summary, not his wording):

  1. Tests tied to the standards will enrich test publishers such as Pearson.
  2. Any assessment tied to the standards inevitably will focus on math and reading, where test prep in turn will push out the rest of the curriculum.
  3. Curriculum standards tend to deskill teachers by removing their skilled judgment in selecting what to teach.

Within some limits, these are also criticisms of any modern curriculum standards project and state assessment with stakes. Gene Glass is right to be concerned with the deprofessionalization of teachers, with the narrowing of curriculum, and with how much we spend on tests (or any service that is outsourced and vulnerable to vendor capture). I am less persuaded than he is that these are problems that the Common Core will exacerbate; while I don’t think the Common Core is the holy grail of curriculum, among current top-down policy fads I am far more worried about algorithmic teacher evaluation systems than with the Common Core:

  • The professional treatment of teachers requires both room for professional judgment and the right type of supportive structures. In The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande argues that well-tested protocols serve to bolster professionalism, not undermine it. That does not guarantee that the Common Core comes close to meeting the same threshold as Gawande would set for professional checklists, but I am not persuaded that the Common Core is a schoolday-gobbling curriculum parasite. For that role, I would nominate textbooks and so-called pacing calendars. A quarter-century ago, Michael Apple had deep concerns about the deskilling of teachers in his book Teachers and Texts. For years, textbooks approved in Texas and California set a de facto national curriculum. Without the Common Core, schools would not return to some halcyon days of intellectual teachers with the complete freedom to pick and choose material. Nor would parents and school boards allow them to; teachers are public employees, not artistes. The practical question is to find the right balance between structure and individual professional judgment, and neither state curriculum standards nor adoption of the Common Core is automatically related to that balance.
  • Common Core testing will not exacerbate the worst of current tendencies with the abuse of testing and counterproductive school behaviors. Whatever the next generation of testing looks like, and no matter how mediocre it is, it is hard to see how it would be worse than what currently exists in terms of the quality of tests and the rabbit’s-foot trust that many administrators place in either crass test-prep or so-called benchmark tests. The most that someone could argue is that the next generation of tests will merely push off the day of reckoning for testing in general. This assumes that there will be a concrete Day of Reckoning, and that the adoption of new tests amidst the current debate over the Common Core will somehow change the political dynamic. I am not convinced of either.
  • The Common Core standards themselves are not appreciably worse than the bulk of state standards that currently exist in math and English/language arts. I have some deep concerns about the claims that some make about what Common Core requires vis-a-vis decontextualized close reading.1 But that’s frequently opportunistic baloney, not the standards themselves. As a jaded historian, I have the pleasure of taking the long view: who ever would have thought that the first generation of state standards from the mid-1990s would be anything but 90% crud? It was the first generation; it was destined to be worse than mediocre on the whole. The Common Core standards are nothing to etch into stone, but they are quite a bit better than 90% crud, or even flat-out mediocre with a few bits of pyrite and sometimes even good stuff (the second generation of state standards, by my impression). The Common Core standards are okay, on the whole. Not great, but okay. And that’s often how messy social systems improve, by key elements’ moving in a few generations from 90% crud to more-or-less okay.

Like Gene, I am unpersuaded that Common Core will save the world, America, or even Gotham City. For that, we need Batman Paul Krugman the vigilance and efforts of ordinary citizens in every generation. I am tired of the ways bad publishers and administrators might use Common Core as a cover for fads and idiocies; I am also disappointed if not surprised at how others view such abuses as inherent in the Common Core instead of the general dynamic of curriculum politics. To steal from the great historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg, the Common Core is neither good nor evil nor neutral.


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  1. For example, I am entirely unpersuaded by this defense of a crappy lesson plan on the Gettysburg address that fails to mention why students should be studying it in the first place. []

One response to “Common Core: Okay is better than 90% crud”

  1. Dick Schutz

    Your “close reading” of Gene’s blog differs from mine, Sherman–(Evidence that the “meaning” of a text resides in the reader rather in the text per se, which controverts the logic of “close reading” and “reading comprehension” testing”, but that’s a whole nother story.)

    Let’s use Gene’s words:

    A number of things are so depressing about the Common Core. First, the degree to which my academic colleagues and teachers are complicit in creating the standards is troubling. . .

    Sherman says that the Common Core doesn’t look that “corporate-y to me.”. . . But the Common Core is all about small-c corporate. . . Pearson is not Micro$oft, but it is plenty big enough to buy itself politicians and lobbyists who can influence the future of America’s schools.

    My questions:
    1. Is Gene counter-factual here?
    2. If the account is factual, do you not find the Common Core similarly “depressing?

    Back to Gene’s text:

    …there’s a lot wrong with the Common Core. There will be no “authentic assessment” aligned with the Common Core standards; . . . And test preparation in reading and math will drive out art and music and phys ed and even science and social studies. And no one dare teach a unit on wealth inequality or the destruction of the labor unions or the evils of fast food because it’s not in the Common Core for obvious reasons.

    And in the end, teachers will be further de-skilled and infantilized and told that curriculum is something you download from the government. . .

    My questions:
    1. Do you have reason to believe these predictions are faulty?
    2. If not, do you still find the Common Core OK?

    Just curious re your position.