The Common Core’s botched assessment regime is a feature, not a bug

It’s not often I disagree with the Shanker’s Institute’s writers, but a recent post defending the Common Core struck me, especially as I begin to increasingly feel the Standards are a bad idea.

An op-ed in the New York Times’ Week in Review is emblematic of the best of this disapproving sentiment. Yet even it mixes together fundamental misconceptions about the entire Common Core project with legitimate issues of inadequate preparation for teachers and students and poor implementation by state education departments and districts. The Common Core is described as a “radical curriculum” that was introduced with “hardly any public discussion.” We are told that it is a “one size fits all” approach, built upon a standardized script that teachers must use for instruction. Finally, it is suggested that the Common Core is a “game that has been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail.”

Since this sets the agenda for the rest of the post, I’ll start here: whether or not it’s a “radical” curriculum, and even if it was an ostensibly public process, the process has been significantly impacted by non-educators, including major philanthropic organization like the Gates Foundation. Even if there was some teacher input during the development process, it’s obvious that these standards are not taking teacher concerns into account during the roll-out. While I’m less familiar with how the Standards were developed, if the “teacher input” during development is like the anything roll-out (even if those two are being conflated), teachers and those who know about curriculum are not being given the voice necessary to make these work the way they’re supposed to.

  • The Common Core has the potential to empower teachers, giving us new opportunities to improve our craft and the teaching profession. The Common Core sets out performance standards for what students should know and be able to do in a subject: it does not prescribe either what teachers should teach or how they should teach and work with their students to attain these standards. Moreover, by requiring that students develop deeper and richer understandings of the subjects they are studying, the Common Core implicitly breaks with the ‘factory model’ of schooling and the ‘test prep’ deformation of education. The instructional shift demanded by the Common Core poses both a challenge and an opportunity for teachers to work together in their schools in the development of lessons, units and teaching materials that would support them in teaching to the new standards. Teacher creativity and teacher collaboration are thus essential to doing the Common Core right, and are at the center of the work in schools and districts that have prepared well for the Common Core.

This is one of the biggest red herrings Core defenders use when defending them as being non-prescriptive. A number of curricula are being developed as “Common Core-aligned.”[1. I know – I worked at one of these companies. And I thought, and still think, we were doing good work, so this isn’t to deride those who are working on that.] So maybe the Standards aren’t a curriculum, per se, but they’re certainly being turned into curricula so fast as to render the difference meaningless. Teachers aren’t going to actually end up with the kind of freedom and space to try things out under the new standards, despite the positive rhetoric.

There are two problems here. First, the lesson of the first standards movement was that, when you go straight from standards to assessment, skipping all other steps, the assessment determines what is taught, narrowing and truncating what should be a rich and robust curriculum. This seems to be entirely lost on policymakers, both at USED and in the state education departments. Second, a top-down and punitive concept of accountability, developed in response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is being superimposed upon the Common Core. While the evidence of the flaws in such a concept is bountiful a dozen years into NCLB, State Education Department and school districts are invested in systems in which all of the accountability devolves upon schools, educators and students, and none on themselves. Earlier this year, when Randi Weingarten made a proposal for a moratorium on the use of Common Core aligned exams in high-stakes decisions for students and teachers, on the seemingly commonsense premise that we should get the assessments right before we count on them in making decisions about the futures of schools, educators and students, Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change was quick to issue a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” response.

This ties into what I said above: The Standards may not be a curriculum, but they’ll turn into a curriculum mighty quick once there are tests for it. Because if it’s on the test, and your job depends on it, you’ll teach it exactly the way the “not-a-curriculum Standards” expect you to.

Most significantly, though, if we’ve seen this movement do the same thing twice, as he suggests it has learned nothing from movement’s mistakes in the 90s, it seems to be a logical conclusion that the connection between the Standards and assessment is a feature, not a bug, of national standards.

And that’s the biggest problem: while the standards movement didn’t expect to lose its support so abruptly, I don’t think the mangled implementation of the accountability regime was an accident. Since the Standards came out of the same group that supports accountability (mostly via testing), it just looks like this was its purpose all along.

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This post is part of the thread: Testing & Standards in Education - an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.