James Shuls: Missouri Should Embrace Common Core Conflict

Missorui State House

by James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

When my college sweetheart and I asked our pastor if he would perform our wedding ceremony, he had one stipulation — we had to undergo marriage counseling. We agreed and thankfully learned the valuable lesson that conflict is inevitable. After 10 years of marriage, I can say that our counselor was absolutely right. Sometimes my wife and I fight over the most insignificant things, like how to fold the towels. That is why I am so surprised at the reaction of Common Core supporters to the grumblings of Common Core critics. Without the knowledge of the general public, state school chiefs and governors wed millions of American school children to a new, uniform set of learning standards. What our children learn is far more important than folding towels or most other things that cause conflict in our day-to-day lives. Why would you not expect conflict?

Like nearly every other state in the nation, my home state of Missouri adopted Common Core with hopes of winning a large grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program in 2010. As Missourians began to learn more about the new standards, a groundswell of opposition developed. This opposition culminated in the passage of House Bill 1490 in the spring of 2014. The bill calls for work groups to develop new learning standards for math, language arts, science, and social studies. I have had the fortunate pleasure of being appointed to one of these committees.

Admittedly, my work group, and every other, got off to a rocky start during our first two meetings. Voices were raised, individuals walked out, and the room was tense. Because of the conflict, many outside observers have scoffed at the proceedings. Recently, Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro commented that the level of discord was unprecedented. News flash — when you centrally impose standards you invite discord.

This conflict should have been expected. What’s more, it is a good thing. The citizens of Missouri are a diverse group of individuals. There are only two ways we can avoid conflict — stop centrally imposing standards or suppress the voices of some citizens.

Personally, I wish we would do the former. Setting standards implies that we know when students should learn each topic, which we do not. It stifles creativity and limits innovation. Moreover, there is not compelling evidence that setting standards at the state level will significantly impact student achievement. Thus, in an ideal world, we would equip local schools with the power to determine what works best for their students. We would allow them to determine which set of standards they would use. In other words, let them decide if fractions are best learned in fifth grade or sixth. Let them decide if students should be prepared for algebra at eighth grade or ninth. Of course, with this level of decentralization parents also should be empowered to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Unfortunately, ignoring voices of dissent seems to be the preferred method of avoiding conflict by far too many people in leadership positions in Missouri and the rest of the nation.

Another alternative is to embrace the conflict and work to find positive solutions. If we are going to wed teachers, schools, and students to a new set of learning standards, we must be willing to listen to and reason with individuals we disagree with. As my wife and I learned in marriage counseling, the most important thing is not whether you have conflict, but how you deal with it.

James Shuls

James Shuls

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.