by Julia Steiny
It's true: if allowed to survive, the Common Core State Standards would be a massive, necessary, though slow-moving overhaul of American education.
Finalized and welcomed by the education community three years ago, the standards are now starting to trickle into classroom practices, so hackles are up. But somehow the American public has lost the habit of raising questions in a civil manner or asking pointed questions to spark a needed debate. That's for wusses. Better to reach for emotional Uzis — name-calling, vicious accusations, and rallying cries to kill the Standards dead rather than improve them. This is life in the post-moral culture. Fight first.
At the risk of adding to their current unpopularity, the situation with the CCSS is not unlike that of the Affordable Care Act. Both are messy, flawed, and huge.
But in both cases, they're also necessary and long overdue. I concede their imperfections. They are human-made, after all. But no virtue or value lies in reverting to the bad old days. In the case of the ACA, we've had the most expensive and ineffective healthcare system in the world, which doesn't even reach huge swaths of the population. At least we are headed, however stumbling, towards something better.
In the case of the CCSS, the very purpose of public education in America has been unclear for decades. We've desperately needed a description of "better." CCSS are such a description. They are not curriculum and they're not testing programs. They're just standards — goals, objectives, targets to sharpen our aim and elevate our hopes for kids. We can't get anywhere if we don't know where we're going.
America is the only developed country without national standards.
All the countries with whom American students are compared have national standards and even national curricula (Finland). Weirdly, national standards are about the only thing those countries' education systems have in common. The Asian countries have their Tiger Mamas and their cram schools and a focus on test scores that makes my skin crawl. The European and Euro-like countries (Australia) have more appealing (to me) national goals and standards that at least mention preparing young people for happy, fulfilling lives. So the comparison countries have highly diverse, but national standards.
Just for the record, if the state of Massachusetts were a county unto itself, it would be at the top of the international rankings, right up there with Singapore. In the 1990s, MA set a high bar for their students and weathered nasty complaints of opponents that sound exactly like the hues and cries voiced now against CCSS. Over the course of years, MA's students' academic performance climbed from middling to the top of the U.S. state rankings, where they have remained for years. MA did not mandate a curriculum; that was up to the locals, just as it is with CCSS. Interestingly, MA just announced it would take a pass, for now, on the CCSS testing program they'd agreed to use. If they can tweak their MCAS, which has served them well, it might remain their testing system. Every state can decide for itself how their kids will meet the new rigorous standards.
Let's back up to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.
NCLB bowed to states' rights and local control by mandating each state develop a standards-and-accountability system. Three states pooled their resources to create the NECAP, bringing the number of unique sets of state standards to a ridiculous 48. With very few exceptions (like MA), states set fairly low expectations. Furthermore,
NCLB's strategy was to punish under-performing schools, so most states tried to avoid consequences with pathetically unambitious testing goals. Other than developing very useful data-gathering machinery in each state, NCLB mainly left the education industry confused and defensive.
To dig out of that mess, the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers collaborated on the CCSS. They assembled all manner of teachers, boards of education, researchers, institutions of higher education, administrators and business leaders to figure out what a high school student should know and be able to do. With the end goals in hand, they designed a sequence of grade-by-grade benchmarks to help students reach newly ambitious academic heights, In 2010, the CCSS authors presented their work in English and Math.
Generally, experts agreed that the standards were good — more rigorous, more aligned with higher education, business and the emerging economy. Many people, including me, take issue with some of the specifics. (The early-childhood standards need revision.) But let's work on them in isolation. One bad standard does not spoil the lot. Killing off the CCSS initiative will not address specific concerns, never mind improve public education.
How the CCSS plays out in your district or your child's classroom is a local matter. Anyone worried about over-testing needs to take it up with their state, where the problem actually lies.
But stop already with the Chicken Little behavior. CCSS is not the doom of America's kids. Review your lesson on the Baby and the Bathwater, because while we probably need to change some bathwater, this Baby is critical.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.