Don’t Blame Common Core

Recent results from international testing programs (PISA) indicate that scores for American students have remained stagnant in comparison to other comparable nations where scores have risen. Media outlets have been quick to blame progressive pedagogies—common core—for the decline in American performance in core disciplines.

Don’t blame common core. If anything, common core mirrored the kind of instructional goals now being followed in countries that score well on PISA. I admit to having some issues with common core, but the substance of the reform called for teachers to invite students to participate in processes of inquiry, problem solving and sensemaking. Students, according to common core, must have opportunities to participate in authentic, conceptual problem solving and argumentation. So then, what went wrong.

First, and foremost, our teachers are not at the same educational and training levels of comparable industrialized nations—they lack deep background in their subject matter, which, is the foundation of common core and the curricula in nations doing well on PISA. This is not to blame teachers for low test scores. It is to admit the uncomfortable truth that the curriculum and expectations in American schools of education do not align with the kinds of pedagogy—e.g. common core) designed to do well on conceptually based content and procedures tested by PISA.

Secondly, nations doing well on PISA spend more time in school ( e.g. 240 days in Japan).

Thirdly, even when in school American students waste enormous amounts of time on non-academic activities—homecoming, prom, pep assemblies

Finally, our culture is deeply anti-intellectual and anti-school (e.g. Trump). American parents look at schooling as means to earn a credential, a piece of paper–the concept that the act of learning is a honored value–one that must be pursued at all cost–well, what our culture values is Friday Night Under the Lights, supporting our winning head football coach, who, also teaches one period of Algebra.

Schools are nine to five jobs

For the last century–yes century–we have designed and operated our schools as factories. Watching student on my block wait for buses at 6: 30 in morning and then seeing the activity buses arriving at 5 or 6 pm—just another day at the factory.There is now mountains of research on adolescent sleeping habits concluding that schools should start later and end earlier—Finland’s 9 – 2 school hours conforms to these findings. We continue in this country to support school systems that are pursuing institutional goals—accreditation, accountability mandates, budgetary goals (e.g. bus companies bottom-line)—but none of the educational goals and values listed in school mission statements. The routines of American schooling—the grammar of schooling—is wholly designed to conform to the schedules and the goals of the adult working world and nothing to do with the working of a child’s mind.


I was interested in learning until I went to school

The title of this blog is copied from a New York Times opinion piece, (November 7, 2019) titled, “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.” The article describes in detail the experience of a young female world class runner recruited by Nike to be the next Olympic wunderkind. Mary Cain, the young runner, enters the Nike training complex, coached by a world class track coach, with the belief that program would develop her young talent into a mature professional athlete.

What happened to her in the Nike program was far removed from her expectation of becoming a mature professional athlete. In Ms. McCain’s own words, she became caught up a system designed to produce world class runners at the expense of the social, emotional, and physical development of young female athletes. After several years of unhealthy weight loses, broken bones, and irregular mensural cycles, she came to the realization that the system she was in was not about her, but about advancing the status of Nike and careers of the coaches employed by Nike.

What relevance does this opinion piece have to do with education? A recent study of student performance in college (Arum & Roksa, 2011) gives voice to John Goodlad’s (1984) observation, nearly 30 years ago, that schools are places where students have become “academically adrift” in institutions largely designed to grant a credential, enforce the daily routines of schooling, and prizes completion of work over understanding and reflection.

School mission statements, state and national standards, and professional standards would lead one to believe that the primary goal of schooling is to create learning environments that promote critical thinking, focus on complex concepts and principles, and make sense out of real-world problems. Sit in any classroom in America and see if any of these mission driven goals materialize in the daily grind of worksheets, Power Points, and “what is on the teacher’s mind” discourse.

No student walks away from institutional schooling with the physical problems experienced by Ms. McCain, but they do walk away with, in my mind, a far more debilitating injury—a love of life-long learning.

The End of Institutional Schooling

For the last three decades public schools have been subjected to a continuing barrage of reform initiatives that promise to fundamentally change the way students learn in American classrooms. While policy makers can claim that reform mandates have made the performance of schools more transparent, they would admit that they have not fundamentally changed the way students learn in America: Teachers are still standing in front of classrooms talking a lot; students are still sitting at desks listening a lot; teachers and students are still copying information from textbooks a lot. How do public schools maintain the appearance of making fundamental changes to classroom instruction that, decade after decade, remain fundamentally the same?

The answer to the resilience of the assign and assess model of classroom instruction begins with the public perception of what schools should look like and what school personnel should be doing and ends with efficiently performing the institutional goals of schooling: granting of grades, credits, and diplomas. School administrators and teachers satisfy public perceptions of what schooling should look like by performing the daily routines of schooling well. Buses arrive on time, student schedules are correct, open house runs smoothly, and their son’s or daughter’s name is found on the appropriate honor roll.

The public believes that school administrators and teachers are doing their jobs when they are rigorously pursuing high academic standards. Rigor in schools is defined as reading lengthy textbooks, taking notes, taking tests, and receiving a grade on a report card. Although this definition of rigor promotes an instructional delivery model that is in direct opposition to the fundamental changes school reformers are calling for, the assign and assess model of schooling makes sense to policy makers and parents.

Finally the sameness of public schooling is maintained by satisfying the demands of parents who aggressively pursue access to curricular and extra-curricular programs that will advance the educational and career goals of their children. School administrators balance the favored treatment of privileged groups in the schools by offering safety net programs—special education— for students whose backgrounds, interests, and talents disqualify them for the “race to the top.”

The consequences of the standoff between legitimate calls for fundamental changes to the traditional model of doing school in America and the appearance of racing to the top are school systems that are not only stuck in mediocrity, but are also are forced into institutional behaviors that actually result in a downward spiral of student performance. Among those dysfunctional behaviors are rigid rules for maintaining access to favored school programs, spreading resources too thinly to have any affect, and adopting the latest reform initiative without attention to organizational capacity or program coherence.

How do we end the schooling game that parents, administrators, teachers, and policy makers are playing with each other? How do we truly reform schools that are stuck in an instructional system that will not to optimize the diverse abilities, talents, and interests of children and adolescents or equip them with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy?

The answer lies in ending schooling, as the public knows it. The disruptive changes to traditional schools described below will eliminate the possibility of “reforming without changing” and force the entire infrastructure of schooling—administrators, teachers, schools of education, textbook publishers, test publishers, consultants—to either dissolve or develop a truly reformed platform for teaching and learning.

Separate academic from non-academic programs:

If schools are to become serious about teaching academics well, then school administrators and teachers should spend the entire day focused on creating classrooms that are intellectually engaging. They should not be spending any part of their day rearranging time schedules for pep-assemblies, shortening the week for homecoming, spending countless hours before and after school supervising extra-curricular activities or searching for math teachers who can coach football.

Creating engaging intellectual environments in our schools is a demanding job that requires hours of reading, planning, and on-going professional conversations. For the last century schools have hidden the academic goals of schooling behind a multitude of athletic and extra-curricular offerings that have become the tail wagging the academic dog. Aside from the money, time, and instructional personnel wasted on planning and supervising extra-curricular activities, schools send the not-so-subtle message that academic training are mere sideshows to what really counts in schools—what occurs after school and on weekends.

The customary response to this reform proposal is the legitimate observation that students enter our schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests. Thus, schools should offer an expansive curriculum that includes interscholastic sports and a rich variety of special interest activities. While I agree with the first premise—students enter schools with diverse talents, abilities, and interests—I do not agree that schools should assume the responsibility for developing those diverse talents, abilities, and interests. School systems throughout the world delegate the responsibility for developing the diverse talents, abilities, and interests of their student bodies to public and private entities that have no connection with a school system. Our global competitors make it clear to parents and students that academic and technical training is the central mission of their countries school system.

Expand the definition of Intelligence

For the last two decades policy makers and the schooling establishment have admitted that the traditional measure of intelligence—the I.Q. tests—fail to measure the diverse abilities and talents of students and are poor indicators of how an individual will perform in the real world. Legislators and school administrators have enacted policies and procedures that have all but eliminated the use of a single test of intelligence from appearing on a student’s transcript or used to make any decisions about a student’s educational future. While policy mandates have removed single measures of intelligence from school records, they have not removed the knowledge and skills they measure from school curricula or classroom instruction.

School textbooks, teaching routines, and the traditional test on Friday, continue to value narrow demonstrations of learning: rapidly answering textbook problems or a facility for unraveling puzzles in logic. Both demonstrations of learning guarantee high scores on college entrance tests and measures of school learning, but are poor measures of the kind of adaptive decision-making skills students will confront in their private lives and public performances.

It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the knowledge and skills that would result in the kind of adaptive decision making that will result in success in the real world. Suffice it to say, that the curriculum materials and instructional routines that are now dedicated to teaching students to be good test takers must be redirected to teaching students how to be good thinkers.

Reorganize school subjects around big ideas/big questions

The first step to constructing a curriculum designed for teaching good thinking is the elimination of school subjects. The subject-centered curriculum is designed primarily to efficiently implement the institutional goals of schooling: scheduling students, recording grades, granting credits, packaging content, and identifying smart students. The school community’s unquestioned acceptance of a curriculum designed for textbook companies, bell schedules and honor rolls are founded on the flawed belief that the theories, ideas, and concepts that allow us to function each day originate from a subject. The public search for what works and the private search for meaning did not begin by consulting a textbook –it began by asking the right questions. The messy stories behind how those questions originated and how each generation negotiated the answers to these messy questions have no place in textbooks designed for storing information that can be easily tested on Friday.

Without the messy story that explains the context of a societal problem and its eventual resolution, students and teachers will continue to dance around the most unanswered question of schools as we know them: Why should I study this subject? Subjects, textbooks, and standardized tests only exist in the world of schooling. In the real world of public performances and the private search for meaning, “answers” begin with asking the right questions, selecting the right knowledge, and expertly connecting right questions with right knowledge. Such a process can only occur in classrooms where knowledge is organized around big questions that are answered by ad hoc arrangements of theories, ideas, and concepts from multiple disciplines. The recent publication of the common core learning standards is small recognition that twenty-first century thinking begins with big questions not little answers.

Expand the School Calendar

      Although this proposal has been around for decades, parents continue to deeply believe in a school year that begins late, ends early and is continually interrupted by some state or national holiday. To articulate the obvious, how can American students attending school for 180 days possibly learn as much or as well as students in other nations who sit in classrooms for 240 days?

A school calendar designed around long summer vacations and frequent holidays, forces teachers into a disjointed instructional routine that alternates between reviewing what students forgot over the last break and racing through new material before the next break. Policy makers at the federal and state level must provide schools with the incentives and resources to not only lengthen the school calendar, but to do so in a way that inverts the relationship between reviewing old material and learning new material.

Reorganize schools around the normal development levels of children

The final recommendation that would end schooling as the public knows it would require the restructuring of K – 12 grade configurations in a way that acknowledges the fact that the age of a child tells us noting about how that child functions socially, emotionally, or intellectually. From an institutional perspective, graded schools and their organizational divisions (elementary, middle school, high school) make perfect sense. Age-graded schools are efficient systems for publishing textbooks, offering subjects, assigning grades, awarding credits, and issuing diplomas.

From an educational perspective, age-graded schools do not travel well into classrooms. The simple truth that parents know, the research confirms, and schools ignore are the vastly different levels at which children and adolescents mature socially, emotionally, and intellectually. The research is also clear about the adverse academic and behavioral effects occur when the rigidity of age-graded school is joined with the continual transitioning of children from one level of schooling to another. Returning to the K – 8 configuration of schooling would be the first step in organizing schooling around the normal social, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents. I would extend that configuration to K- 9 with tenth grade becoming the transition year for admission into a more expansive high school curriculum that offers multiple pathways for career exploration and training. A return to a configuration of schooling that honors the developmental needs of children would also provide a welcome home for expanded definitions of intelligence, thematic approaches to curriculum and instruction, and an expanded school calendar.

The disruptive changes described above have in some fashion been tried before, but each proposal has failed to gain the traction in the world of institutional schooling. The failure of each recommendation has been attributed to overly utopian visions of how children learn and how institutional schooling ought to function. In reality, most of these “utopian visions” of schooling failed because they proved too sophisticated for administrators and teachers to implement or violated deeply held public beliefs about how schools should look and what they should be doing.

What decades of school reform measures have failed to acknowledge is the resilience of a model of schooling designed to assign grades, grant credits, house textbooks, and memorize large amounts of information. Instead of disrupting the goals and methods of institutional schooling, policy makers and educators continue to double-down on the model with more tests, larger textbooks, and a narrower curriculum. The five changes to institutional schooling put forth in the article would end schooling as the public knows it and begin a new model of schooling designed for learning instead of credentialing.

Welcome to Standardsville

INTUITIVELY I have known that the term educational standards is an oxymoron. My feelings are based on years of sitting in classrooms with teachers who brought unique insights and styles into the classroom and with teachers who merely prepared us for taking tests. One type of teacher inspired me; the other, in the words of John Dewey, induced passivity.

Until now, I did not feel compelled to share my feelings about standards. Deep down I felt that this new reform idea, “too, shall pass.” Then I went to see the movie Pleasantville. The film recounts the experiences of two teenagers who find themselves trapped in a fictional Fifties town called Pleasantville — a community that prides itself on conformity and whose landscape is restricted to black and white. Throughout the movie a series of questions kept running through my mind: What if my community were Standardsville? What would a school look like in Standardsville? Could a faceless state bureaucracy impose its will by paper standards? Would an army of state officials descend on schools to ferret out educators who tried to add any color to an already gray landscape of lectures, worksheets, and test preparation programs?

Fortunately, I know the answers to all these questions. No single reform or state agency has ever had the ability to disturb the routines and structures of public schools. Why will the standards movement ultimately fail to affect the way schools do business in our country? The simple answer is that the United States is not Pleasantville. The more complex answer lies in the practical realities of schooling, which defy grand designs for change. Although many academics have already provided their lists of reasons for opposing standards, I felt it was time for a practitioner to provide the “real” reasons that standards will not work in this country.

  1. Schools are systems. State legislatures and state boards of education keep assuming that schools are not systems. These well-intentioned policy makers pass mandates that focus on what teachers and students do from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. They forget about the issues a child faces before and after school. They do not understand how a school staff and a community manage to resolve conflicts over heartfelt issues. Teachers and administrators know very well that, for any reform to succeed in schools, all components of the “school system” must be addressed at once. Bureaucrats will continue to be frustrated with any efforts at reform that do not include the “village” and the system.
  1. We don’t understand the standards. I will not spend much space on this reason. The most recent issues of any education journal document the problems educators and scholars are having with the interpretation of their state’s standards. Suffice it to say, when schoolpeople do not understand a reform, it’s dead on arrival.

3.Where are the standards? I know that every state superintendent of schools has implemented an elaborate process for the development and ratification of standards for his or her state. And I can guess that, in most states (if they are like Illinois), teachers and administrators have been permitted only a token presence in the development of the standards. I can also guess that administrators have responded in one of two ways when the standards have arrived at their doors: 1) they have placed the standards in the learning resource center, or 2) they have sent teachers the following memo: “Attached are the new state standards.” At this point in time, the standards are far away from the classroom.

  1. We already have standards. Teachers already have standards. They are called textbooks. For most teachers, the state standards will be viewed as an unnecessary duplication of what they already use.
  1. There isn’t enough time. For all the standards to be taught, much less learned, all students in this country would have to enroll in four years of English, four years of social studies, four years of mathematics, four years of science, four years of physical education and health, and four years of fine arts. I predict that, within the next few years, all the disciplines that were left out of the original standards movement will jump in with their own required standards. I also predict that state legislators will respond to the pressure of these interest groups as they did with all the others — “What’s the harm in another four years of something?” If you have been keeping count, students who desire to meet all state standards will be enrolled in “core” academic courses for seven periods a day. Schools in Standardsville will begin early and end late, they will have no electives, and gifted students will have no lunch. I can’t wait for my first meeting with the football coach and the band director.
  1. Teachers don’t agree with the standards. I always wonder if state legislators have ever attended a social studies department meeting. If they did, they would spend hours listening to teachers argue about the number of weeks allocated to studying the Civil War or whether to waste time studying whatever another teacher feels is important. Recently, I attended a math department meeting during which a huge argument broke out over factoring. Factoring — can you imagine that? Although I view these discussions as healthy, the standards movement does not. Teachers will not be given the freedom to select or modify the standards for their disciplines. We already know what happened to the teacher-proof curricula of the Sixties and Seventies. Here we go again.
  1. Teachers have too many kids. Although overall class sizes have declined in the last five years, the reductions have not compensated for the increase in the diversity of students entering most classrooms in America. Teachers just have too many students, too many demands on their time, and too few hours to focus on world-class standards.
  1. The standards aren’t even on my list. When I get in my car in the morning, I am thinking about students who could bring a gun to school. I am thinking about students who could be selling drugs to other students. I am thinking about what to do with the student who might be harassed because of a change in sexual preference. I am thinking about the teacher who is battling cancer. State standards aren’t even on the list. Based on my reading of the latest statistics on the health of children in the United States, I suspect that most principals enter their cars every morning with a similar list of priorities.
  1. The kids don’t speak English. Jerome Bruner made the observation that in highly symbolic cultures there will always be some group that will have the power to make decisions on what symbols are valued in the culture. It is clear from reading the standards what groups have made the decisions on what symbols will be valued in our schools. Unfortunately, these groups do not represent or understand the diverse backgrounds of the students who are now entering our schools. This reality poses a serious challenge to teachers who must teach representations of symbol systems that make no sense to the majority of students seated in their classes. Teachers are survivors. They will close their classroom doors and do whatever it takes to make things work. There is no bigger obstacle to making things work than subject-matter content that does not make sense to their students.
  1. What’s a big idea? One redeeming quality of the standards is their attempt to develop units of instruction around big ideas, major themes, and important questions. This approach is part of the reason that many of the standards appear to be vague. To implement such an approach to curriculum organization, teachers must have a deep understanding of their disciplines. Unfortunately, the research would indicate that most teachers lack the content background to organize units of instruction based on the “big picture.” Remember what occurred with “modern math” in the Sixties. However, this is where standards or curriculum frameworks could serve as an important foundation for beginning discussions about how to bring meaning to the maze of facts and skills that students are expected to navigate on a daily basis. These discussions will never take place because of the next reason.
  1. Embarrass them in public — they remember it longer. A former boss gave me this management hint. I will not divulge the source of the quote. Most states, however, have adopted this management strategy as a means of gaining compliance with their mandates. “Publish test scores in the newspapers — they will remember it longer.” Educators respond to this attempt at public embarrassment in a predictable fashion: they play defense. The last behavior we need to see from teachers who are facing tremendous challenges in their classrooms is defense.
  1. The workers need prodding. I am sure that a state superintendent or legislator will be upset with this article. I can predict the response: “Just another example of a school bureaucrat who does not want to be held accountable for his performance.” This strong belief — held by state legislators, state superintendents, and the business community — is, in the words of W. Edwards Deming, “a path to ruination.” The originator of Total Quality Management saw more clearly than his contemporaries in business — even some of those who bow to his shrine — the damage done by imposing grading systems in schools, merit systems, incentive pay, and numerical goals without a method. In Deming’s words, these approaches “rob people and the nation of innovation.” What is needed instead is “management that will restore the power of the individual.”

The teachers and administrators I have worked with for 30 years are “willing workers.” They are trying to do the best job they can. Could all of us in education be doing a better job? Absolutely. Do we get better by regulation, inspection, standardization, and public embarrassment? Absolutely not.

IF STANDARDS are not the answer, then what is? Speaking from the trenches, I feel like a Christmas tree being decorated by one group after another with one idea after another. At this point in the reform cycle, the branches are hanging pretty low, and the lights have gone out. We need, first, to take the tree out of the house and start over again. Where do we begin?

We must begin with the experiences children are having in schools. Forget about test scores; forget about the economy; forget about Japan. What do students think about their experiences? Do they feel safe? Do they like their teachers? Do they talk at the dinner table about the interesting day they had at school? Before dismissing these comments as naive, remember that there are schools that students genuinely like to attend. These schools are typically small, they employ teachers who are comfortable with loosely structured environments, and they permit students to follow their interests for most or part of their day. These schools certainly do not resemble what I call the “aircraft-carrier high schools” — cost-efficient behemoths that possess many levels, many departments, and many ranks, but no heart.

We must begin by creating an environment of trust between educators and public policy makers. Unfortunately, a variety of political and economic agendas have polarized the conversation about what makes a school good. We cannot hope to transform the experiences children are having in schools when teachers and administrators are spending valuable energy defending themselves against the latest reform cycle. The quickest way to build trust among educators is to permit their voices to be heard and to let them be involved in the decisions about the schools they teach in.

We must begin to pay more attention to theory instead of to what we think would work. So much of the reform agenda is based on wrong understandings about human behavior and learning. State policy makers continue to pass mandates that ignore the latest theories about human motivation, how the brain functions, how children learn, how adults learn, and how organizations become learning communities. As Deming put it, “Experience teaches nothing without theory.”

Finally, we must begin to remove the obstacles that prevent teachers and administrators from doing their jobs well. These obstacles range from state mandates that generate mountains of paperwork to a lack of basic resources — access to a telephone, a computer, a room in which to talk alone with a colleague. Creating learning experiences that are meaningful and engaging requires an enormous amount of thought and energy. Right now, teachers are spending too much time and energy taking attendance and worrying about when the copy machine will be repaired.

Tomorrow I will return to school and continue the complex work of bringing some color to the learning experiences of the students of our community. I am thankful that the community I work in is not Standardsville. My hope is that state policy makers will begin spending more time on helping schools develop more color in their programs than on preserving a landscape of black and white.