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Dispatches from a nervous Common Core observer (part 1 of 10) |

Jun 5, 2013 by

Is the Common Core Curves or Weight Watchers?

Michael McShane

Rhetoric around the Common Core has been ramping up recently, with calls from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times to either abandon or support the effort.

But the issue is a bit more complicated than that. AEI Education hosted a public research conference on the topic back in March, with an eye to examining how the Common Core intersected with current school improvement efforts. We invited folks both for and against the standards — academics, practitioners, advocates, and skeptics alike — to discuss the papers and all in all had a rousing good time.

Since that conference, I have become more nervous about the prospects for the Common Core. Why? Well, I simply have too many unanswered questions.

Over the course of the next 10 days, I’m going to tackle one question per day.

I don’t know if answers to these questions exist. I hope, for the sake of the effort that has begun in states all across the country, that folks are thinking about these things and working through them and I just don’t know about it. Please, if that is the case, let me know in the comments or over on twitter (@mq_mcshane). I’d be more than happy to be disabused of my skepticism.

But if there aren’t answers to these questions, or answers that show that the Common Core will conflict with, rather than complement, current efforts at work to improve schools, then my skepticism might onto something.


But we shall see. So, without further ado, my first question:

Question #1: Is the Common Core Curves or Weight Watchers?

The Common Core makes people who tend to favor more local control of schools (like me) nervous because we fear it becoming an overly prescriptive, nationalized system that might limit the diversity of offerings in schools and curtail the ability of teachers and school leaders to innovate. Now, I know what you Common Core fans are going to say “the Common Core are simply standards, standards just provide the end goal for instruction, they don’t dictate how or when particular content or skills need to be taught, just where students need to be by the end of the year.”

What you’re describing is the Common Core as Weight Watchers. Rather than giving a specific diet or exercise routine, Weight Watchers simply gives a common language that dieters can use to talk about food. All foods have a point value, and dieters are limited to a set number of points in a given day. There is no one ideal set of points for all dieters, and there are an infinite number of permutations an individual can use to get under the maximum point bar.

Those that view the Common Core in this way see it as simply the common language that teachers, curriculum authors, and app developers can use to design their content and plans. It is the sort of copper wire that undergirds the telephone system or the app store that provides a place for innovation to flourish. It allows for a vibrant market for new textbook materials, new apps, and new professional development tools. That is all great.

I get nervous when the Common Core stops looking like Weight Watchers, and starts looking more like Curves.

For those unfamiliar, Curves is a gym for women that offers a highly-regimented, tried and true method of exercise. Curves facilities have a set of 8 to 12 exercise machines, each set to a uniform amount of resistance, that exercisers work their way through in a circuit.

What makes me think of Curves when it comes to the Common Core? A couple of things:

First, both consortia developing tests for the Common Core standards are developing “through course” assessments. These are tests designed to be given throughout the year to make sure that students are on pace to reach the level of competence that the standards require. While making sure that students are on the right path is a perfectly reasonable and laudable goal, it has the unintended consequence of standardizing the order in which particular material is taught. It makes the standards begin to look more like a curriculum. Now, it is important to note that, to date, both sets of exams are strictly optional and states and districts are free to ignore them. However, I would be willing to bet that performance on those tests will correlate highly with performance on the end of the year exams of the standards, which incentivizes districts to use them. This could serve to narrow the instructional approaches that are used to meet the standards, as more and more districts choose to use the through-course-aligned instructional path.


Second, there do appear to be certain pedagogical undertones to the standards. Tom Loveless wrote a fantastic post over at the Brookings Institution’s blog aptly titled “The Banality of Deeper Learning.” In it, he highlights language that has been used to support the Common Core (and many other educational projects) including “project-based” “inquiry and discovery” “higher-level thinking.” These tend to be code-words for an approach to education that de-emphasizes the learning of discrete facts and standard algorithms, at students’ peril. Don’t believe me? Check out this article covering California’s transition to the Common Core, it is exactly what Loveless describes. Now, I understand that some might say that the standards don’t explicitly tell teachers to teach in that way, but if that is what they think they say, it can be extremely powerful. One need look no farther than the non-fiction requirement controversy to see how that goes.

But this isn’t just analogizing for the sake of cleverness — either interpretation has serious political consequences. The more the Common Core is like Curves, the more local control advocates and innovation-agenda folks will balk. While Curves is good for most, it isn’t the best course for all, some people need to up the resistance or exercise for longer. If you want to train to run a marathon, Curves can’t really help you. Want to learn to kick box, do serious strength training, or go cycling? You probably shouldn’t go to Curves.

The more it is like Weight Watchers, the more those who prize equity will be nervous. Weight Watchers tends to leave people more to their own devices to determine how they want to spend their points, and many struggle with developing workable food budgets.

It’s a classic problem of public policy: more freedom (Weight Watchers) runs the risk of uneven implementation, but standardization (Curves) stifles innovation.

So my question is: which one is it going to be?

Let me know what you think, below in the comments or over on twitter (I’m @mq_mcshane).

via Dispatches from a nervous Common Core observer (part 1 of 10) | AEIdeas.

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