The Common Core: The Technocrats Re-engineer Learning

May 1, 2012

As criticism of No Child Left Behind and the associated tests rises, we are hearing more and more about the Common Core Standards (CCS), the next great thing that is supposed to fix all that ails us. When a talking pineapple made New York tests a laughing stock, state education commissioner John King reassured us,


It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway. This year's tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year's test will be fully aligned with the Common Core.

 

Arne Duncan, likewise, when pushed about our obsession with standardized tests, offers up the Common Core, and the new tests being designed with Department of Education funding, as the solution. According to him, we will soon move "beyond the bubble tests," into a new generation of assessments:

For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth--rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.

For the first time, state assessments will make widespread use of smart technology. They will provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.

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But the Common Core is facing significant pushback, especially from state-level policymakers who want to preserve their ability to make decisions about curriculum. Some states, such as Virginia, and most recently South Carolina and Utah have raised protests against what they see as Federal coercion to adopt the Common Core, in that Federal grants such as Race to the Top, and now NCLB waivers are being made contingent on the degree to which the Common Core is embraced.

Some people seem confused about the Common Core. Some who have been critical of our obsession with testing have even embraced the Common Core, seeing it as superior to some of the state-level standards now in place. I have heard some say, "Common Core is not the problem. The problem we should focus on is high stakes testing." I disagree.

First, the genesis of the Common Core is directly tied to NCLB. They are designed to fix one of the weaknesses of NCLB, which is that each state has its own set of standards, and this makes it impossible to set one bar for achievement. The whole purpose of the CCS is to standardize achievement levels and allow rewards and punishments to be "fairly" distributed.

I think that while many people at this point favor an abstract concept like "high standards," there is a growing discomfort with "standardization." We should remember that in the not-too-distant past Bill Clinton's attempt to get national standards in place was soundly rejected on political grounds. In fact, the rules that govern the Department of Education explicitly forbid the establishment of national standards -- that is why there is this constant effort to insist this is a voluntary state initiative, and this pretense that Dept of Ed grant requirements have nothing to do with it.

One argument I have heard in their defense is that we ought to have a system that prevents states from deciding that students need not be taught that the theory of evolution explains how life on earth has changed over time. As a science teacher, I too would appreciate it if there was a national mandate to teach evolution and overcome creationist illusions like Intelligent Design. However, I do not think this is a good enough reason to standardize instruction from top to bottom in every classroom across the country.

The idea that we can separate the Common Core from high stakes testing is mistaken. The Common Core exists for no other reason than to make such tests possible on a national scale. The Common Core is also closely associated with two big shifts in testing. First, there will be a significant expansion in the number and frequency of tests. There will be more tests, in more subjects, at more grade levels.

The fact that there will be common tests across the nation will make it easier to place even greater pressure on teachers and students to attend to test scores. Second, we will have the introduction of computer-based assessments, with the marvelous machines designed to grade tests, like the Pearson Intelligent Essay Analyzer, or other robo-grading systems.

People may be unaware that this is connected to a vast new system of student data, which, in the state of New York, will be managed by a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and Rupert Murdoch's Wireless Generation. The technocrat's vision is that every student's data will be tracked from kindergarten onward, and teacher performance can then be carefully monitored. And the whole system depends on a common set of national standards and tests.

I was influenced by conversations with Nebraska Education Commissioner Doug Christensen a couple of years ago. His state was one of the last holdouts against NCLB, and they resisted by having teams of educators develop their own assessments aligned with state standards.

Here is part of an interview I did with him:

Question: Do you see the movement towards local control as a positive thing?

"Is local control a good thing" is not the right question. We don't need more "control" at the local level, we need more initiative, self-determination, discretion and leadership. "Local control" can mean that local folks can be satisfied with mediocrity. On the other hand, initiative, self-determination, discretion and leadership means that each community has a responsibility to "be the best they can be." 

In fact, local initiative, self-determination and leadership are the "only thing." No enduring change will occur in our schools until the folks at the local level who send their children to the schools and who pay bills are engaged actively in making decisions, initiating new programs and practices and providing leadership at policy levels. 



Assessment and accountability must have their locus of action and policy at the local level and in the hands of educators and local policy leaders. Name a profession that is not in charge of their own metrics of success and the metrics of what is good practice? Lawyers are in charge of theirs. Medical doctors are in charge of theirs. So are accountants, nurses, bankers, and even morticians. Why aren't educators? Why aren't the local folks in charge and accountable?

We could have a great three-way partnership of educators and policy leaders at the local, state and federal levels if we would dump the notions of "local control" and that accountability at the state and federal level is the only locus of public accountability. The local leadership should take the initiative and use their discretion to guide the operation of the schools at the local levels. The state leaders should provide policy direction and capacity so that we can have schools of both excellence and equity. The role of federal leadership should be to give energy, policy direction and capacity at the state level to serve those populations that are most difficult to serve, are currently under-served and/or for whom the issues of equity can best be addressed by policy and capacity from the federal level.

The scholar Yong Zhao has made a similar argument, calling for what he calls "mass localism" as the key to successful education reform. In this post, he writes:

Soon enough, the reformers will celebrate their success in finally moving America out of its miserably outdated, 19th century, parochial education system and imposing consistency and coherence upon a seemingly chaotic system. Yet, in my opinion, they will have succeeded in destroying precisely what America needs for its future in a 21st century, globalized society. And, in time, even the reformers will discover that America has lost its capacity to be the leader in creativity, innovation, and democracy. They will have succeeded in ruining the engine for that.

He explains,

... a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.

 

He concludes,

An ideal education system is tens of thousands of autonomous schools and millions of autonomous professional educators connected together in a global community, where they exchange ideas, collaborate on projects, and create new solutions. In this system are tens of thousands of innovation centers and millions of innovators instead of one wise body located far away from the real actions of teaching. Such a system enables every community, school, teacher, and student to build on its strengths. And such a system can be spared from a total disaster that could result from one authoritarian body--no matter how wise that body may seem to be.

Standards equal standardization, and, in my mind, standardization and centralized control are the objectives of the technocrats, and these are the biggest villains of all. The stakes attached to tests are the tools of coercion, by which teachers and students will be rewarded or punished for the extent to which they comply. But in the big picture, the final objective is not tests, but uniformity, and adherence to a centrally conceived and approved version of truth. I think the Common Core is the vehicle for this technocratic vision, and it should be firmly opposed for this reason. 

What do you think? Is the Common Core inextricably linked to high stakes testing? Or should we focus on testing and let the Common Core ride on?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science and math teacher at Bret Harte Middle School. He also worked for six years as an instructional coach for Oakland's Peer Assistance and Review program and science department. He received a BS in Conservation and Resource...