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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Common Core: Haven't We Been Here Before?

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

In watching the NFL draft recently, I was struck at how much attention and money is spent "breaking down" every player: how they run, jump, throw and move. Even the size of virtually every body part is fully analyzed. They are interviewed, as are their previous coaches and other important adults, to learn as much as possible about flaws and strengths. Much depends on getting things right for both the team and the player. The stakes are high. Yet with all the analysis, there are plenty of mistakes. Some "can't miss" prospects do miss, and others who weren't even drafted become stars. Most fall somewhere in between. Having standards that try to measure the likelihood of a player's success on a football field is inexact at best -- as much art as it is science.

So it is with the Common Core State Standards, the latest iteration of the standards we use in school that try to predict career success. Yet all too often, they are presented as the solution to all the underachieving that burdens our students and schools. Understanding what makes people successful so it can be replicated with certainty is as impossible with football players as it is with students. And testing to see if someone is measuring up to the standards will produce mixed results at best.

A New 800-Pound Gorilla

Pardon my skepticism, but it feels like we have been here before with earlier programs designed to address concerns about failing schools, like A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind. This time, however, there are higher stakes for educators, since many states and districts are tying student test performance to teacher evaluation -- which largely misses the boat. So while we have a new acronym (CCSS replacing NCLB), I have my deep doubts that these standards will truly transform education and make our students more "career and college ready." The Common Core Standards will do nothing to enhance the achievement of students in schools that lack the will or resources needed to deal with a preponderance of kids who can't relate to the importance of school because they don't see it in their own lives. Short of solving the many social ills that affect learning, what does make a difference is:

  1. Surrounding needy kids with others who are ready to learn and expected to go to college
  2. Leading them with knowledgeable and caring educators
  3. Creating a culture of high expectations that gets its students to believe there is something better, and that education is the key to access it

The Common Core is an impressive array of well-considered standards that students are expected to learn in order to achieve career and college readiness. When viewed as a set of guidelines that point to a goal and that allows for some give and take, standards can be very helpful. And I believe that was the intention of the developers. Unfortunately, it seems the CCSS have instead become the 800-pound gorilla, feared by many, understood by few and naively viewed as the latest salvation for the problem of our "failing schools."

More Specifics, Please

A major problem is ambiguity. While there are examples and suggestions of lessons that align with the standards, actual curriculum development is left to local educators. I applaud the respect to professionalism offered by that flexibility, but the "common core" is so broad and all-encompassing that you can "align" virtually anything you teach, and any way you teach it, to one or more of the standards. In fact, a wave of self-proclaimed experts has emerged to engage weary classroom teachers with a proliferation of books and seminars whose often-conflicting examples of lesson plans are all purportedly compatible with the Common Core.

Making things even muddier, end-of-year tests used increasingly in teacher evaluation are developed externally and may therefore be largely unrelated to what was actually taught.

Finally, while the standards purport to get students more college and career ready, there is simply no research that supports the mastery of any one academic curriculum versus another to best prepare students for overall career or college readiness. For example, it seems like a no-brainer to know that teaching the intricacies of electricity is necessary for a future electrician. However, it is far less clear that giving sixth graders a project on key Civil War battles that requires them to incorporate critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (elements of a good lesson according to the Common Core) will better prepare them for college or a career.

Better Results?

Interestingly, there is growing pushback to Common Core from state legislatures that is largely due to their having had no input in developing the standards. It remains to be seen how that plays out, but until then, it seems that the Common Core's greatest contribution to date has been establishing a new rallying cry, albeit one with a familiar sound. Like NCLB and other previously promised panaceas, the cost is high-stakes, time-consuming tests culminating in teacher dread, parental confusion and some combination of student anxiety for kids who are achievement-motivated and indifference for those who are not.

Perhaps we would see better results if we took the proliferation of motivational assemblies and other incentives used to rally kids come test time, and traded them for increased support for stressed-out teachers throughout the year, helping them sustain the energy to make better use of known strategies that make kids want to come to school and do well. The best recipe for success is a mix of a little innate skill and a lot of intangibles that can't be measured, like the drive to succeed and the willingness to sacrifice, guided by the presence of a trusted adult who believes in you and shows you the way.

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