A Hollow Core

The Common Core Standards were designed as a bulwark against bad teachers. They just might drive the good ones out of the profession.

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The education profession is a comic freak show ripe for reality TV, a bickering marriage of the Socratic and the Bureaucratic who stay together “for the kids.” One loves to teach; the other loves to prove that the right things have been taught. It ain’t pretty.

Nothing in recent memory demonstrates the dysfunction of this marriage better than the Common Core State Standards, now in various stages of implementation in 45 states.

Nevada schools have been working on rolling out the Common Core State Standards since we adopted them in June 2010. They are, for those unfamiliar, a comprehensive set of K-12 skills and competencies agreed upon after a lengthy, cooperative development process led by professional educators and representatives appointed by the governors of each state.

The mission of the Common Core is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” The standards stress outcomes that are “robust and relevant to the real world” so that “American students . . . will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Before I go any further: The problem isn’t in the standards.

There wasn’t any problem with the old standards, and there isn’t any problem with the new ones. It’s great that a bunch of states got together and said, “Hey, we’re teaching basically the same things, let’s just codify it in a single document.” Both old and new standards require students to develop the same essential critical reading and writing skill sets demanded by colleges, universities and the wider workplace. Plus, the Common Core doesn’t mandate teaching methods. In fact, the Introduction to the Common Core makes it clear that “a great deal is left to the discretion of teachers” and emphasizes that “the Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”

Awesome. So, as a teacher, I should simply apply my intellect and all the cool literary and pedagogical skills I have gleaned from my B.A. in English, my master’s degree in education and my additional 25 credit-hours of professional growth and development to put together lessons that will address the needs of the individual human beings in my classroom. I have the freedom to tailor lessons to my teaching style and the learning styles of my students “consistent with the expectations laid out in [the Standards].” I can change my courses’ content and pacing using my professional judgment.

Not so fast.

The problem is the twisted relationship between the creative, risk-taking Socratic and the factory-manager Bureaucratic personalities—a hook-up that should have ended with a drunken one-night stand but instead resulted in a shotgun marriage.

The Socratic educator wound up with a headstrong, paranoid partner who is suspicious of every creative impulse. Standardization is the Bureaucrat’s watchword, because a standardized curriculum is a verifiable curriculum. To the bureaucratic mind, good teaching hits boxes on a checklist—bell-ringer, review, introduction, reinforcement: Color inside the lines. Make sure you write your essential question on the board. Have your course policies and procedures posted on the wall. Complete all sections of the mandated lesson-plan form. Make sure you are teaching the same material in the same thematic units at the same time as every other teacher in every other classroom from Laughlin to Mesquite.

The drafters of the Common Core are, I believe, genuinely interested in teacher-driven classrooms. But the teacher-driven classroom works only when there is a great teacher to drive the classroom. The drafters couldn’t bring themselves to believe that such teachers exist in sufficient numbers, so they built a system for teachers who aren’t great.

The standards’ superficially rigorous language provides a ready excuse for a beleaguered bureaucracy to mandate Levittown classrooms, where students all read the same novels, essays and short stories, complete the same worksheets and take the same tests. Conformity can be measured. Creativity cannot.

And so the English department at Spring Valley High School, where I taught until retiring this spring, has been drafting thematic units that will be input into a piece of scheduling software called the Curriculum Engine. All teachers will then be required to operate within the content and pacing of the thematic units for the courses they are teaching, whether they had a hand in developing them, or even agree with using thematic units at all.

I am quite familiar with the benefits of standardization in the right circumstance; I spent 25 happy years in the U.S. Air Force. But the Common Core Standards—at least in the way they’re being implemented—do nothing to address teacher ability, quality or commitment. Crappy teachers will not suddenly improve, and mediocre teachers will continue to slouch toward retirement. There will still be teachers who mumble at their whiteboards while the 40 kids behind them play infinite variations of grab-ass, teachers who assign few writing assignments because they are too time-consuming to grade, teachers who copy and paste and parrot lesson plans without even understanding them, and teachers who scrawl “read chapter 5, complete exercises 1-6” on the board and then sit down for a little Web surfing.

Administrators can bluster and blow, and maybe the particularly egregious cases will get shuffled out in a few years. Most teachers will simply glide along, because while principals can cajole and castigate, ultimately they must simply corral the teachers they’ve got, keeping “meat in the seat” because almost any full-time teacher is better than a parade of subs.

And so, with little other option, administrators are reduced to the same tactic they use already: enforced compliance with verifiable procedural standards. The Bureaucrat determines the pace of lessons for all teachers and all students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. His Socratic, idealistic partner is left shouting soundlessly against the din of educational machinery. The bureaucrat’s approach is industrial; it is centered on the organization rather than the individual student, and it is predicated on the least common denominator: the incompetent teacher.

Unfortunately, all this standardization won’t solve anything. It will simply discourage excellent teachers and drive everyone to build Potemkin villages on their whiteboards.