I have been hearing from many friends who work as K-12 teachers, as well as some teacher educator colleagues here in California, that they are excited to see the coming of the Common Core standards. They see in them a move away from an emphasis on teaching by rote and a move toward emphasizing higher order thinking skills. I truly hope that they are right about this. A shift in balance from a preponderance of rote and conformist styles of teaching to more emphasis on creativity and the other aspects of what are called the higher order thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy is needed.
On the other hand, I have been hearing some critiques from other colleagues, especially early childhood educators, about some of the specific standards that they say are developmentally inappropriate. One of those that I hear mentioned often is having young children doing more expository reading and writing.
However, what I want to address here is that regardless of the specifics of the content of the new Common Core standards, they are actually a continuation of what I see as a dangerous trend in the educational policies of this nation.
Common Core standards are now nationally mandated standards. In order to justify such a mandate several assumptions have to be accepted. One is that a lack of uniformity in the curriculum nationwide is part of the problem in today’s education. Such standardized curriculum have often been the mark of totalitarian governments—we used to make fun of how in the Soviet Union on a certain day at a certain time every fourth grader in that nation would be studying the same thing. Is this what we need?
The argument for national standards is that many nations that outscore us on international standardized tests have national standards. First off this connection breaks one of the first rules of research—confusing correlation with causation. Furthermore, other nations that don’t have national standards also beat us, and we beat many that do have them. Not to mention all the problems with comparing the quality of educational systems based on those tests (e.g. who is being tested in each country is not comparable, and is what is being compared what really matters?). Also the meaning of national standards varies enormously. In many countries they are just a general guideline, much like the California frameworks used to be.
The other argument for national standards is that standardization means everyone gets an equal education. The problem, according to this argument, is that in communities serving the poor the children get a watered down curriculum and national standards will mean the poor get the same education as everyone else. This assumes many things—that we want all students to end up the same, that equal inputs equals equal outputs, that as long as the standards are the same, all other differences for rich a poor kids are erased (opportunities beyond school, resources, nutrition, not to mention funding, as we have the least equal school funding of any industrialized nation in the world).
However, the main issue that I want to discuss here is the assumption of a national consensus on how children learn and what they should learn. In a totalitarian state or dictatorship, the right of the State to dictate such matters is assumed. However, in a democracy, to mandate something nationally should only happen in cases where there is a strong national consensus. Even if there were a majority opinion, such a mandate would just be a form of tyranny of the majority.
Do we have a national consensus on what children should learn and how they should learn it? To many people, at first glance people seem to think it is obvious. We teach kids reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Then I guess history, science, and social studies. But, is there really any such consensus? They have to learn to be fluent in reading and writing, and to know algebra, and the important facts of history and science.
But what does it mean to be fluent in reading and writing? Who says algebra is that important? What are the facts of history and science that are most important? And then there is how do we teach these things, and how do we know if they were learned?
Given that there are major debates on each of the above regularly, it is clear we do not have any actual consensus. Ask a variety of friends regarding how schools should teach, what they should teach, and what the main goal of schools should be, and I bet you will get a wide variety of answers. And that is your friends—once you start asking those in different communities, of different political, religious and cultural persuasions, the diversity increases.
If you ask the leading educational experts of today, you will probably get even less consensus. There is still huge debate among educational theorists about approaches to education. Direct Instruction versus constructivist and discovery approaches. What content is most important. How we measure success. It is just for that reason that most standards have been long comprehensive lists. To reach consensus, the committees making the standards just all accept each other’s ideas.
Now let us look at some things we do know about learning. As all of us notice, children always tend to want to be and act like the important people in their lives, imitating those they see as successful—especially those they want to and think they can be like. We learn from the company we keep and the experiences we have, to sum up and simplify the theories of such giants in learning theory such as Bandura, Vygotsky and Piaget.
Democracy is only partially a set of rules and procedures for making decision and electing representatives. More centrally, it is a way of thinking, a habit of mind. Therefore if we want our students to be democratic citizens they need to be socialized in a democratic environment. Are our classrooms or schools such environments? I doubt many could claim they are. A nationally mandated curriculum makes that virtually impossible. States are required by the Federal Government to impose the standards on their schools. This is done through the school districts who then order their principals to carry it out, who then order the teachers to do so, who then impose the curriculum on the students. We thus end up with people all down the line who are powerless except to carry out the designs of those above them. Those who oppose or disagree with the curriculum will either choose not to be part of such a system, learn to keep quiet about their opposition, or will likely lose their jobs. Children cannot learn democracy in such a culture. A few privileged students may learn it elsewhere or perhaps later, but public schools will not be part of that lesson except as a negative example.
If we look at the most successful schools around the country they do not share a common set of beliefs between them, except maybe a belief that all their students can and will succeed. They each have a very different set of ideas about what is important for children to learn and how best to carry it out. There are the Met schools in which students mostly work with an adviser while engaged in internships with minimal formal classes. There is High Tech High, where students develop projects and inventions often using computer technology. There are the schools of Deborah Meier (CPEI, Mission Hill) based on their five habits of mind and using a graduation by portfolio design. There are the KIPP schools based on a philosophy of no excuses, a longer school day and year and family involvement. There are the Montessori schools based on their particular form of pedagogy and curriculum. Waldorf has theirs, and I could go on and on. Each of these schools or programs has a record of success. Those who work at the school often have developed together those standards or at least chosen to be there because of them, as have the families. It is this freedom that we should be striving for in a democratic nation.
Even if you disagree with me about the central purpose of public education being to prepare students for democracy, or if you disagree about how that is achieved—in fact especially if you do not agree—you are in fact bolstering my argument against the Common Core standards (or any set of national standards). That is, we clearly do not have a consensus, and who has the right in a democracy to impose such a consensus by fiat?