Further Response to Diane Ravitch on Common Core

Cross-posted on Education Week

In my last blog, I told you why I thought Diane Ravitch is wrong on the Common Core State Standards. She responded by wondering why I am not worried, as she is, that the standards are developmentally inappropriate for the early grades.

I assume that Ravitch’s question was prompted by the well-publicized disagreement within the English literacy community on this point, articulated most prominently by Elfrieda Hiebert then a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hiebert agrees—rather forcefully—with the contention of the authors of the Common Core State Standards for English literacy that the text difficulty of middle school and high school texts has slipped badly over the past 50 years and need to be raised. Her challenge to the standards is only to the CCSS panel’s decision to propose a fairly steep gradient for vocabulary acquisition and text complexity in the elementary school years. She suggests that standards for literacy have already been rising in the elementary schools and should not be made more stringent.

But Hiebert does not speak for all experts in the field. I asked Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of the world’s leading literacy scholars and a member of the Validation Committee for the Common Core State Standards (which also included, among others, David Pearson, Andreas Schleicher, Arthur Applebee, David Conley, Linda Darling-Hammond and Lauren Resnick) for her response to Ravitch’s claim, voiced also by Hiebert, that the standards’ writers had gotten the elementary standards wrong and new research was needed to get them right. While acknowledging that Hiebert and others had challenged the elementary school standards, Snow pointed out that the standards “were discussed, adapted, modified, commented on and ultimately approved by a large and varied group that included experts in literacy and language development.” So there is a difference of opinion with respect to the appropriateness of the steepness of the challenge levels of the elementary school literacy standards as they proceed from grade to grade with respect to vocabulary and text complexity among the experts.

The education world is rife with such disagreements. They are rarely definitively settled by individual research studies. Ravitch did not suggest that all of the Common Core Standards save for the elementary literacy standards should be approved; she implied that she thinks all of the standards should be put on hold pending the results of validation research studies that could easily take years and would almost certainly result in findings that the experts would continue to debate. First, it makes no sense to me to delay implementation of all the standards if only one part of them is in serious dispute, and second, I do not think it makes sense to delay implementation of that part of the standards that is in dispute, given the strong support they have received from an international panel of leading experts in the relevant fields. Other countries view their standards as appropriately in a continual state of development and revision, as more information is gained about changing demands on students and on the way both teachers and students respond to them over time. It is important, as I said in my last blog, to remember that standards are a judgment call, not a research finding, and we should not allow ourselves to get tied up in knots when people deeply invested in the field differ on their judgments.

Ravitch is also concerned that the rigor that is demanded by the standards “might widen the achievement gap and discourage struggling students.” Both Snow and I are in strong agreement with Ravitch that the standards, across the board, demand a good deal more of students than they are currently achieving. And we agree that that is especially true of our most vulnerable students, who are achieving the least. And this is cause for concern. But, if the authors of the standards are correct in saying that students need to achieve these standards in order to stand a good chance of being successful in college and work, then we would do our most vulnerable students no favors by setting the standards aside or by delaying their implementation indefinitely. When I shared Ravitch’s concerns with Mitch Chester, Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, home to what may be the most admired state standards in the United States, Chester reminded me that, “when Massachusetts initially adopted its content standards, the state did not conduct a field test of the standards prior to adoption.” There was great concern in some quarters that the standards would prove too demanding for poor and minority students. In the event, however, the effect of adoption of the standards by the state was to greatly improve the education of poor and minority students.

Finally, Ravitch is worried that “reactionary groups and entrepreneurs are excited about the prospect that the Common Core will cause test scores to plummet in every state.” One has to read between the lines here, but I take it that Ravitch thinks that some groups on the political right are for the standards because they think the public will rise up in arms when the dominant education system fails to educate students to the new standards and that will create a big opening for vouchers and for education delivered by businesses in a newly energized education market economy. One has to have a well-developed penchant for conspiracy theories to be kept awake at night by this vision, and I do not have such an imaginative flair. The people who wrote the Common Core State Standards tell us they were paying attention to the standards in the top-performing countries when they wrote these standards. They did not tell us that they set out to top the countries with the most demanding standards. If other countries can redesign their education systems so that the vast majority of their students can achieve standards comparable to the Common Core State Standards, then our professional educators ought to be able to do so, too. If they can’t, then they should step aside, but I do not for one minute believe that that will prove necessary.