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Cross-posted on Education Week

On August 15, the Washington Post ran a column by Marion Brady on the Common Core State Standards. It was very well written and expressed very well, I thought, the objections to the CCSS that many good teachers have felt but not always expressed so eloquently. But much that was said, in my opinion, was off the mark, sometimes way off the mark. It is, I think, worth taking these objections seriously and that is what the following is intended to do.

The standards, Brady says, shouldn’t be attached to school subjects, but to “qualities of mind it’s hoped the study of school subjects promotes.” Subjects, he says, are “mere tools” and teachers should be “held accountable for the quality of what they produce, not how they produce it.” Brady does not spell out what he means by “qualities of mind,” but my guess is that he would include here the capacity for keen analysis, for synthesizing material from many quarters in a unique way to solve a complex and novel problem, or write an essay that grabs the reader by the throat and presents a strong, well-argued case for a proposed course of action in an interesting and compelling way. If that is what he means, I can certainly agree that these are very important things for students to be able to do. But that does not suggest to me that it is not important to have standards for the core subjects in the curriculum. The report that just came out from the National Academy on 21st century skills makes it quite clear that the core academic disciplines (the core subjects in the school curriculum) provide the conceptual underpinning for deep understanding of virtually everything we want our students to know and further, that learning does not transfer easily or well, or sometimes at all, across those disciplines. There is a reason that education has been organized by discipline for a very long time and the reason is that our capacity to understand virtually every aspect of the universe we live in depends on our understanding of the conceptual underpinning of the disciplines, one by one. Brady is right in thinking that such things as the capacity for analysis, synthesis and so on are very, very important, but they are not discipline free. They are grounded in the disciplines. Like it or not, if we don’t have standards for the disciplines, we will have no standards at all. But it does not have to end there, nor should it. It is very important to develop standards that reflect the importance of capacities of the sort just mentioned. I think the authors of the Common Core State Standards have been quite sensitive to that need. Perhaps Brady does not. That is a reasonable argument to have, but his argument that the standards should be about “qualities of mind” that are in some way independent of mathematics, the sciences history, economics, and so on seems to me to ignore the central role that the disciplines play in organizing and providing coherence to the knowledge we have of the world and how it works.

Brady’s second point is that “The world changes. The future is indiscernible. Clinging to a static strategy in a dynamic world may be comfortable, even comforting, but it’s a Titanic-deck-chair exercise.” Presumably the argument here is that it is pointless to have standards, because they will be immediately outdated. That is not obvious. It is hard to imagine that, by some time next year, arithmetic will be obsolete, along with ratio and proportion. Or that it will be unnecessary to be able to write a short essay that clearly and concisely expresses a few key ideas. Or that no citizen of this country will need to know anything about the history of the development of freedom and the conditions under which it thrives and perishes. Or that the earth revolves around the sun and plants consume and recycle the carbon dioxide we breath out or that photosynthesis converts the energy produced by the sun into a form of energy that plants can use to grow. It is certainly true that it is very hard to predict what the world will be like when the young people now entering our kindergartens begin their careers and take up their duties as parents. But, in my mind, that makes it more important, not less important, that we provide them with tools that will prove durable and useful as they go about learning whatever they have to learn through a whole lifetime. It is more important now than ever before to give them the foundation on which they can build a lifetime of learning. But, to do that, we have to come to an agreement about what ought to be in that foundation. When we do, we will have agreed on the standards for the education of our children. We have an obligation to do that. We can’t duck it by saying that everything is changing all the time, so there is no point in having any standards.

Brady’s third point is that, while the CCSS cover the traditional core subjects, the territory between and beyond those familiar fields of study “is vast, expands by the hour, and will go in directions no one can predict.” Sure, but that does not mean that we have to have standards for everything or standards for nothing. Our obligation is not to have standards for everything a teacher teaches or a student learns, but to define a much smaller core that all teachers should teach and all students should learn. As I said above, the aim is to provide a foundation on which both student and teacher can build unique structures, structures that change with time and changing context.

Fourth, he says, this focus on standards is misplaced. We should instead be focused on the poverty so many of our students live in, “a level of childhood poverty the consequences of which no amount of schooling can effectively counter.” I agree that the level of poverty among children in this country is a national disgrace and that it takes an enormous toll on the capacity of our schools to educate our children. But this is not, in my opinion, a good reason to abandon standards. The contrary is true; it is more important now than ever to have standards–high standards. The United States is more inclined than many other countries to have very low expectations for students from low-income families. As the proportion of low-income families increases, the expectations for students decline. When expectations decline, the curriculum becomes less challenging, and students learn less as a result. The antidote is higher expectations, which will be set by higher standards. The absence of standards just facilitates and validates lowered expectations. Schools may not be able to do much about poverty, but they can do something about standards for student achievement.

Fifth, Brady says, the “Common Core kills innovation.” Without standards, every teacher can do whatever he or she wishes. That’s not innovation. It is chaos. It is what we have had for a very long time. Here is what the research shows about what happens when teachers are free to “innovate” in this way: the teacher in any given grade, having incoming students who have been taught by many teachers, some of who have taught a given topic at length, others who have taught it only superficially, and still others who have taught it not at all, start at the beginning, at the introductory level for this topic. This happens grade after grade as the students go through the school. Researchers, when asking students what they are doing as late as February, are told that, “we are reviewing last year.” In the top-performing countries, the standards call for teaching a given topic in a certain year. It is taught at length and in-depth in that year and measures are taken to make sure that all students master it in that year. The next year, all the students build on what was learned in the previous year. Is it any wonder that, although the total time taken on any given subject and topic in the United States and these other countries is pretty much the same, that their students routinely outperform ours? We don’t need that kind of innovation. We need great teachers and great teaching, and we will only get that when we have used our standards systems to get agreement on which topics will be taught in which year.

Sixth, Brady says, “The Common Core Standards are a set-up for standardized tests, test that can’t evaluate complex thought, can’t avoid cultural bias, can’t measure non-verbal learning, can’t predict anything of consequence (and waste boatloads of money).” We may get tests like that, but there is nothing about these standards that requires tests like that. The Common Core State Standards are based on the best of the standards used in the top-performing countries. Not one of the top-performing countries uses multiple-choice computer-scored tests as the basis of their testing regime. That is not an accident. They don’t believe that that sort of test is very good at measuring the kinds of complex skills and creative capabilities they are most interested in. They typically use tests based on essay-type responses scored by human beings. Some include grades for things like extended research papers, works of art and student-designed and built robots. We might get something like the tests Brady describes, but, if we do, it will not be the fault of the Common Core State Standards.

Brady’s seventh point is that standards for student achievement “standardize minds.” This, I confess, strikes me as a bit off the wall. There is not a country that has consistently high student performance that does not have some form of student achievement standards. No one I know who has visited Finnish schools would think of describing Finnish students as having standardized minds. Or the Australians. Or the New Zealanders. All of these countries are populated by determined individualists who prize their freedoms and make much of their ability to do as they please as long as they don’t harm anyone else while doing so. They don’t have standards because they want everyone to be the same. They have standards because they want to be sure that all students are given a challenging curriculum that will prepare them as well as they can reasonably be prepared for a challenging world. They think they owe it to their teachers to let them know what the society expects of them, in a general way, while at the same time giving their teachers a great deal of discretion with respect to how they get them there.

And, lastly, Brady takes exception to the goals of the Common Core State Standards: getting all students ready for college and careers, goals he characterizes as “pedestrian.” The young, he says, should be exploring the “potentials of humanness.” I am a product of a liberal education, an undergraduate major in literature and philosophy, both of them subjects whose main purpose, I suppose, is to explore the potentials of humanness. And I would not change those majors were I to do it again. But I suspect that many people like Brady do not quite grasp the seriousness of the position the people of the United States find themselves in today. Average income in the United States has been falling for years and the rate of decline is increasing. Families have only been able to make ends meet by putting women who used to work at home into the paid work force. But there are no more housewives left to enter the paid workforce. Now, more than ever, what you make is a function of your level of education and training. We have ever-greater shortages of high skill workers and ever-greater surpluses of low skill workers looking for jobs that don’t exist. The factors that are producing these trends have been greatly accelerated by the Great Recession. Fewer than 20 percent of any given cohort of students entering the ninth grade end up with a 2-year degree or certificate within four years of entering postsecondary education or getting a 4-year degree with 6 years of entering postsecondary education. I’m all for the “potentials of humanness”, but the American people are hurting, the American standard of living is falling and the American economy is suffering because we are wasting the potential of our students by failing to give them the skills they need to make a decent living. That, I submit, is a crime. It threatens the very basis of our society and the tenure of our republic. I make no apologies for being interested in making sure that our students are college and career ready, however pedestrian that may seem to some.