Sunday, January 19, 2014

Diane Ravitch and the Common Core

Diane Ravitch gave a speech criticizing the Common Core State Standards.  This isn't a surprise; it's sort of been her schtick since they started talking about them.  And the more I learn about them, the more I agree with her criticisms.

First, a starting position.  Writ large, I believe that all students can learn, and that a teacher's job is to help them do it.  All students can think at profound levels, they can analyze new information and evaluate arguments and all of those things.  At least at higher levels, they can think abstractly enough about their learning in order to realize that it doesn't matter what novel (or article or whatever) you're reading, the higher-order thinking skills can be applied equally well to anything.  Teachers can almost categorically up their game and encourage these skills.  A long checklist of standards does not lend itself to this sort of depth of knowledge, and so a shorter list of better standards would at least in theory be more helpful.

And for a long long time, we've written off as lost causes those students who can best benefit from really high-quality instruction techniques.  Students with learning disabilities can almost universally learn more stuff than what schools have historically taught them.  When school special ed support systems focus on what students CAN do, rather than what they can't, they can make huge progress.  This is not to suggest that high standards cure autism, but rather to suggest that autism doesn't make you incapable of learning.  The earlier high-stakes regime has meant that schools are no longer able to forget about its neediest students--ELLs, students with learning disabilities, students with behavioral problems, the gamut, are now held to the same standard as everyone else.  This should help focus intervention resources where they're most needed.

As Ravitch notes, though, there are real consequences to giving a test to a student when everybody knows that the student is going to "fail" it, particularly when the fault lies not in the students nor in the teacher but in the test.  The people who developed the standards were mostly not educators, and didnt' have a lot of experience in writing educational standards of this kind.  None of them were early-elementary educators, which seems like an utter miscarriage of common sense.  PreK through second grade is the time when schools can have the biggest positive (or negative) impact on a student's education.  To exclude those educators is to ignore the reality of the profession utterly.

Most damning of all, though, from an education view, is that there is no way to change these standards.  Our state standards were clunky, but it was possible to change them.  (In the case of the World Language standards, they were also written by a small committee of world-class teacher leaders, and even they managed to muck it up some.)  The English standards went through three drafts that I'm aware of between the time state-level standards began and the time the state adopted the Common Core.  But these--when we find out that there is no way to instruct first-graders on the deeper meaning of Stelaluna and the symbolism of the trees, to whom do we write to change them? 

The next 10 years is going to be an interesting time in education.  Watch this space for occasional not-particularly-insightful missives from the field.