In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act marked a dramatic win for standards-based reform — but at the price of abandoning the push for "national" standards. NCLB required states to adopt standards in reading and math, administer annual tests geared to those standards, use tests to determine which students were proficient, and analyze the outcomes to determine which schools and systems were making "adequate yearly progress" — including the absurd requirement that 100% of students be proficient by 2014. Schools and systems that didn't perform adequately were subject to federally mandated sanctions. The crucial compromise was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.Common Core was all about the tests.
What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A "race to the bottom" was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.
The real power of standards lies in their ability to change what is tested, and thus to change how curricula and textbooks are written, how teachers teach, and how students learn. As Finn and Petrilli put it, the standards are ignored, and "[e]ducators instead obsess about what's on the high-stakes test." This is why advocates are so impassioned and why critics are justified in fretting about the implications of the Common Core. When coupled with tests, accountability systems, and teacher evaluation, the Common Core becomes the invisible but omnipresent foundation of American education.
[T]he Common Core is neither necessary nor sufficient for fixing the problem it was designed to solve. The critical rationale for the Common Core was concern that states had gamed and manipulated testing under NCLB. But a more modest solution was already available. Every state has long participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in reading and math (and sometimes in other subjects) in grades four, eight, and twelve under carefully controlled conditions and provides a rock-solid means for comparing performance. In fact, NAEP results were already being used to flag states that appeared to be gaming their NCLB tests. Common Core advocates, however, thought that relying on NAEP was an unsatisfactory, makeshift solution. Instead, they embraced the Common Core standards.
Solving the "race to the bottom" problem would have required the Common Core tests to replicate NAEP's careful protocols. However, perhaps recognizing that states might not have signed on if they were subject to transparent coercion, Common Core advocates were remarkably laid back about what states would actually be required to do when it came to policing test conditions, accepting mandatory passing scores, or establishing strong oversight boards. Thus, advocates failed to build in controls to prevent states from manipulating outcomes. States can administer the Common Core-aligned tests much later in the school year than is recommended (thus inflating measures of student learning), ignore guidelines on testing conditions, and set their own proficiency scores. The only "safeguard" against any of this is state officials' inclination to do the right thing — which is precisely what it was before the Common Core. Meanwhile, many Common Core states have decided not to use the program's new tests at all; as a result, barely 40% of students are currently slated to be tested with one of the two new Common Core tests, and at least 19 different tests will be used nationwide next spring. Given the critical role of the tests for maintaining standards, this undermines the purpose of the Common Core — and in a fashion that seems unlikely to lead to purposeful experimentation or rethinking. Within a few years, testing may be only slightly less fragmented than before the Common Core, and many established tests will have been jettisoned for slapped-together replacements.
How the Common Core Went Wrong
NCLB had failed -- so the thinking went -- because (some) states gamed the system by writing easy tests (or writing hard tests but setting easy cut scores).
So Common Core would create common standards and, hence, common tests. Hard tests.
Like Jason Zimba, I might have thought, a few years back, that changing the tests would do the trick. Create good tests, let the schools take it from there.
But having sent three children through public schools, and having read some of the literature on foreign aid and its many debacles, I now have a much greater appreciation for the slipperiness of reality.
Or the slipperiness of culture, more like.
I'm extremely tardy getting Barbara Oakley's op ed & new book posted, and it looks like I won't get to it today, either.
But I do want to quote her passage on culture:
Today's Common Core approach to teaching STEM is at least superficially appealing. The goal of placing equal emphasis on conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application is laudable. But as with any new approach to teaching, the Common Core builds on the culture that's already there. And the culture that has long reigned in STEM education is that conceptual understanding trumps everything. So bewildered math teachers who are now struggling to teach the Common Core are leaning on the old thinking, which has it that if a student doesn't understand—in the "ah-ha," light-bulb sense of understanding—there's no way she or he can truly become expert in the material.Like NGOs disbursing foreign aid, the Common Core had to build on the culture that was already there.
True experts have a profound conceptual understanding of their field. But the expertise built the profound conceptual understanding, not the other way around. There's a big difference between the "ah-ha" light bulb, as understanding begins to glimmer, and real mastery.
How We Should Be Teaching Math
The culture that's already there inside public schools pits "knowledge" against "thinking," "problem solving," and "understanding," with knowledge the loser. Here in my district, in fact, our curriculum director has produced a new Powerpoint, titled "Teaching for Understanding," which poses a rhetorical question:
Is it possible to have a great deal of knowledge but limited understanding?Harder tests aren't going to raise student achievement inside a culture whose denizens believe that knowledge is an impediment to understanding.