Fordham Responds to the Common Core “Counter-Manifesto”

The “counter-manifesto” released this week in opposition to national testing and a national curriculum is full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men. But it was signed by a lot of serious people and deserves a serious response.

First, let us dispatch some silliness. To the best of our knowledge, and based on all evidence that we’re aware of, neither the signers of the Shanker Institute manifesto, nor leaders in the Obama/Duncan Education Department, advocate a “nationalized curriculum” that would “undermine control of public school curriculum and instruction at the local and state level” and “transfer control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy.” Nor is anybody calling for “a one-size fits all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject.” We certainly wouldn’t support such a policy—and can understand why the conservative luminaries who signed the counter-manifesto wouldn’t want it, either. As parents, grandparents, charter-school authorizers, and champions of school choice in almost all its forms, we believe deeply in the importance of schools having the freedom to shape their own unique educational approaches.

So let us be clear: While the assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards will be mandatory (for schools and districts in states that choose to use them), the use of any common curricular materials will be purely voluntary. We don’t see any evidence to indicate otherwise.

We also find curious the attack line, penned by Jay Greene, that “centralization of education is bad for everyone except the central planners.” This faux-populist rhetoric is compelling until you consider that many of the counter-manifesto’s signatories have been deeply involved in efforts to centralize education decision-making at the state level for years. Weren’t Sandy Stotsky’s (praiseworthy) struggles to ensure that all students in Massachusetts had exposure to scientifically-based reading instruction and high-quality literature exercises in central planning and top-down control of curriculum and pedagogy? What about Bill Evers’s push in California to mandate rigorous math instruction—including Algebra in eighth grade? Some libertarian signers of the counter-manifesto may indeed believe that we should let schools, districts, and parents make every single educational decision no matter how irresponsible, hare-brained, or even harmful to kids. But the vast majority of reformers who support standards-based reform have already acknowledged that “local control” should have its limits—beginning with academic standards.

And that brings us to the substance of the attack on the Common Core project. Its opponents’ most persuasive argument is the concern that the Common Core standards and assessments may wrap schools into a curricular straightjacket and diminish opportunities for educational innovation. They might be at least partly right to worry about this. The question is: Will it be worth it? Let’s look at this from both sides.

Supporters of the Common Core, ourselves included, peer out across this vast nation and see a hodge-podge of standards, tests, textbooks, curricular guides, lesson plans—little of it of high quality or particularly “innovative” (with much of the “innovative” stuff being faddish and silly), and none of it aligned with much else in any meaningful sense. We look with some envy at other countries that can boast curricular “coherence”—a clear vision of what students should know and be able to do, a reasonable plan for getting teachers trained to impart it, and rich materials to help students and teachers reach the Promised Land. Attaining consensus on the standards and the assessments—the core part of Common Core’s work—is a huge leap forward. But why not go the last mile? Why repeat the mistakes of the state standards movement, in which we demanded that teachers boost their pupils to higher levels of achievement but failed to provide helpful tools or guidance in getting them there? Why pretend that more than a handful of the nation’s 14,000 school districts (and 5,000 charter schools) have the capacity to create the instructional materials that many teachers crave? And why leave it to hegemonic textbook companies—vendors, too often, of thoroughly mediocre stuff—to fill the gaps?

No, government must not mandate the particular curricular or instructional materials that schools and teachers use. But why not make lots of good stuff available for free? Why not work to make the “default” option in American public education far better than it is today, and aligned with the excellent Common Core standards? Schools (and teachers) can veer from that default, or build upon it, or excavate under it, if they have the interest, capacity, and drive to do so. But by offering tools, guides, and all the rest, maybe we can bring the floor up significantly for the vast majority of schools and classroom practitioners that lack those traits.

At the same time, we can understand the heartburn this whole endeavor gives to promoters of innovation and diversity in education. We agree with Rick Hess, for example, that “through-course assessments”—high-stakes tests to be taken a half dozen times a year—will pressure schools to follow a particular scope and sequence—and that this is a serious infringement on school-level autonomy. (That’s going to be especially hard on charter schools.) It’s one thing to ask schools to demonstrate solid performance on an exam once every spring. It’s quite something else to expect them to prepare students for tests six to eight times during the year. We agree that this is a bridge too far.

So here’s where we stand: First, states should be encouraged to stay the course with the Common Core standards and assessments, at least until we see what the tests look like. While the standards aren’t perfect, they are vastly better than what they are replacing in most states. Second, à la the Shanker manifesto, efforts should be made to develop all manner of tools, materials, lesson plans, professional development, curriculum, and more that will help teachers implement the standards in their classrooms—and to help students master them. We have no particular concern with the federal government—or philanthropists and venture capitalists, big and small—helping to pay for those activities, as has been done so often in the past. But, third, it should be made crystal clear that the use of all such materials will be completely voluntary for states and, we would argue, for districts within states, schools within districts, and teachers within schools. And fourth, the two consortia now building new Common Core assessments should take pains not to cross the Rubicon into micromanaging schools’ curricular and instructional decisions.

Now for some specific advice:

  • Drafters of the counter-manifesto: Make sure your signers—including the famous ones—understand that nobody is calling for a single mandatory “national curriculum,” and see how many folks you lose.
  • Shanker Institute: Make clearer than your original document did that you are not proposing that there be only one “common” curriculum for all schools.
  • Secretary Arne Duncan: Ask the two testing consortia to sign agreements swearing not to mandate—directly or indirectly—the use of curricular materials they develop.
  • The PARCC consortium: Figure out a way for schools to opt out of the through-course assessments and take a single end-of-year test instead.
  • Supporters of the Common Core: Encourage states to enact laws barring their education departments and state boards from mandating any particular curricular or instructional approaches—including those developed through the Common Core effort.
  • And big funders and nonprofits that care about this stuff: Devise a really powerful version of “Consumer Reports” by which to vet curricular materials (commercial and “open-source” alike) that purport to be “aligned” with the Common Core so as to gauge their validity—and whether they’re quality materials worthy of the attention of practicing educators.

These steps won’t resolve all the tension between national standards and “local control.” But they offer some reasonable safeguards and a clear path forward. Any takers?

– Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn

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