Intellectual Coherence and the Common Core

Just because some criticisms of Common Core standards are over the top and dripping with misinformation doesn’t make them all so. Plenty of valid concerns exist, and the estimable Peggy Noonan recently homed in on several of them. She acknowledges “that Core proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good.” But she raised a lot of questions for “eggheads” like us who have pushed for these ambitious new academic standards:

Proponents are now talking about problems with the rollout. Well, yes, and where have we heard that before? One gets the impression they didn’t think this through, that they held symposia and declared the need, with charts and bullet points, for something to be done—and something must be done, because American public education is falling behind the world—and then left it to somebody, or 10,000 somebodies, to make it all work….How was implementation of the overall scheme supposed to work?

Did we think this through? A major reason we support the Common Core is because we’re confident that it will bring greater “intellectual coherence,” in Noonan’s words, to America’s curricular and instructional approaches. That’s sorely needed because the textbooks and other materials that most schools use are dreadful and have been for decades.

Why so bad? Partly it’s due to the textbook oligopoly. (As behemoth Pearson has purchased many of its competitors in recent years, it’s approaching an outright monopoly.) Partly it’s because local school systems, themselves shielded from competition, haven’t been fussy customers. Partly it’s ideology—folks poorly trained in our anti-intellectual ed schools are enamored of curricular and pedagogical nonsense that doesn’t come close to demonstrating classroom effectiveness but hits all the right buttons of political correctness. And partly it’s because of the fragmentation of America’s primary-secondary education system itself—14,000 school districts, fifty different sets of state standards and tests—that makes disrupting this industry, indeed even entering this market, such a challenge for small publishing upstarts.

So we have schools that purchase books like Everyday Math, which eschews honest arithmetic in favor of fuzzy math and the overuse of calculators; Teachers College Writers Workshop, which downplays grammar but obsesses about the “process” of writing (a process that’s not based in any research); and all manner of reading programs that fixate on “skills” while ignoring literature, history, science, and everything else that might make reading an enjoyable and enlightening experience (and that might actually prepare kids to understand what will be taught to them downstream).

The remedy for these problems, let us be clear, is not a national curriculum. But neither is it to bay “local control” at the moon and just let schools continue to do what they’ve been doing. That just ain’t working. The truth is that proponents of common-sense curriculum reform—e.g., the notion that schools should choose textbooks and reading programs that can display some evidence of effectiveness—haven’t had any levers by which to advance such reforms. If you’re a governor and you’re told that your school districts are buying terrible math and reading programs, how do you fix it?

The only answer that makes sense to us is for a state to make sure that its math and reading standards are clear, coherent, and rigorous; that its tests line up with those standards; that its schools and educators are held to account for getting better results in terms of real student learning; and that research is done to examine the effectiveness of various curricular products. In other words, you encourage the use of the good stuff—and make shoddy results more obvious when you use stuff that doesn’t work. That’s precisely the strategy behind the Common Core.

So how’s it going today? As Noonan indicates, not nearly well enough, although some of what’s happening was predictable (and should have been anticipated). Textbook publishers are fibbing, declaring that their old materials, perhaps with a few paragraphs altered, are suddenly “Common Core aligned.” Like the proverbial blind men touching an elephant, some educators are “seeing” what they want to in the Common Core, usually the same strategies and methods they’ve been using for years. Administrators are downplaying the major instructional changes that are needed to implement the Common Core and bring “intellectual coherence” to U.S. schools.

In other words, in this first phase of implementation, everybody seems bent on changing as little as possible. That’s human nature and standard organizational behavior and hence is no big surprise—and not necessarily a big problem, considering that the real incentives meant to change behavior haven’t yet arrived. The new tests don’t come out till next spring in most states and won’t count for a few years after that. Once educators and local (and state) officials see how poorly their kids are doing on these tougher assessments and what the standards really require, they will start looking for better curricular materials and training.

And thanks to the nationwide market that the Common Core has begun to create, those better materials are coming. Look at what Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein are hatching at Amplify: some amazing, old-fashioned, content-rich materials combined with the technology of web-connected tablets and the “kid appeal” of electronic games. The disruptors are knocking on the classroom door.

Of course, markets don’t work without good information. Someone needs to play “Consumer Reports” and start vetting textbooks and other materials and calling out the bad ones. John White, Louisiana’s exceptionally able commissioner of education, took a stab at that, and a group of foundations is currently standing up a new nonprofit to play this role, too. Of course the publishers will hate it.

States and districts also need to invest in serious training for current teachers and address misunderstandings as they appear. (The best example is early math, which was meant to be a major victory for traditionalists—master your arithmetic, kids!—but has been seen by many, from teachers to Louis C.K., as “fuzzy.”)

None of these is a cure-all. Some publishers will continue to print garbage, and some school districts will continue to buy it. Teachers will miss important nuances or misinterpret what’s expected of them. Education is a people business, indeed a millions-of-people business, and people are complicated and imperfect. It’s also a thoroughly decentralized industry, which is both weakness and strength.

But can Common Core standards move us closer to the intellectual coherence that Noonan agrees is missing? Can they bring more instructional effectiveness to our schools? We still think so. It is certainly way too early to conclude that the answer is no.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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