A curious item popped into my email last week. The Utah State Board of Education "invites Utah residents to share their comments about the Utah core standards at a public meeting on Thursday, April 26", or to submit written comments by Friday, April 27.
What's curious is that Utah, along with 44 other states, already adopted these standards almost two years ago, and in a tearing hurry. A consortium of the National Governor's Association and Council of Chief State School officers released the Common Core Standards in June, 2010. To be eligible for federal "Race to the Top" education dollars, states needed to adopt the standards by August, 2010. Utah's Board of Education cast its first vote for the standards just two days after their publication, and formally adopted them two months later, in August, 2010.
Now, as the common core is belatedly attracting public attention and criticism, administrators are scrambling to respond.
Good. Educators, parents and communities deserve more time to review, debate, and quite possibly revise what proponents themselves claim are dramatic curriculum changes. The stakes admittedly are high: The Obama administration has made it clear that adopting and keeping the Common Core is a condition for granting state waivers from No Child Left Behind, itself a questionable exercise of executive authority. But maybe this offers educators another chance to take a stand against bullying.
I am hardly a full-throated opponent of the common core standards. I agree that most states, including Utah, need stronger curriculum standards. I'm not especially panicked that the common core will usher in math story problems featuring Heather's two mommies. And while I generally prefer state experimentation with educational reform, I recognize that nationwide, advisory standards and assessments could spur reform and promote economies of scale. The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, after all, give us what is probably the most reliable (and depressing) picture of American students' learning. The SAT and ACT don't vary by state. When my students take AP history and government tests next month, they'll compete, on a curve, with students in California, New York, and Minnesota. Knowing this makes them work harder. It makes me work harder, too.
Still, thoughtful critics have raised legitimate concerns about the standards so hastily, and undemocratically, adopted by almost every state. For example, the standards replace the traditional Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II sequence with a three year "Integrated Math" sequence that intersperses geometry instruction with algebra and moves further away from traditional Euclidean proofs. Many math experts think this is a mistake; all agree that this change will upend teaching assignments and demand entirely new — and expensive — textbooks. Likewise, the new Language Arts standards move away from the traditional literature curriculum, focusing much more heavily on reading and analyzing non-literary works such as Supreme Court cases or scientific articles. As a social studies teacher I rather like this new emphasis: I've seen how my students struggle to read, say, The Federalist Papers. But even as school districts rush to retool their curriculum and textbooks, they still don't know how much of this responsibility will be handed off to English teachers trained largely in literary analysis. The social studies and science standards haven't been published yet. Neither have the tests.
The experts now writing these new tests assure us that somehow, this time, they will devise meaningful assessments that measure higher-order thinking. Indeed, many of the staunchest opponents of NCLB's "accountability" (test score) emphasis embrace the common core. I can't help but wonder how much of this enthusiasm stems from an excuse to kick the reform can down the road — to toss out our existing, admittedly imperfect tests, their disappointing scores, and above all the burgeoning state efforts to create new teacher and school evaluation systems based partly on student performance data.
Moreover, suppose these new tests really do perform as promised, capturing students' mastery of higher order skills? Prepare for a new backlash against "accountability". As a recent report in Education Sector notes, "in the short term the percentage of students 'passing' state assessments will likely fall dramatically when Common Core alignments are administered." Testing higher order skills won't magically produce them.
Of course bad news could turn out to be good news, if it spurs needed change. But if we're not going to abandon tougher standards and tests at the first wave of low scores, parents, teachers, and communities need to grasp what we're signing on for. Why not stand up to the bullying, slow down the process, and debate these standards more thoroughly? Why not wait for a look at the new tests before we spend millions on textbooks and professional development? Why not try out the standards and their accompanying assessments in a few states that are willing to deploy the resources and take the heat?
Meanwhile, with apologies to Voltaire, let's not let the unproven best be the enemy of the inevitably imperfect good, and abandon reform efforts that are already underway.
Mary McConnell is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and a curriculum consultant to Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake where she previously taught. She graduated from Michigan State University and Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Among her many professional roles, she has served as chief legislative assistant for Congressman Jack Kemp and chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.