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Bruno: CCSS Supporters Beat A Hasty Retreat

200px-White_flag_waving.svgOnce upon a time, supporters of the Common Core argued passionately that the new math and English standards would, by virtue of their clarity and rigor, substantially improve education in the United States.

In recent weeks, however, supporters - in many cases the very same people - have changed their tone after finding themselves on the defensive about bumps in the road to CCSS implementation.

These days supporters seem to dedicate most of their time to assuring us that the CCSS are not to blame for "fuzzy" math curriculua or "whole language" or questionable history assignments. We are even told that it's just as well if states opt out of the Common Core altogether because they're unlikely to gain much from implementation anyway.

Arguably, all of these defenses of the Common Core are fair. They are also sorely disappointing for at least two reasons.

First, the argument that "standards are not a curriculum" - and therefore cannot be blamed for weak curricula - is essentially a dodge. The point of standards is precisely to motivate and improve curricula, so if bad curricula survive - or even thrive - under the CCSS, so much the worse for the standards.

Second, if the expensive, disruptive Common Core standards are merely "not to blame" for our educational problems, what, precisely, is the point of them?

We are currently in the midst of what may be the most important phase in CCSS implementation: assessment design and field testing. It is the assessments - even as much as the standards themselves - that will drive teachers' day-to-day work and help to realize (or not) whatever promise the standards hold.

So now is a particularly unfortunate time for Common Core supporters to raise the white flag in the battles that - not so long ago - they thought they were winning. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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We need to avoid these either/or false choices that American culture seems to be so prone to. The Common Core's initial conception was a good one, and the English standards are strong enough to be implemented without much change (although I still think they leave a gap between their end point and genuine college readiness). The mathematics standards, on the other hand, are failures as they stand: they are not competitive with the best in the world, and will continue to leave American pupils two- to three years behind their peers in east Asia. They should be revised; if they aren't, states should follow Minnesota's lead and reject them. But the moves by Indiana and other states to reject them outright are also a mistake, a bigger one than that of states which are implementing them as is, for a simple return to the cheaper tests and dumbed down standards of the Bush era is even more clearly not the way to go.

<<< First, the argument that "standards are not a curriculum" - and therefore cannot be blamed for weak curricula - is essentially a dodge. The point of standards is precisely to motivate and improve curricula, so if bad curricula survive - or even thrive - under the CCSS, so much the worse for the standards.

Hmmm. Having made precisely this point, I don't think it's a dodge at all. My support of CCSS has been predicated precisely on the fond hope that common standards, alone among initiatives of the reform era, represented an opportunity to discuss and decide what teachers teacher and what children learn, a long overdue conversation. Everything else -- teacher quality, accountably, chartering, etc. -- is a structural reform.

I see no indication that we are close to having that debate or discussion. The bitterest disappointment is that many people whose opinions and expertise would be essential to the process of choosing or vetting curriculum, are among the loudest voices insisting on re-litigating CCSS instead of driving successful implementation. Into that vacuum rush the usual suspects: the self-interested, the opportunists, and the failure fetishists.

That leaves us just where we started, with a dull throb of mediocrity, undereducated students, and -- sorry -- lack of clarity about what standards are and no clue how to meet them.

Fair enough; standards are important in their own right, though we probably disagree about the amount of improvement we could expect from even the best standards.

Still, my main point is that the "standards are not a curriculum" defense represents another front on which CCSS supporters are retreating. Once upon a time the CCSS were going to drive significant instructional changes. Now supporters are the first to point out that, actually, standards and curricula are completely separate things.

As I said, it's not that that defense of the CCSS is "wrong" so much as it underscores the limits of standards per se as an education reform.

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