Society and Culture, Education

Is the Common Core Curves or Weight Watchers?

Dispatches from a nervous Common Core observer (part 1 of 10)
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Rhetoric around the Common Core has been ramping up recently, with calls from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times to either abandon or support the effort.
But the issue is a bit more complicated than that. AEI Education hosted a public research conference on the topic back in March, with an eye to examining how the Common Core intersected with current school improvement efforts. We invited folks both for and against the standards — academics, practitioners, advocates, and skeptics alike — to discuss the papers and all in all had a rousing good time.

Since that conference, I have become more nervous about the prospects for the Common Core. Why? Well, I simply have too many unanswered questions.

Over the course of the next 10 days, I’m going to tackle one question per day.

I don’t know if answers to these questions exist. I hope, for the sake of the effort that has begun in states all across the country, that folks are thinking about these things and working through them and I just don’t know about it. Please, if that is the case, let me know in the comments or over on twitter (@mq_mcshane). I’d be more than happy to be disabused of my skepticism.

But if there aren’t answers to these questions, or answers that show that the Common Core will conflict with, rather than complement, current efforts at work to improve schools, then my skepticism might onto something.

But we shall see. So, without further ado, my first question:

Question #1: Is the Common Core Curves or Weight Watchers?

The Common Core makes people who tend to favor more local control of schools (like me) nervous because we fear it becoming an overly prescriptive, nationalized system that might limit the diversity of offerings in schools and curtail the ability of teachers and school leaders to innovate. Now, I know what you Common Core fans are going to say “the Common Core are simply standards, standards just provide the end goal for instruction, they don’t dictate how or when particular content or skills need to be taught, just where students need to be by the end of the year.”

What you’re describing is the Common Core as Weight Watchers. Rather than giving a specific diet or exercise routine, Weight Watchers simply gives a common language that dieters can use to talk about food. All foods have a point value, and dieters are limited to a set number of points in a given day. There is no one ideal set of points for all dieters, and there are an infinite number of permutations an individual can use to get under the maximum point bar.

Those that view the Common Core in this way see it as simply the common language that teachers, curriculum authors, and app developers can use to design their content and plans. It is the sort of copper wire that undergirds the telephone system or the app store that provides a place for innovation to flourish. It allows for a vibrant market for new textbook materials, new apps, and new professional development tools. That is all great.

I get nervous when the Common Core stops looking like Weight Watchers, and starts looking more like Curves.

For those unfamiliar, Curves is a gym for women that offers a highly-regimented, tried and true method of exercise. Curves facilities have a set of 8 to 12 exercise machines, each set to a uniform amount of resistance, that exercisers work their way through in a circuit.

What makes me think of Curves when it comes to the Common Core? A couple of things:

First, both consortia developing tests for the Common Core standards are developing “through course” assessments. These are tests designed to be given throughout the year to make sure that students are on pace to reach the level of competence that the standards require. While making sure that students are on the right path is a perfectly reasonable and laudable goal, it has the unintended consequence of standardizing the order in which particular material is taught. It makes the standards begin to look more like a curriculum. Now, it is important to note that, to date, both sets of exams are strictly optional and states and districts are free to ignore them. However, I would be willing to bet that performance on those tests will correlate highly with performance on the end of the year exams of the standards, which incentivizes districts to use them. This could serve to narrow the instructional approaches that are used to meet the standards, as more and more districts choose to use the through-course-aligned instructional path.

Second, there do appear to be certain pedagogical undertones to the standards. Tom Loveless wrote a fantastic post over at the Brookings Institution’s blog aptly titled “The Banality of Deeper Learning.” In it, he highlights language that has been used to support the Common Core (and many other educational projects) including “project-based” “inquiry and discovery” “higher-level thinking.” These tend to be code-words for an approach to education that de-emphasizes the learning of discrete facts and standard algorithms, at students’ peril. Don’t believe me? Check out this article covering California’s transition to the Common Core, it is exactly what Loveless describes. Now, I understand that some might say that the standards don’t explicitly tell teachers to teach in that way, but if that is what they think they say, it can be extremely powerful. One need look no farther than the non-fiction requirement controversy to see how that goes.

But this isn’t just analogizing for the sake of cleverness — either interpretation has serious political consequences. The more the Common Core is like Curves, the more local control advocates and innovation-agenda folks will balk. While Curves is good for most, it isn’t the best course for all, some people need to up the resistance or exercise for longer. If you want to train to run a marathon, Curves can’t really help you. Want to learn to kick box, do serious strength training, or go cycling? You probably shouldn’t go to Curves.

The more it is like Weight Watchers, the more those who prize equity will be nervous. Weight Watchers tends to leave people more to their own devices to determine how they want to spend their points, and many struggle with developing workable food budgets.

It’s a classic problem of public policy: more freedom (Weight Watchers) runs the risk of uneven implementation, but standardization (Curves) stifles innovation.

So my question is: which one is it going to be?

Let me know what you think, below in the comments or over on twitter (I’m @mq_mcshane). And you can read part 2 here.

25 thoughts on “Is the Common Core Curves or Weight Watchers?

  1. the problem is we do not have a standard for academic achievement nationally – even though we have a highly mobile society and workforce.

    And we keep edging back to the idea that all schools and systems should decide their own standards for curricula.

    this harms kids who do not stay at the same school.

    It’s significant to me that the DOD schools – schools that exist around the world for kids of military are totally standardized so that no matter where dad or mom are stationed, their kid picks up exactly where they left off.

    I see no advocacy for having each DOD school decide it’s own curricula.

    On the contrary, it makes perfect sense to them to have one curricula and one testing approach – not only for cost-effectiveness but for the kids sake.

    but when it comes to State schools – even though we know in today’s job market, Mom and Dad move around – as much as 7 times or more in their career -we have this silly idea that each school or school system should determine their own curricula – no matter if it is coordinated with other schools or not.

    So what do we do?

    we focus criticism on efforts to standardize the curriculum.

    In this case, it’s Common Core but that’s just a name for a unified curricula. You could call it anything and the same critics would attack it for the same reasons.

    we need to have standards. they can be basic standards and schools can layer on top of them but to argue for disparate standards is akin to saying that we don’t need standards for tires or bolts or software.

    it’s dumb. Kids are not widgets.. that’s true but until the critics say how they would deal with kids who move around… then I’ll consider their “concern” as only with regard to some things – not other things – like the kid that moves.

    • Hey Larry, thanks for the comment. A couple of the comments below touch on what I think is a reasonable response. When a new student shows up at a school, someone sits them down at a computer for a hour or two to take an assessment of where they are. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably a heckuva lot eaiser than trying to standardize instruction for 50 million students across 14,000 school districts across the country!

      How does that sound?

      -Mike

  2. My take is that, for subjects that build (math, science, grammar), a national standard curriculum is necessary. Not just DoD schools but also some Catholic schools do this. Have a granddaughter who was a military kid (only in DoD schools once) who, by changing states, missed a unit on fractions (covered fifth grade in state she moved to and sixth grade in state she moved from). Only after testing at a tutoring facility did we research and learn what had happened – all she knew was she was having a problem with fractions. The most positive thing about AP and IB courses in high school are the nationwide standards.

    • Hey Fran,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve got to say, as a former Catholic school teacher, we did not follow any kind of national curriculum. Some Catholic schools follow state curriculum guidelines, and many just do their own thing, picking from the various curricula that are commercially available or developing their own.

      I think the DoD analogy is interesting, but in total, they only enroll about 80,000 students. There are 50 million students in America. Chances are, the managerial structure that works for such a small organization will not be as useful for one many orders of magnitude larger.

      I think the issue of mobile students is important, but could be solved schools do a better job assessing students when they arrive at a new school. There are some really dynamite computer-based assessments that students can take in Math and Reading that can quickly show where they have gaps in their knowledge. When a student showed up at a new school, it could be something they do their first day. That solves the problem without restricting schools to a particular scope and sequence of topics.

      Do you think that makes more sense? I tend to lean that way, but I could be wrong!

      -Mike

      • Mike, just a few things:
        1) Neither consortia is developing a “through course” assessment. That was the original PARCC design, but was changed to summative assessments given near the end of the school year.
        2) The National Catholic Education Association has the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative (http://catholicschoolstandards.org/common-core) and they recently released a very articulate statement on Common Core.
        3) DODEA may only have 80k enrolled in their schools, but there are over 1.2 million students of military families. Those children often move from state to state as their parents are deployed or move stations.
        4) More testing when a student enters a new school? Monty Neill won’t be happy. Students already have to take their state’s tests. Let’s make those tests mean something. For students that enter a new school in the beginning of the year in a new state, having assessments based on common standards means you have an idea where they are from the prior year’s results. Both consortia are also creating optional computer adaptive diagnostic assessments that will do what you describe if a student were to enter mid year.

        To your larger point, you will still see very different curricula among states, districts and schools. So, I think Weight Watchers is the truer comparison.

        • If teachers are assessing to understand where their students, that is a reasonable action on their part so as to plan adjustments to curriculum, extra help, etc. Would be good if students had portfolios to carry with them – teaches could review those, get a good sense of students who were in that school the previous year (the Learning Record allowed that – indeed, where used, could be taken to any school in the country – see http://learningrecord.org). But the Learning Record shows you don’t need standardized tests to have the relevant info.

          Additional standardized tests, correct, is not a good idea.

          I also don’t think we should narrow most student’s learning to what can be assessed primarily by multiple choice because some students move across state lines.

        • Both will have some sort of ‘performance tasks’ prior to end of year summative exam; the tasks will ‘count.’ There may be earlier-in-year tests, but they will be optional, not count for final score, and thus become ‘interim’ or ‘benchmark’ tests to keep everyone on track to the big test at the end of the year.

  3. As you note, Fran, AP and IB are doing that already, no need for arm twisting. Let a thousand standards bloom.

    For kids who move, how about schools use an incoming assessment to catch things like a missed unit on fractions. That should be common sense. Digital badges and microcredentialing could help out a lot here. Otherwise, the only real way to make sure all kids get the same thing at the same time is to literally require the legendary French way, where every child is on the same page at the same time of each school day. Do we really want that?

    • I responded to Fran about incoming assessment before I read your post. Great minds think alike!

      Hope all is well,
      Mike

  4. Actually, if we had had granddaughter tested with the move (it never crossed our mind) and not several years later, it would have been easy to catch her up. Am suspecting that we might all test our kids annually and get them caught up every summer.

  5. You talk about the Common Core as simply being standards and not dictating. Actually the teachers are not allowed to delete any thing from the common core curriculum. They are allowed to add only 15% to the curriculum. An example of an assignment for common core is to write a story about your father being in a concentration camp. Another example is to write a story about a person getting killed but now they are invisible and still functioning. You say they are just standards. Did you know they no longer are concerned if a child gets their math answers right, but instead only that they follow the common core method to get to their answer?

  6. You are right that the tests will enforce the standards and will therefore demand standardization. FairTest (my organzation) has a critique of CC at http://www.fairtest.org/common-core-assessments-more-tests-not-much-better.

    Interestingly, many progressive educators – the ones who think that project-based learning is the more powerful route to rich education, including learning and understanding facts and procedures (not just regurgitating for a test and forgetting) – many of them are also unhappy with the CC. As are many educators of young children who find CC very inappropriate.

    My point here is not to take sides on this debate, but to observe that unhappiness with CC comes from a variety of vantage points. If CC were touchstones schools could use to guide curriculum and instruction and not enforced by tests (that likely won’t adequately assess the standards anyway) – more like weight watchers – that would be one thing. Curves is indeed more like it.

    • Hey Monty, thanks for the comment. I tend to think that standardization and centralization are bad (even if I like the short term outcome) because I know that people who think like me won’t always be in charge. I think there are plenty of reasons for progressive educators (or any individual with a strong educational philosophy) to be worried, because even if there are nods to those methods or that philosophy in the standards as they exist today, there is no reason to believe it they will be there if and when the standards are amended in the future.

      Just out of curiosity, what does Fairtest think about school choice? To my mind, it could allow for a system where the folks who believe in progressive education could have their children educated by progressive educators and the folks that want a more “traditional” approach could have their children educated by more traditional educators. No one is forced into a system that they don’t believe in, and the role of testing could be greatly diminished as they are at most used to inform parental decision making, not for high stakes accountability. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      -Mike

      • FairTest has in its mission support of public schools. We are concerned about charters to the extent that they are publicly funded private enterprises working under state guidelines, which is not really public schools.

        Personally, I don’t think schools should be viewed as market goods, but as part of our social commons – that is their origins in the US for the most part, communities getting together to educate their children (a reasonable conservative perspective, I’d think).

        That need not eliminate choice – one can have varying kinds of schools in a public system. Of course that might not work for small communities that have but one school. There are not-so-small that offer variety via several public schools. Deb Meier and others persuaded a NYC Chancellor to create sub-district of 59K kids organized around the principles found at Central Park East schools – but a new Chancellor killed that before it got started (preferring standardization and tests).

        Like I said, FairTest does not have a position on charters but supports public schools. For those in charters, we are concerned about the harmful consequence of high stakes testing and too much testing, just as we are those in (regular) public schools.

  7. Hey Michael,
    This is a really interesting piece. As someone with a group that is very actively supporting Common Core in Indiana, I look forward to seeing the rest of your series.

    What I would encourage you to do in this series is remember that this discussion isn’t happening in a vacuum but is engulfed in the context of existing standards in various states.

    To extend your metaphor, every state right now is on their own diet. Some are Curves. Some are WeightWathcers. Some are so bad it’s more of an ice cream sundae bar than a diet. And so while asking which one Common Core is, we also need to ask whether it’s a better diet than we currently have.

    In Indiana, I feel like we’re on a “DJ Tanner trying to lose weight for Kimmy’s pool party” crash diet. Seems like a good idea on paper, but it has negative consequences. There are so many standards in Indiana (which is why they are thought to be high) that our teacher supporters of Common Core (and there are a ton) say there isn’t enough time to cover them all. The practical result, then, is teachers skipping standards or teaching them so quickly that students don’t retain the information.

    Common Core looks more like WeightWatchers to me, and I like that. But even if it has some Curves characteristics in practice, I’m willing to give it a try.

    • Hey Jay, thanks for the comment. I think that is a eminently reasonable response. If the current system is Curves and the Common Core (while imperfect) is more of a move to Weight Watchers, all things considered, that is probably a step in the right direction. In fact, if little by little we can claw back the Curves-like elements and make them more like Weight Watchers, I think all the better.

      What I worry about is when the Curves elements get set in stone and become next to impossible to claw back. The Common Core is a lot more than just standards: its new tests, new accountability systems, new technology requirements, new requirements for schools that operate outside of the traditional public school system like charters, magnets, alternative schools, and the like, new teacher quality management systems, new teacher training, and new professional development, and I simply worry that so much of this stuff will get intertwined that it will become a bureaucratized and ossified system that can’t change in the future. Now, maybe I’m totally over-reacting and these individual moving parts will still be flexible, but it makes me nervous.

      -Mike

  8. It is my understanding that college entrance exams will be redeveloped to test on CC knowledge. This means that there will be no adjusting of curriculum. It becomes the standard for all educational tracks public, private, charter, home school. And I agree that those who write curriculum that is accepted by CC (and that is a sticking point, don’t you think?) will not always be what we would want for our children or grandchildren to learn. Right not it is already replete with info that is indoctrination. So if college is in a student’s future plans they must be able to regurgitate CC. I would love to hear that the college testing info I have is not true. Confirmation of truth either way is much appreciated.

  9. I would like someone to explain why they think “local control” is, in and of itself, something that should never be violated. Every time the phrase is used, the writer seems to think it’s axiomatic that local control must be preserved at all costs. Why? What value does it offer?

    Since the 1960s, the undeniable trend in both education and the law has been to recognize that education is a right. Some – including a number of Kansas Supreme Court justices – have gone so far as to call it a “fundamental right.”

    State constitutions impose upon legislatures the obligation to fund public schools. And they impose upon state education agencies (whether elected or appointed) the duty to supervise education and to ensure it meets certain quality standards.

    Because children have a right (fundamental or otherwise) to receive an education, and because state governments are mandated by their own constitutions to provide them, it cannot possibly be considered fair to let those governments distribute access to that right on an uneven or discriminatory basis.

    When Mr. McShane talks about “the diversity of offerings in schools” and “curtail(ing) the ability of teachers and school leaders to innovate,” I cannot help but infer he is talking about preserving a discriminatory system whereby the quality of education a child receives is determined his/her race, ethnicity, or the zip code in which he/she happens to live.

    Taxpayers throughout this country pay hundreds of billions of dollars a year to establish and maintain schools of public instruction. Thus, they have every right in the world to impose standards of accountability to make sure the schools are using that money effectively and fairly.

    We now live in a highly mobile society, where children who grow up in one state do not necessarily stay in that state, and where children of all states are expected to grow up and compete in a global economy.

    What, then, is wrong with making education a national priority and establishing national standards to ensure that our next generation of children – all of them – have full access to opportunities and benefits that a quality education provides?

    • I’ve already commented on some of what Mr Hancock raises in reply to other comments. But you raise a very important point: must difference be unequal. It clearly has been in the US in many cases, as you say, but I’d say it need not be so. It is not that a society needs both engineers and plumbers and cleaners, it is that we use existing race and class inequities to pass inequities on to the next generation. That is a massive problem.

      But standardization brings an equally massive problem, the potential inability to tailor to individual needs and interests or to reasonable variations in communities. (Standardized testing pushes standardization toward narrowing and dumbing down education.)

      To me, the difficult question is how to resolve these two aspects in a manner that meets individual needs and establishes equity. Funding equity certainly would help, tho those with less in their communities or who need more should get more in their schools (as a few nations do, and as we do to some extent with additional supports for students with disabilities and quite rarely for English language learners). School funding equity will not, I fear, overcome broader social inequality (schools account for about 1/4 of variation in measured learning outcomes – even if we could double that through amazing schools, that would leave 50%).

      There are ways to track equity without relying on standardized tests. A set of them could work, most for a modest cost:

      • sorry, continuing with things we could do to monitor schools and student outcomes:
        – use school quality reviews/inspectorates
        – track and report inequities in inputs – work to close them
        – grade promotion and graduation rates
        – post HS graduation (college enrollment and more important persistence to graduation; employment; surveys of civic engagement)
        – samples of student work can be gathered from across schools and reviewed using a common scoring guide (I referred earlier to the Learning Record; similar things are done in other nations) – yes such a guide implies a common standard, but such a standard is not in itself enforced by tests

        I am sure we can think of more.

        • Maybe I missed one of your earlier posts. All of the things you mention seem interesting and certainly worthy of further discussion and investigation.

          I was just asking for an explanation of why locally-controlled standards are inherently better than state-controlled standards; or why having 50 individual states set massively disparate standards is better than having many states get together and act in concert with one another to establish something approaching a set of uniform benchmarks that are portable across state lines.

          • The basic issue from my perspective as a parent is that I want local involvement in choosing not only which school my children attend, but also in supporting a curriculum and standards that I believe are best for my children. When a community surrenders input to the larger body, there is a disconnect. Parents have become dramatically less involved in their children’s education as more and more parenting is turned over to the state. We have seen in other aspects of government that the more centralized and removed the planners are from a situation, the less effective they are in addressing an issue. I have faith in the teachers at our school that they are trained educators and are actually capable of teaching and engaging students without a central command dictating their every move in order to make education “equal” and “fair”. Local accountability is our right and our responsibility as parents.

  10. I once sat down and tried to come up with a solid, recommended curriculum; I found it much more difficult than I thought.
    It is my opinion that the development of commonality flies in the face of different levels of intelligence, different interests and different motivations: how can commonality embrace that? Diversity and watering down standards seem to be the result. And that’s improvement?
    I read once (Murray I think) that we ought to be paying more attention to educating those that can, and are likely to contribute to our national objectives than to the lowest common denominator. It would be nice if all could achieve equally at the highest levels, but it ain’t gonna happen. The main barrier is motivation.
    We seem to be striving for meritocracy – and succeeding.

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