Common Core standards are 'curriculum upsidedownia'
George Ball can write and chooses very apt metaphor!
- In education, as in gardens, a monoculture is doomed to decay and eventual failure.
- "Grow faster!" is the experts' motto. Well, children are not cornstalks.
David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core curriculum, now heads the College Board. That's worrisome, and so is Coleman's background as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., the firm that so ably advised Kmart, Enron, Swissair and Global Crossing.
by George Ball
Frequently, these days, I'm reminded of Edward Lear's whimsical illustration, "Manypeeplia Upsidedownia." The drawing depicts an imagined botanical species, with a half dozen characters suspended upside down from a flower's bending stem. It is a product of the Victorian golden age of nonsense, but it is fitting today, now that we Americans seem to have landed in our own, darker era of nonsense, one in which we take our follies seriously and act upon them. To see folly in full flower, look no further than the Common Core State Standards.
Now adopted in 45 states, including California, and the District of Columbia, this federal effort sets uniform standards on how math and English are taught in American schools. A top-down program imposed on states in order to qualify for Race to the Top funds, the curriculum is the fruit of a process tainted with politics, vested interests and a lack of transparency.
The Common Core Curriculum is being implemented without empirical evidence of its value, and imposed hurriedly without consulting the very people most affected: students, teachers and parents.
In essence, Common Core is a vast educational experiment - making America's public school students into pedagogic guinea pigs. The program emphasizes the development of critical thinking over subject matter, yet its development and implementation manifest a conspicuous lack of reflection. Critical thinking calls for a balanced, impartial, methodical process of conceptualization and analysis built upon careful observation and experience. The way the Common Core standards are being implemented is more imperial than empirical. As education reformer Diane Ravitch notes, the standards have been adopted "without any field test ... imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools."
The test-centric No Child Left Behind federal program resulted in 4 out of 5 of the nation's schools receiving a failing grade. The Common Core standards up the ante, creating tests that are considerably tougher, longer and more expensive.
It's well known that standardized testing reinforces disparities of wealth and resources. As the most accurate predictor of academic performance is family income, we need to address poverty. If leveling the educational playing field is our goal - a laudable one - we should first level spending on schools before we introduce a new curriculum. California will now do just that, funding schools based on student population, and gauged to a district's number of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students.
In July, the state of New York announced the results of its first tests based on the Common Core: The region hasn't been this battered since Superstorm Sandy. Just 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the English exam, and only 30 percent passed the math test. In one Harlem school, just 7 percent of students received passing scores in English, and 10 percent in math. We've gone from No Child Left Behind to Well-Just-About-Every-Child-Left-Behind: progress of a kind. If "learned helplessness" is the Common Core's goal, it's a stunning success.
So if the students are the losers, who are the winners? Well, look no further than the 60-person work group that developed the curriculum, a coterie made up largely of education vendors and test developers - and not one practicing teacher. Indeed, David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core curriculum, now heads the College Board. That's worrisome, and so is Coleman's background as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., the firm that so ably advised Kmart, Enron, Swissair and Global Crossing.
Just as we're turning our schools into test-driven education factories modeled on schools in Asia, that region's educators are looking to American schools for inspiration. The Asian system has been wildly successful at producing great test takers, well prepared to morph into dutiful bureaucrats.
But now, so Asia's students will be prepared to become innovators and entrepreneurs, better able to thrive in the competitive global economy, those countries' educators are turning their focus to nourishing students' curiosity, creativity, originality and social skills -- the very qualities Common Core devalues.
What's lost in Common Core is the human factor. Teachers, whose performance evaluations and salary are pegged to their students' test results, are deprived of the freedom and creativity that is the oxygen of learning. In an ever-changing world, common sense would propose a broad range of educational approaches rather than a single one designed to ready all students for college. In education, as in gardens, a monoculture is doomed to decay and eventual failure.
After genetics, the most advanced psychological research tells us a child's development is determined by micro-relationships -- the ever-present, barely perceptible gestures, expressions and glances -- that are the soul of communication, nurture and empathy.
Common Core sacrifices the magic of teaching and learning on the altar of metrics. Teachers, students and administrators are no longer engaged in an organic process geared to the individual. Largely designed by testing experts, not teachers, the monolithic curriculum is like detailed gardening instructions from someone who has never set foot in a garden. "Grow faster!" is the experts' motto. Well, children are not cornstalks.
Rather than embark on this Upsidedownia national educational experiment, let's begin at the local, really local, level: the individual child. Hire smart, empathic teachers with depth and vision, and watch our children grow into a harvest of creative, thoughtful, articulate intellects and citizens. This is, one might say, the cure for the Common Core.
George Ball is the past president of the American Horticultural Society and chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., in Bucks County, Pa.
San Francisco Chronicle
August 19, 2013
Index of Common Core [sic] Standards