Despite the tireless marriage-wrecking efforts of Common Core opponents and their acolytes and funders, few states that initially pledged their troth to these rigorous new standards for English and math are in divorce mode. What’s far more fluid, unpredictable, and—frankly—worrying are the two elements of standards-based reform that make a vastly greater difference in the real world than standards themselves: implementation and assessment.
Don’t get me wrong. Standards are important, because they set forth the desired outcomes of schooling and it’s obviously better to aim for clear, ambitious, and academically worthy goals than at targets that are vague, banal, easy, or trendy. Standards are also supposed to provide the framework that shapes and organizes the rest of the education enterprise: curricula, teacher preparation, promotion and graduation expectations, testing and accountability, and just about everything else. (Kindergarten standards, for example, should affect what happens in preschool just as twelfth-grade standards should synch with what gets taught to college freshmen.)
But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.
California is the woeful poster child here, as I was reminded the other day (in connection not with the Common Core but with science). For years, it’s had terrific standards in the core subjects, but it’s also had pathetic achievement on external measures such as NAEP. That’s mainly because—in my interpretation, anyway—the Golden State never really put those solid standards into...