Addressing the tension between national standards and educational innovation

The “counter-manifesto
released this week in opposition to national testing and a national curriculum
is full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men. But it was signed
by a lot of serious people and deserves a serious response.

First, let us dispatch some silliness. To the best of our
knowledge, and based on all evidence that we’re aware of, neither the signers
of the Shanker Institute
, nor leaders in the Obama/Duncan Education Department, advocate a
“nationalized curriculum” that would “undermine control of public school
curriculum and instruction at the local and state level” and “transfer control
to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy.” Nor is anybody calling for
“a one-size fits all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject.” We
certainly wouldn’t support such a policy—and can understand why the
conservative luminaries who signed the counter-manifesto wouldn’t want it,
either. As parents, grandparents, charter-school authorizers, and champions of
school choice in almost all its forms, we believe deeply in the importance of
schools having the freedom to shape their own unique educational approaches.

So let us be clear: While the assessments linked to the
Common Core State Standards will be mandatory (for schools and districts in
states that choose to use them), the
use of any common curricular materials will be purely voluntary. We don’t see
any evidence to indicate otherwise.

We also find curious the attack line, penned by Jay
, that “centralization of education is bad for everyone except the
central planners.” This faux-populist rhetoric is compelling until you consider
that many of the counter-manifesto’s signatories have been deeply involved in
efforts to centralize education decision-making at the state level for years. Weren’t Sandy Stotsky’s (praiseworthy) struggles
to ensure that all students in Massachusetts had exposure to
scientifically-based reading instruction and high-quality literature exercises
in central planning and top-down control of curriculum and pedagogy? What about
Bill Evers’s push in California to mandate rigorous math instruction—including
Algebra in eighth grade? Some libertarian signers of the counter-manifesto may
indeed believe that we should let schools, districts, and parents make every
single educational decision no matter how irresponsible, harebrained, or even
harmful to kids. But the vast majority of reformers who support standards-based
reform have already acknowledged that “local control” should have its limits—beginning
with academic standards.

Why not work to make the 'default' option in American public education far better than it is today?


And that brings us to the substance of the attack on the
Common Core project. Its opponents’ most persuasive argument is the concern
that the Common Core standards and assessments may wrap schools into a
curricular straightjacket and diminish opportunities for educational
innovation. They might be at least partly right to worry about this. The
question is: Will it be worth it? Let’s look at this from both sides.

Supporters of the Common Core, ourselves included, peer out
across this vast nation and see a hodgepodge of standards, tests, textbooks,
curricular guides, lesson plans—little of it of high quality or particularly
“innovative” (with much of the “innovative” stuff being faddish and silly), and
none of it aligned with much else in any meaningful sense. We look with some
envy at other countries that can boast curricular “coherence”—a clear vision of
what students should know and be able to do, a reasonable plan for getting
teachers trained to impart it, and rich materials to help students and teachers
reach the Promised Land. Attaining consensus on the standards and the
assessments—the core part of Common Core’s work—is a huge leap forward. But why
not go the last mile
? Why repeat the mistakes of the state-standards
movement, in which we demanded that teachers boost their pupils to higher
levels of achievement but failed to provide helpful tools or guidance in
getting them there? Why pretend that more than a handful of the nation’s 14,000
school districts (and 5,000 charter schools) have the capacity to create the
instructional materials that many teachers crave? And why leave it to hegemonic
textbook companies—vendors, too often, of thoroughly mediocre stuff—to fill the

No, government must not mandate the particular curricular or
instructional materials that schools and teachers use. But why not make lots of
good stuff available for free? Why not work to ensure that the “default” option
in American public education is far better than it is today, and is aligned
with the excellent Common Core standards? Schools (and teachers) can veer from
that default, or build upon it, or excavate under it, if they have the
interest, capacity, and drive to do so. But by offering tools, guides, and all
the rest, maybe we can bring the floor up significantly for the vast majority
of schools and classroom practitioners that lack those traits.

At the same time, we can understand the heartburn this whole
endeavor gives to promoters of innovation and diversity in education. We agree
with Rick
, for example, that “through-course assessments”—high-stakes tests to
be taken a half-dozen times a year—will pressure schools to follow a particular
scope and sequence—and that this is a serious infringement on school-level
autonomy. (That’s going to be especially hard on charter schools.) It’s one
thing to ask schools to demonstrate solid performance on an exam once every
spring. It’s quite something else to expect them to prepare students for tests
six to eight times during the year. We agree that this is a bridge too far.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the counter-manifesto from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

So here’s where we stand: First,
states should be encouraged to stay the course with the Common Core standards
and assessments, at least until we see what the tests look like. While the
standards aren’t perfect, they are vastly better than what they are replacing in most states.
Second, à la the Shanker manifesto, efforts should be made to develop all
manner of tools, materials, lesson plans, professional development, curricula,
and more that will help teachers implement the standards in their
classrooms—and to help students master them. We have no particular concern with
the federal government—or philanthropists and venture capitalists, big and
small—helping to pay for those activities, as has been done so often in the
past. But, third, it should be made crystal clear that the use of all such
materials will be completely voluntary for states and, we would argue, for
districts within states, schools within districts, and teachers within schools.
And fourth, the two consortia now building new Common Core assessments should
take pains not to cross the Rubicon into micromanaging schools’ curricular and
instructional decisions.           

Now for some specific advice:

  • Drafters of the
    counter-manifesto: Make sure your signers—including the famous
    ones—understand that nobody is calling for a single mandatory “national
    curriculum,” and see how many folks you lose.
  • Shanker
    Institute: Make clearer than your original document did that you are not proposing that there be only
    one “common” curriculum for all schools.
  • Secretary Arne Duncan: Ask
    the two testing consortia to sign agreements swearing not to
    mandate—directly or indirectly—the use of curricular materials they
  • The PARCC consortium:
    Figure out a way for schools to opt out of the through-course assessments
    and take a single end-of-year test instead.
  • Supporters of the Common
    Core: Encourage states to enact laws barring their education departments
    and state boards from mandating any particular curricular or instructional
    approaches—including those developed through the Common Core effort.
  • Big funders and
    nonprofits that care about this stuff: Devise a really powerful version of Consumer Reports by which to vet curricular materials (commercial and
    “open-source” alike) that purport to be “aligned” with the Common Core so
    as to gauge their validity—and whether they’re quality materials worthy of
    the attention of practicing educators.

These steps won’t resolve all the tension between national
standards and “local control.” But they offer some reasonable safeguards and a
clear path forward. Any takers?

This piece originally
(in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog,
Flypaper. To get timely updates from Fordham, subscribe to Flypaper.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.