Several weeks ago I found myself embroiled in a friendly argument with Ze’ev Wurman, a former Education Department official and one of the authors of California’s (generally well-regarded) math standards. I mentioned, rather casually, that I rather liked what I saw of the common core standards, by which I really meant the Language Arts standards. Certainly I place myself pretty firmly in the camp of those who think we’ve set the educational bar too low.
I probably should have donned some Kevlar. Actually, that’s unfair to Mr. Wurman, who’s a charming and thoughtful interlocutor. But he’s certainly a committed foe of the common core standards, and indeed of the idea of a set of national standards – not only because he disagrees with many of their specifics, but even more because he thinks they undermine state reform efforts and enforce nationwide mediocrity.
If you’re interested in his reasons, and a rather thorough, critical overview of the standards, here’s a link:
But I invited Ze’ev Wurman to blog as a guest today for a slightly different reason. Like many common core opponents, and even some common core supporters, he also chafes at the high-handed, even bullying tactics used to “encourage” states to adopt the standards. When I sent him an email with a link to the Utah Board of Education notice of a one-week comment period on Utah’s core standards, here’s what he has to say:
Well, I know that I sound like a Johnny one note, but that was a big part of what turned me sour on the whole national standards thing. I told you initially I was mostly supportive and just worried about making them good. But, then, I saw how the sausage was made and I decided that nothing good can come out of such non-public process eventually, even if it may not look terrible right now.
The whole game of releasing the standards by June 2, 2010, and expecting them to be adopted by anyone who wanted to apply for the Race to the Top by August 2, precisely two months later, was asinine. Normally the process of adopting standards takes easily a year for a state, sometimes a bit more. Drafts upon drafts, multiple statewide hearings, revisions, etc. It serves to make citizens feel that have a part in them, it allows people to consider what they are buying into, and it allows for budgeting and preparation. Here everything was truncated. Some states adopted them even *before* they were ready! Most others held some perfunctory vote in the middle of the summer when everybody was on summer vacation, and the deal was all done by the time the school year started and parents returned from vacations. It was incredible. And disgusting. Almost nobody held any public hearings before the votes (including California). It’s like selling your sovereignty for a lentil stew.
Anyway, just to make sure you are aware of the timeline. Utah adopted them on first reading on June 4, and that was sufficient to claim “adoption” for the purpose of Utah’s Race to the Top application. The final adoption happened on the board’s next meeting in early August (but after the federal RttT deadline of Aug. 2, which is why the first vote
on June 4 was so important).
— Common Core was released June 2, 2010. http://www.corestandards.org/news
— Utah’s BOE adopted them in first reading in June 4, 2010. Page 18341 here:
— Utah’s BOE adopted them in final reading on Aug. 6, 2010. Pages 18355-57 here:
— Utah’s ed dept claims it held meetings here (third paragraph). As far as I could figure it out, Utah did NOT hold any public hearings on the Common Core between June 4 and August 6 of 2010. Perhaps before, perhaps after, but seems like nothing before the board took the final
vote. I can’t vouch for this, but I couldn’t find any mention of hearings in those 8 weeks through a web search. And now, two years later, they suddenly offer five days of public input. Seriously???
In a follow on email, Mr. Wurman added these comments (and another valuable link):
I am sure you saw the recent set of publications from Tom Loveless (most recent is here — needs an Education Week subscription) that argues the unimportance of standards for achievement. I am not buying fully into it but Tom has a point that standards did not prove themselves to be a clear difference maker in educational achievement.
California is one of the clearer examples of that. We have had standards widely recognized as the best in the country for almost 15 years now, and the best argument one can make is that without them it would have been worse. (This is actually reasonably supported claim, as we have grown in our fraction of Hispanics from about 35% to over 50% since the standards and we still moved a bit ahead among the states.) Compare that with Massachusetts that also has very good, even if not excellent, standards yet did a much better overall job with them. In my opinion it is mostly about alignment, about getting teachers’ and parents’ buy in and good will, about putting reasonably aligned support mechanism (licensure testing, PD) in place. In California there has been a strong faction among teacher, CDE people, and Democratic legislators, constantly trying to show that our standards are “mindless,” “mechanical,” or “Republican cabal.” Many of our own ed schools put them down as unnecessarily rigid, focusing on content rather than on “deep thinking.” “Stupid,” in short.
Why do I bring up all this? Because by circumventing the public processes while adopting the standards many states exposed themselves to the same dynamics. The standards in themselves may not be academically terrible (although some of their interpretation is already promising to be, but that’s for another day) but now that they became the focus of fight between what’s seen as central-planners vs. state-rights people, the standards are risking people undermining them, and not unifying behind their implementation, as they are seen as federal intrusion. That is precisely what is visibly happening in South Carolina (and in Alabama and Indiana earlier) and now in Utah. And I hear rumblings from New Hampshire too. I find it hard to believe that those states will truly unify behind the implementation, which will doom them to the fate of California rather than Massachusetts.
And I don’t buy into the rhetoric when states claim that these are now “their standards” rather then federal ones. When your teachers will find the proposed experimental way of teaching Geometry unworkable — as many surely will, because it never worked anywhere it was tried — there is nothing Utah legislature can do about it. If Utah’s parents will find something disagreeable with the English standards they need not bother to call their representatives or their state adminstration — Utah’s legislature and your State Office of Education can’t change a thing about them either. And if Utah is granted the “flexibility NCLB waiver” from the feds that it is after, withdrawing from the Common Core will become effectively impossible, whether you will like the national test or not.
Perhaps I should feel bad about contributing to this process but I don’t. The federal government sneaky implementation of the Common Core and its heavy-handed coercion must be resisted. As I jokingly mentioned a few month back in a discussion, I am not sure that CC proponents will be as excited about them when Michele Bachmann, our next Secretary of Education, will start using her philosophical outlook and the power to affect the curriculum that the Common Core provided the federal government.