When I wrote my op-ed arguing that we should move toward the common standards at a more deliberate speed, I hadn’t seen David Wiley’s op-ed, “Utah Should Adopt the Common Core.” As my students would say, “my bad.” Forgive this belated response.
I sympathize with many of Professor Wiley’s arguments. He’s right that Utah, along with many other states, has settled for mediocre educational standards, and that the common core for the most part represents an improvement. He’s also right, at least in my opinion, that it’s narrow-minded to insist that all good educational ideas are “made in Utah.” I’ve argued against this point of view when it comes to online courses. If somebody in, say, Georgia has developed a better online physics course than anything available from a Utah school, why not let Utah students take advantage of it?
I’d also note that I wasn’t arguing that Utah or any other state should simply reject the standards. Instead, I was suggesting that we encourage more public debate, allow more time to develop materials, train teachers, and above all eyeball the as-yet unseen new assessments that will accompany these standards, and maybe try them out in a few states before we adopt these standards and the accompanying assessments nationwide. I think Professor Wiley would find that many teachers who generally support the standards – I’d put myself in their ranks – are rather unnerved by the forced march nature of their adoption, and the uncertainty that still hovers over issues such as assessment.
What set my teeth on edge, however, was a rather thinly veiled suggestion that curriculum revision should be left entirely to the experts, and the rest of us should get out of the way. To quote Professor Wiley,
Very few Utahns are qualified to critique standards used to produce engineering designs for bridges we drive over each day, yet many residents suddenly feel qualified to critique a new and improved set of education standards common among states. For some unfathomable reason, everyone seems to believe he or she is an expert on education, whether or not they have read a single peer-reviewed article in an educational research journal.
Ouch. I have a great deal of respect for expertise (which is why I often read, and sometimes cite, scholarly articles on education.) But I don’t find the call to sit back and let the experts run the show persuasive, for several reasons.
First, I don’t think education is truly analogous to bridge building. Every parent is at some level an expert on education, at least on the education that his or her child is receiving. Because the common core standards were adopted very quickly, under federal government pressure, and with little public review or debate, state education administrators had little time to educate parents, to bring them on board . . . or to listen to what they might have to say.
Even strong common core supporters should worry about this lack of parental buy-in. What happens when Johnny lugs home an English textbook filled with political essays, or a math textbook that mixes geometry in with other subjects? Maybe these are good changes (as I said in my op-ed, I tend to like the emphasis on close reading of expository texts), but they’re still going to come as a surprise to many parents. More importantly, what happens when these new, allegedly tough and meaningful, assessments reveal how many of our students are not proficient? Without a carefully laid groundwork, common core supporters may well find themselves with a parent revolt on their hands. This could set back efforts to hold our students, and ourselves, to a higher educational standard.
Second, anyone who really does sit around and read hundreds of peer-reviewed articles would pretty quickly discover that educational experts disagree, and disagree fiercely. Think, for example, of the dispute over whether phonics or “whole language” is the best approach to reading instruction. Maybe a similar level of disagreement exists about how to build bridges. I wouldn’t know. But as a professor of education Dr. Wiley surely knows that his own world is far from united on the best approach to improving education. Indeed, while the common core standards have generally received good reviews, they’ve also, as I noted, attracted thoughtful criticism – from other experts.
Finally, and here’s where I may step on Professor Wiley’s toes, I don’t believe that education experts have all that great a track record. I think, for example, of the changes in math teaching during the 1980s and 1990s – such as widespread use of calculators in the early grades – that schools have quietly abandoned. I’m all for try, try again. But maybe a little modesty, and a slower pace, and a greater tolerance for messy democratic debate, would be in order here.