Leave education to the experts?

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.



  1. greyman

    “Because the common core standards were adopted very quickly, under federal government pressure? Please expound on this often heard mantra. What federal pressure? When? How? Quickly? It has been years. I first heard about it in 2010, but full implementation is not until 2014. Isn’t that enough?

  2. Yak_Herder

    I don’t see any kind of “Fed Bogey-man” lurking behind the Common Core. That sounds a little too much like a conspiracy theory for my tastes. I’m not naive enough, however, to believe that the development process has been free of any influence (motivation?) from the Federal Government.

    I haven’t poured over the details of what has been adopted so far, but I have heard plenty of feedback. For the most part, the English teachers seem more than pleased. We’ve moved forward.

    The math teachers, on the other hand, are not so pleased. Students are going to struggle. It’s a bigger issue than just the standards and a redesign of the courses. Part of the problem with math in general is the growing inability for the average parent to help with math homework. You can’t teach what you don’t know. Atlas has shrugged a little bit.

    As a science teacher, I’m looking forward to seeing what develops for us. What ever they have so far, it’s getting bogged down, most noticeably within the Bible Belt, with discussion and concerns about natural selection and creationism. I’m okay with it being delayed; that discussion is valuable. At the same time, I wish they would hurry it along a bit more than they are. Utah’s science core (and the associated tests) is painfully inadequate. There should be a sense of urgency here.

    I can’t imagine the fighting that is going to erupt once Social Sciences are tackled. We should all agree, up front, to act like adults and doggedly stick to that plan. It’s going to take something more than what what passes for public discourse these days.

    CTE has long since addressed standards. I wonder if anybody is looking at a common core for the arts. What about physical education? I’ve never heard either of them even mentioned.

    The common core will drive the content of standardized tests. If performance on standardized tests becomes a part of teacher evaluations, then EVERY subject is going to become dependent on a “common core” of some sort. You can’t fairly evaluate a Physics teacher on one basis and a Drama teacher on another. Either judge them all by an appropriate standard or none of them.

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