The Thomas B. Fordham Institute –a conservative think tank in D.C. where I was a trustee for many years–is a staunch defender of the Common Core State Standards. It has received a lot of money from the Gates Foundation to evaluate the standards. I know my former colleagues, and I know they would not be swayed by money to change their views. Nonetheless, having evaluated them, the Institute now loudly defends them against all critics.
Today, a writer for the Institute criticized me because I said I was withholding judgment on the Common Core Standards until I see how they work in practice. I said two years ago that they should be field-tested before national adoption. The critique says I am wrong, that the standards needed no field-testing, and that they should be adopted as is without delay. We know enough already.
I don’t agree.
I wrote the other day that I was neither for them nor against them because they have never been given any field test. No district or school or state has ever given them a trial. I withhold judgment until I see how they work. TBF says that field testing is not necessary; field testing offers “false promise.” That is nonsense.
Apparently, among the cheerleaders for these untried standards, no one is allowed to remain on the sidelines.
I have worked on standard-setting efforts in several states–in California, where I helped to draft the history-social science standards, and also in Georgia and Texas.
This is what I learned: Standards are words on paper until they are implemented.
When the words on paper are brought to life in classrooms by real teachers teaching real students, we learn a lot. We find out that some expectations are too high for that grade; some expectations are too low. And some make no sense.
We learn what is developmentally appropriate. We learn what is realistic. We learn what works. Teachers know because they do the work of bringing the words to life. If the words don’t come to life, they know that too.
Any group of academics and experts and policymakers can sit around and write standards. But that doesn’t mean they will make sense in a classroom or in 10,000 classrooms or in 100,000 classrooms.
The Common Core Standards may raise achievement; they may lower achievement; they may have no effect on achievement. They may reduce achievement gaps; they may increase achievement gaps; they may have no effect on achievement gaps.
How will we know unless we run trials to find out?
Suppose we find that the standards raise the achievement of high-performing students and increase the gaps? Wouldn’t we want to know that before we impose the standards on all the children in 45 states?
I am disturbed by the zealotry espoused by the advocates of the Common Core standards. The standards will have to prove their worth. It can’t be assumed. It can’t be imposed or asserted or bought. No matter how much they shout down the critics or belittle them, at some point, the standards will be judged not by how many people like them but by how they affect our students.