Robert D. Shepherd has been in the education publishing industry for many years. When I was writing The Language Police a decade ago, Shepherd was a reliable guide to the vagaries of the publishing world. I also found him to be an acute observer of language and literature. I am happy he wrote this to share with you:
I would like to point the would-be reformers of American education to the work of that great political and social theorist Robbie Burns, who wrote in “To a Mouse” that “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
A bit of old-fashioned Scots skepticism with regard to this latest attempt at centralized planning of education, the Common Core State [sic] Standards, is in order. If history is any guide (and what other guide do we have?), the latest top-down reform efforts will fail miserably, and for predictable reasons.
The theory behind the latest “reform” efforts comes to use from the business community. In 1992, Robert Kaplan and David Norton published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “The Balanced Scorecard—Measures That Drive Performance.” Kaplan and Norton picked up on and refined a business truism—that you get what you measure and reward—and gave it a new spin: You shouldn’t rely simply on financial measures, which are backward-looking, but, rather, should create key performance indicators (KPIs) in four areas—finance, customer satisfaction, processes, and knowledge, and follow those carefully. The article set off a revolution in American business. Suddenly, everyone was talking analytics and performance measures and employee evaluation based on those, and it was only a matter of time until business people and politicians, ever thick as mosquitoes over a swamp, got together to apply the same reasoning to education. The theory was simple: Create standards and hold people accountable for achieving them. Thus NCLB was born. The Common Core State [sic] Standards can be thought of as NCLB v2.
So, what could be wrong with holding people (teachers, administrators, students) accountable to standards? As is so often true, the devil is in the details. If you read closely the supporting documentation coming from the CCSSO, Achieve, and the two testing consortia, you will find that in English Language Arts, the intent of the new standards is to make texts, and responding to texts, primary. The whole point is to produce students who, upon graduation from high school, can read, understand, and respond to college-level materials. The standards themselves, however, are simply lists of skills and concepts to be mastered. Since teachers’ and administrators’ jobs will be on the line, they will be incentivized to do everything in their power to make sure that students are working down the lists, mastering standard RL.1.1, then standard RL1.2, and so on. However much the standards-touting organizations attempt to communicate that there is a difference between standards and curricula, the whole apparatus of assessment and data-crunching will focus on the standards themselves, in isolation. How are African-American female students doing on standard SL.3.2a, according to the tests? In other words, states and local districts will inevitably treat the standards as curricula. We are already seeing, across the nation, online curriculum development tools cropping up for use by districts in their curriculum planning, and these tools inevitably begin, at the top of the page, with the standard to be covered.
In the old days, a teacher of 11th-grade American literature would do a unit on the American transcendentalists, in which students would read the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson. Teachers and students would focus on the ideas and texts of the transcendentalists—self reliance, communion with nature, the Oversoul, etc., and in the course of reading, discussing, and writing about these authors and their stimulating ideas, students would learn some concepts and skills. That’s as it should be. People’s brains are networks, connection machines, and new learning occurs when that learning is attached to an existing semantic network. You take a class in oil painting at a local community center. In the course of a week, you learn what gesso, a filbert brush, stippling, and chiaroscuro are. And the new learning sticks with you because it is connected in an experiential network that is meaningful to you. If, on the other hand, you tried to memorize a telephone book, you would mostly likely fail because brains are not good mechanisms for learning facts, concepts, and skills in isolation.
Now, to their credit, the various standards-touting organizations are aware of this, and they have issued a number of documents, like the Publishers’ Criteria from the CCSSO, emphasizing that skills and concepts listed in the standards should not be taught in isolation, that students should deal with related texts, with texts in related knowledge domains, across a school year and across multiple years. However, the elephant in the room is the standards themselves, which are JUST lists of concepts and skills. In practice, the tendency will be to force teachers into scripted work in which they know that it is November 28th because they are “doing,” today, standard RI.5.7. Just today I received in the mail a catalog from a textbook publisher containing its new Common Core State Standards offerings—workbooks that “do” one standard at a time, in order, treating the standards themselves as a curriculum.
So, that’s the first problem. Standards are not a curriculum, but in practice, that’s how they will be treated.
The first reason why the new standards regimen is likely to fail has to do with how people learn: they learn in semantically connected contexts that they care about in which the content is primary.
The second reason why the new standards regimen is likely to fail has to do with how people work. Let’s go back to business management theory for a moment. There is a body of theory in management called Social-Technical Systems Theory, the basic premise of which ought to be obvious: almost everyone wants to do a good job, to be able to be proud of what he or she does, to have his or her work recognized, and in order for that to happen, people have to have autonomy. Theodore Roosevelt put it this way (and here I am paraphrasing): If you want to get something done, find someone who knows how to do it and get the hell out of that person’s way. In other words, good managers don’t micromanage. They specify goals, but they don’t specify how the work is to be done. Suppose that you hire someone to clean your house or apartment and then stand over that person and tell him or her how to pour the water and cleaning solution, how to move the mop, and so on. Chances are that however much you are paying for this work, that person will not return again, for you have violated a fundamental law of human nature: we all HATE to be micromanaged because we value our freedom and autonomy. The blueprint for the new ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) calls for 50 % of the evaluation of every teacher and administrator in a district receiving federal funds being based on improvement in test scores. So, inevitably, with their jobs on the line and fancy electronic data-collection systems in place, administrators will micromanage classrooms. Today is November 28th. You and your students need to be following this script so that the students can master standard W.3.2a for the test.
It’s not the INTENTION of the best of the standards makers to have teachers treat the standards as curricula or to have their work be micromanaged and scripted, but inevitably, that’s what will happen, and inevitably, a few years down the line, we shall see the new reform that throws out the old reform and starts all over again, promising another miracle cure for what ails the country’s education system. The best-laid plans of mice and men go often astray.
There’s one more problem that I would like to mention. The whole idea of a top-down, standardized education system is incompatible with fundamental principles of liberty and pluralism. There are no standardized teachers. There are no standardized students. And there shouldn’t be. No one’s five-year plan will work, and if it did, God help us. We wouldn’t end up with the diversity that we need. We need, very much, to get out of teachers’ way, to let them do what they, idiosyncratically, do. Let tens of thousands of flowers bloom. If you think back on the best teachers that you ever had, you will inevitably find that not one of them was following a script. Instead, their interests, and what you learned from them, were highly idiosyncratic. This person was PASSIONATE about Beowulf or analytic geometry, and you caught the windfall of that person’s passion. You got the bug. And that’s what we need in a pluralistic society, not robot students coming out of schools-as-factories, identically machined to have the same concept and skill sets, but, rather, the bustling, blooming variety of interests, inclinations, passions, and abilities that a complex contemporary society requires—some who are passionately interested in graphic design, some who are passionately interested in equity trading, some who are passionately interested in prenatal development, and so on. You can’t get rich diversity of skill sets from ANY list, however well vetted.