'Repeal and Replace' Common Core

The American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess writes that Common Core critics have raised valid concerns but they've failed to put forward a "notion" of what happens next. I agree that this is a problem. But, the conservative school reformer is on shaky ground when claiming that repeal in Indiana could produce "a train wreck for students and educators" in that state.

I agree with Hess that the abrupt shift in the middle of the process of setting college readiness standards could produce some confusion. But, the predictable and huge Common Core train wreck is due to the stakes attached to Common Core testing, not changing the standards.

The insurmountable problem faced by Common Core is due to its advocates' unforced errors. They forgot that pre-k to 12th grade public schools are public schools. College readiness is crucial, but it only one of the tasks assigned to schools that serve everyone. It was fundamentally wrong to assess punitive stakes for individual students and teachers based on college readiness assessments.

Job #1 must be stopping the Common Core testing train. Then, we should heed Hess's wisdom that "policy debates are won by proposing better solutions."

I love the way Hess articulated the task, "Common Core critics in each state need to devise their own version of 'repeal and replace.'" (emphasis mine) He implicitly addresses another flaw with Common Core. Top down reformers, as usual, cared more about creating standardized metrics for holding underlings accountable than addressing the realities in our diverse schools. That is one rationale for national testing consortiums and dictating that schools must accept the entire package of assessments and stakes, as well as standards.

Common Core true believers shunned the common sense idea that states, systems, schools, and teachers should all be encouraged to pick and choose the instructional components that are appropriate in their circumstances. Reformers once again choose mandates, not persuasion.

The fundamental flaw of Common Core is that it sought a test worth teaching to. The goal of the new assessments for college readiness standards that replace Common Core should be tests worth teaching with.

The replacement assessments should borrow from Advanced Placement testing. A.P. is designed as a college-level course, but its developers can't prohibit its use as a college readiness resource. A.P. developers might or might not have wanted every class to teach to their tests according to a similar time table and with the same focus on passing the test. But, they have no power to enforce their desires. A.P.'s developers have to persuade educators to use their product the way it was designed. The usual reward for students passing a test with a "3" or above is college credit, but the program does not have the authority to punish students who do not pass its tests.

The test makers may or may not have liked the way I used A.P. in my regular classes. Students yearn for respect, and teaching inner city teens for mastery with challenging materials is a great way to bestow that respect. I would search the A.P. teachers' storerooms for engaging materials to incorporate into my lessons.

My inner city students especially loved the A.P. test materials on the Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois traditions of American history. Those assessments included outstanding graphs, photos, and reading passages designed to promote critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis. They were the single best tool I found for teaching that college preparatory unit. With some assessments, however, I had to do some editing of passages so that high school students with 5th grade reading skills weren't overwhelmed.

I would have loved to be able to use my professional judgment regarding Common Core standards, its suggested lessons, and assessments, just as I built on my students' personal experiences, in order to teach challenging standards. Common Core's architect, David Coleman, might scorn my approach. Without high-stakes testing, however, that opinionated non-educator would have had no authority over teachers seeking to do what is best for our own students.

Ironically, market-driven reformers who proclaim the value of school "choice" have largely supported Coleman's social engineering, at least when applied to traditional public schools. They want choice for charters, but they deny educators, parents, and students the opportunity to choose high-stakes Common Core testing or not.

Similarly, reformers worship data. Data from standardized and national Common Core tests would had been beneficial (and more reliable) if they were diagnostic and not used to retain students or fire teachers. But, the accountability hawks don't trust educators enough to allow them to practice data-informed instruction. Education must be data-driven and there must be consequences from deviating from top down educational micromanaging.

I would repeal stakes attached for individuals being tested on college readiness standards. I would replace Common Core with a collaborative effort driven by incentives and encouragement. After all, supporters of engaging and challenging instruction should advocate for their beliefs with colleagues and students. Even now, after Common Core's incredibly awful rollout, many teachers are still committed to its standards and lessons. The case for implementing Common Core instruction could have been made much more effectively if its best salespersons were teachers sharing their positive experiences with each other and the community, and not having to take a stand one way or another on Common Core testing.

This may annoy some of my allies, but I've long believed that A.P. created an opportunity to offer monetary incentives to students, and the next Common Core-type effort could also do so. It always drove me crazy that my students worked thirty hours a week or more for minimum wage, coming to class sleep-deprived. I would not pay students for their "outputs," for their test scores, but I would support payment for their inputs. Think of the benefits to society if we paid poor kids $15 to $20 an hour so they could cut back their toil at McDonalds, and work hard and work smart in tutoring sessions.

Common Core's replacement could do the same thing. It could pay students for putting in the extra time and struggle needed to transition from the primitive bubble-in test prep instruction encouraged by NCLB-type testing. After all, standards and tests don't teach themselves. Whether reformers like it or not, it will be students, teachers, and parents who determine whether the curriculum is mastered.

Common Core opponents should ask what could have been accomplished if the billions of dollars invested in computer systems for keeping score had been invested directly in improving the learning of students. If all of the money, talent, and energy that has been devoted to corporate-style rewards and punishment had been invested in teaching and learning, would our schools have just flushed it down their toilets? Or, if students and educators had been treated with respect, been invited to be collaborative partners, and invited to join a great adventure in improving instruction, would we have risen to the occasion?

Yes, we must start the discussion of what will replace Common Core after its inevitable crash. But, first, we must drive a stake through the heart of the test and punish vampire. Once we kill Common Core testing and stop this coercive version of Common Core, the next generation of college readiness standards can be developed in a real bottom-up effort to raise and implement learning standards.