The Common Core and the Unknown Knowns

Akin to Obamacare, the Common Core has a rollout problem. This one is not technological. Instead it reflects an implementation planning gap.
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Embraced today by 44 states and the District of Columbia, the Common Core State Standards are now facing a spasm of pushback. Factions in several states are using familiar polarizing rhetoric to frame the Common Core as a federal intrusion on states' rights. But more worrisome to Common Core supporters has been the uproar in New York, a pro-Common Core state fully expected to be an implementation leader. Discontent among front-line New York educators has elbowed its way into the headlines, rattling the long-solid backing of the big unions and upending the policy conversation in Albany and other state capitols.

What's the issue? Akin to Obamacare, the Common Core has a rollout problem. This one is not technological. Instead it reflects an implementation planning gap. Intense attention has been focused on the policy end of the Common Core--on getting the standards developed and convincing states to sign on. State policies included timelines for using new tests aligned to the new standards, and in New York, for evaluating teachers partly on the results of that testing.

But mammoth issues related to teacher training and curriculum and materials development--the elements that will make or break the success of the standards--got short shrift, following almost like a rushed afterthought. In New York, when the tests were administered and students' scores plunged, it all hit the fan.

What's puzzling is that anyone would be surprised by the backlash. We all know that a sea change in instruction can't possibly happen quickly. We know that major change involves confusion and fear. It's not news that practitioners about to be held accountable in the absence--or perceived absence--of being included in the planning or given adequate support will likely resist jumping on board.

Yet it's as if we didn't know. As if the Common Core is such a good thing, such an obviously needed thing, that we can leapfrog past the time consuming steps required to effect a new mindset and way of working among millions of teachers. As if the bipartisan embrace by Barack Obama, Jeb Bush, the Chamber of Commerce, and nearly all the states meant that the job was done. Implementation would take care of itself.

It's a textbook example of what Irish commentator Fintan O'Toole calls "unknown knowns," things generally understood to be the case, but whose reality we prefer to ignore, or to "unknow." O'Toole observes that prior to Ireland's spectacular economic crash, in the midst of easy credit, house price explosion, massive tax breaks and poor financial regulation, people "unknew" that boom always ends in bust. Education policy slides into this zone with some frequency. For years we unknew that all children would not test proficient by 2014 and that a policy premised on that goal would mean that all schools would end up labeled failures.

And now the Common Core standards. A sleepy issue just a few months ago, it's suddenly center stage in a national conversation largely untethered to facts. In the wake of the botched rollout, the standards have been politically co-opted (Obamacore!). They're under a cloud, and good information is playing catch-up with the bad. To paraphrase Mark Twain, distortions have traveled to every hamlet while the straight scoop is still putting on its shoes. In the confusion, any inane homework assignment can be flagged by naysayers as evidence that the Common Core is a travesty.

Can the Common Core survive this? It can and likely will. The noise can't obscure the basic sanity of having a national statement of what we want students to know and be able to do in math and language arts when they graduate from high school and grade-by-grade along the way. It can't squelch the heft of big players who see the nation's economic interests at stake.

But most important, the noise won't blunt teacher support for the Common Core. Only continued missteps with implementation will do that. Without doubt, teachers are key. If we lose teachers, we lose parents, and it's over. For now teachers do support the Common Core. But their reservations have grown, and that's a neon warning sign.

How to shore up teacher trust and support? Stop unknowing what we know. First, that means we listen. Polls repeatedly show that teachers applaud the shift from preparing kids for multiple choice tests to instead teaching problem solving and critical thinking; to integrating subjects and incorporating real world projects. What they rightly resent is having little or no voice in an implementation process that overhauls expectations for daily classroom practice. What they rightly fear is being held accountable in the absence of sufficient training, support, tools, and time.

Sound familiar? Can we admit that we already know that these are the repeated concerns of front-line educators? Teachers are not making new or undue demands. To keep this reform on track, they simply ask that we apply common sense to the Common Core, through actions we all know will matter.

A key is making sure teachers shape implementation design. School district planning teams need teachers and principals front and center. These on-the-ground educators understand that the Common Core standards provide goal posts but not game plans. They know that as we emerge from an era of fill-in-the-bubble tests and scripted lessons, curricular and instructional freedom are overdue--and also can be intimidating.

We're talking about classroom practices that are 180 degrees different from "drill and kill," instead prompting kids to think hard and figure things out. Teaching this way is an art. As such, it requires learning from the masters. Great teachers have long orchestrated projects, big and small, that intrigue students with dilemmas they can relate to and try to resolve. In the process, students discover why certain tools--text comprehension or chart making; geometry or persuasive communication--really matter.

To help all teachers become adept at such strategies, school districts need to provide models, ideas, units, and sample lessons. They need to ensure that what's taught in first grade syncs with that of second, and so forth up the grades. Teachers need time to practice, get feedback from master teachers, and team with colleagues to create and orchestrate lessons.

Just as urgently, school districts need to ensure that accountability is fair and implementation timelines realistic. If Common Core tests, still being fine-tuned, are used prematurely or exclusively to evaluate teachers, all bets are off.

Belatedly awakened to these needs, New York has taken a major step by adjusting its implementation timeline. Other states will likely follow suit and re-think time and resource allocations to support teachers. Doing so will not guarantee that the Common Core will overcome its stumbles. But no one can still pretend that adopting the standards means the heavy lifting is done for transforming America's classrooms. We know better.

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