Journey to the center of the Core

I took my lunch hour the other day to listen in live on the Cato institute debate on common core (replay, downloadable video and podcast / audio only download available here).  There seems to be plenty of soundbites about Common Core, both pro and con, but little information.  Some things I hear sound reasonable, and others terrify me.  Common core is still very much in the “need to know more to make up my mind” category, and I was hoping that this debate would give me meat on common core – it did not disappoint!

Why the interest in common core?  Because of all the things I spend my time pondering, one of the big ones is the natural tendency for humans to be lazy.  I recently reread my Thoreau and have been trying to get at the root of some of the problems we seem to be facing.  To me, it seems, the root of a lot of what I see as those problems is the general human tendency towards laziness.  The problems of collectivizing nearly everything (which both “sides” are equally guilty of…all those evil rich people…all those damned immigrants…) is rooted in laziness: we don’t want to take the time to actually differentiate amongst groups that others will so easily create and label for us.  The problems in the finances of the country (where both “sides” share equal blame) are rooted in laziness: it’s easier to kick the can down the road and let the next set of elected representatives or even the next generation deal with the issue.  Even the problems of loosing our personal freedoms and liberties are rooted in laziness: it’s just easier to let someone else make all the hard decisions.

In my reading and thinking about this laziness tendency, which is admittedly just beginning, I have discovered two things:  first, it is in fact an evolved response to be lazy (conservation of limited resources and all) and second, the only antidotes to innate human laziness are having hope and education.  The former is going to be left for another post (or series of them), but the latter is why I am interested in common core – it’s at the center of how America’s children will get their education over the coming decades.

So on to the debate.  I learned a lot about the pro and con side of common core from last Thursday’s webcast.  To be honest I don’t agree 100% with either of them…and that makes me think I might be on to something ;-).  Although there were 2 folks on the pro side and 2 on the con side, really most of the debate was between one of the gentlemen that was for common Core, Chester Finn and one who was against, Neal McClusky.

One of the first discussions was on the topic of  standards.  Mr. Finn made the point that standards are necessary even in a voucher system, where parents choose where to send their child to school.  Without standards, how would a parent know which school had the qualities they were looking for?  I think he makes a fair point here – standard ways of evaluating school performance are in general a good thing.  Just as with any other purchase decision the more you know, the better decision you can make.  But what is the role of standards in the current system where your public school is assigned to you based on where you live?  From what I can gather it seems to be all about holding the schools accountable.  If they don’t meet certain performance standards then action can be taken – remedial or more drastic.  That too, in principle, sounds good to me – holding people accountable to a consistent set of standards is a good thing.  But in both of these applications of standards, what the standards actually measure is of paramount importance.

When we use standards we are trying to have some repeatable way to measure the performance or capability of something.  The key capability we are trying to measure with school standards is their ability to educate students.  Seems straightforward right?  Not so fast – there are at least three issues I can see with trying to measure how well a school educates its students.

The first issue is that we don’t even agree on what the outcome of a successful education should be. Some argue that education is all about producing productive, responsible members of society.  Others say the focus of education should be the making sure all students understand the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic.  And others claim that an education is at best merely facilitated by a school, but is something that each student does on their own.  I think the debate around common core would become much more meaningful if we focused some of the time on discussing what we want our education system to actually do for us – as well was what we want it to stay out of.  And not to be lazy and fall into a collectivist trap, I think each parent of a child needs to answer that for themselves, regardless of what a “national” debate might decide.  Is it supposed to teach our children what to think…or how?

Compounding the issue of not being sure what objective we are really aiming for, is the fact that students won’t actually reach the end state where we can measure it for a long time after they begin the educational process.  A child is in school for at least 13 years, K-12, before they have a real chance to show what they can do outside of a classroom.  That’s a long time to wait to see if your educational system is working – and of course the impact of a negative result is monumental for those in the peer group that are measured to produce it.  So of course we develop interim measurements – things that are supposed to tell us if our students are on the right path.  If little Johnny can read 3 syllable words by 2nd grade and little Suzy can do 3 digit addition by 3rd grade then they are on the right path – they are being educated.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with these sorts of measurements, but if we don’t agree on the end result, there is even more disagreement on what the right interim measures are.  The other big problem with these interim measures is target lock, or perhaps forest vs. trees: the teachers and administrators seem to forget that they are measuring progress towards an end goal  - they aren’t the goal in and of themselves.  This seems to be an area that common core has done a lot of work in, so I will be digging deeper to see if I can find the connection between interim, grade level, measures and the end result that I am looking for from the education system (see the first issue above).

Making the problem of an unclear goal that takes a long time to reach even more difficult is the fact that the inputs to the process (i.e. the students) are all very different.  They have different interests, capabilities, home lives, experiences, etc.  Trying to come up with a measure for an outcome that allows for that much variability in input is difficult to say the least.  It would be very easy to make the standard so high that some would never reach it – or so low that it doesn’t signify any reach achievement at all.

Beyond the definition and basic utility of the common core standards, there also seems to be some issue taken with how the standards were rolled out and how they are enforced.  Mr. Finn claims that common core is all voluntary and there really is no enforcement.  Mr. McClusky countered with the fact that we took a problem that was at least partially caused by bureaucracies at the state level and tried to solve it by creating an even larger bureaucracy at the federal level.  In my experience trying to increase accountability by increasing bureaucracy is like trying to stay dry by jumping in the ocean.

If common core is voluntary, with no penalties for not adopting it , and if there were other competing standards that schools could choose to measure themselves against, then I think this issue would take care of itself.  Even if we don’t have a market for schools today, I don’t see why we couldn’t have a free market for school standards….except that laziness creeps back in.  It would mean more work for school administrators and teachers to actually parse through multiple standards and determine which one (or two) was the best measurement of their performance.  And it would take more work for parents to understand multiple standards to decide if their school met their child’s needs.  But think about how competition amongst the standards would drive them to be better, more accurate measurements of actual student achievement.

In fact, multiple, competing standards might solve the first issue in coming up with a standard in the first place (differing views on what the outcome of an education should be) because you could have one standard lined up with each viewpoint.  One standard that measures performance on the basics.  Another standard that measures how productive a student will be when they graduate.  A third standard that measures how well each student is progressing on their own educational journey.  You could even have multiple competing standards that measure the same thing!  The issue with common core seems to be its monopoly status which is at least partially granted by the actions of the federal government (both current and prior administrations lest someone think I am bashing a particular party and not the whole federal system in general ;-).  If it truly is what it proponents claim then let it compete on the open market against other measures of school performance and let a million small decisions determine the winner, rather than one big one.

There was only one point that either of the presenters got me a little agitated.  Mr. McCluskey had just finished giving an example of using car magazines to do research to figure out what car to buy as an example of how free choice supported by information works today, and therefore could work for school choice (a point that Mr. Finn was making earlier in the debate).   Mr. Finn came back with something along the lines of that would work if 55 Million Parents cared as much to do the discernment and make an educated choice.  Mr. Finn lost a lot of credibility with me just in that one statement – any bureaucrats that would presume to know more about what a child needs or to love a child more than that child’s parent in out of touch with reality.  Are there bad parents?  Sure…but in no higher proportion than there are bad bureaucrats. And at least the bad parent has the live with the consequences of being a bad parent.

So where to from here?  Well I think I’m actually going to read the standards.  The Cato debate was helpful in getting me beyond the sound bites, but I think that I actually need to see what they say without any analysis id I am going to decide whether they are a net positive or a net negative.  So, downloaded and added to my iPad reading list.  I’m also going to look at alternatives to common core, and outcome based education in general. One approach the seems to be diametrically opposite to outcome based methods are methods based on the Trivium, teaching the basics of grammar, logic and rhetoric that has its roots in medieval times – everything old is new again?  Another alternative to the common core approach is based on apprenticeship.  This is also a time proven approach and has interesting implications for the future when trades may be in short supply.  

I’m also going to look into one of the core concepts of common core: outcome based education.  The name sounds good enough, but in my initial readings it seems to emphasize only the outcome and neglects the foundation necessary for a student to reach similar outcomes on their own.  It seems a bit like teaching someone how to feed themselves by showing them how to microwave a Stouffer’s vs. teaching them how to cook.  You end up feed, but the food quality is probably lower and you can only eat as long as there are frozen dinners – you might starve with a refrigerator full of raw ingredients.

After all this I do feel  a few steps closer to an opinion on common core.  But there are a few more steps ahead before I am all the way there.  What I suspect is that there is good and bad and it will take some discernment – and attacking the root – to separate one from the other.  And then it will be up to my hope and education to counteract my tendency to be lazy to do something with what I have learned.

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