Educators in the United States are once again headed for a very big trap. We are being seduced by the idea that a common set of standards and assessments to match will deliver equitable outcomes from our schools. This is the siren call that draws us into endless top-down reforms that never work, but never stop promising that the next time, we will get it right, and ALL students will achieve at high levels. But this time, maybe we can learn from the last big national experiment along these lines, No Child Left Behind.
We are entering another round in the endless quest for equity. A whole new set of Common Core standards, with assessments and curriculum to match, will fix everything that was wrong with NCLB. We will get new tests that will be "smarter" than those dumb old bubble tests. They will be so "smart," we will have to take them on computers! And the computers are even smarter, and can grade them for us! So we can give the tests more often, and that will allow us to track student progress more accurately than ever. And we can pay teachers more for better results, which will reward the good teachers and weed out the bad ones. And everyone, from California to New York to Mississippi, will have the same standards, assessments and curriculum, so everyone will have the same opportunities, and we will at last reach that promised land of equity for all.
The fundamental premise driving all this is that our students in poverty suffer because of low standards that have been set for them. They suffer because the "bar" has been set too low, and if we can just manage to set one bar across the land, and all get on the same page, we will pull everyone up to the same level.
This is a faith-based system. I do not believe there is much evidence to support it. Here are some critical questions that we might ask to probe whether there is any reason to believe that new standards, tests and curriculum will take us to the promised land.
Many of our states are as large - or larger - than many nations of the world. Each state has a set of standards that all students are expected to meet, and that shape assessments and curriculum. If a common high bar will deliver equitable outcomes nationwide, why have we not seen equitable outcomes within states that have such systems?
Do our students in high poverty schools benefit when their curriculum is standardized? Do they learn better when they have readings drawn from a national list, and lessons from the nationally published curriculum guide? Or do they do better when teachers have the flexibility to tailor their instruction to the students' interests, and create projects centered on their local context? Is a national standardized curriculum going to help this? Or will it tend to narrow the curriculum?
Will a national system of curriculum and assessments tend to increase our reliance on test scores for high stakes decisions or relieve it? Will we continue to make teacher pay and evaluations dependent on test scores? Will assessments that have become nationally standardized now be used for even more purposes, such as the ranking of teacher preparation programs? If so, will this not increase pressure to teach to the test?
Will we be giving more standardized tests, or fewer? The introduction of a battery of tests in the fall to allow for the measurement of "growth" at the level of the individual teacher will effectively double the amount of testing. In addition, we have "formative" tests in the works, designed to be given at regular intervals through the year. And we see a tremendous expansion of computer-based assessments, often scored by computer as well. Will we have an educational process that is mediated at every step of the way by assessments and benchmarks, so that all our students are led through a carefully prescribed sequence of lessons, with benchmarked expectations frequently measured and reported upon?
Will professional development focus more on authentic collaboration driven by teachers engaging in active inquiry around questions arising from within their practice, informed by their attention to the nuances of student learning? Or will we see more attention paid to student data trends, and the implementation of packaged programs aligned with standards and benchmarks?
Will money flow towards the classroom, to support smaller class sizes and time for authentic teacher collaboration? Or will it flow towards more assessments, scripted curriculum, and pre-packaged professional development aligned with the standards?
Will continued pressure to raise test scores lead schools afflicted with poverty to impoverish their curriculum with narrow, test-driven instruction, continuing the practices we have seen under NCLB, thus harming the very students this drive is supposed to help?
Will we ever address the fundamental reasons we have inequities in educational outcomes, as Finland did, or will we continue to pretend that setting standards and punishing schools, students and teachers for failing to meet them will lead to anything but misery for all involved?