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The Hollow Center of Common Core

The latest US educational standards were developed largely by the Gates Foundation. (Photograph: Juice Images/Alamy)

The hullabaloo over the Common Core State Standards might lead you to think that poor standards have been the central problem in education. Consider the possibility that those peddling that idea don’t have a clue.  And consider the possibility that, sadly, many educators have bought what the peddlers are selling.

I say such is the case.  In education, the single most important issue has long been and remains unaddressed: The lack of an agreed-upon overarching aim. If the institution doesn’t know where it’s going or what it’s trying to do, whatever standards are adopted will be indefensible and largely inconsequential. Putting in place a clear aim is the education establishment’s first order of business.

This we know: All young children enjoy learning. As my grandchildren and their friends constantly demonstrate, the young can’t help themselves. It’s their nature to be learners. That being the case, what is it we’re doing that gradually destroys this natural enthusiasm for learning?  What is it that causes fewer and fewer students to enjoy school as they move up from grade to grade?

I believe the answer to those questions lies in misplaced standards, standards attached to school subjects instead of the personal qualities we hope the study of those subjects will develop. Of those qualities, the one that any adopted standards should surely preserve and expand is joy in learning.

It’s ironic that Bill Gates, today’s most influential advocate of standards, dropped out of formal schooling to pursue what he found joy in doing. Shouldn’t we see his actions rather than his words as a better guide to policy?  Shouldn’t we expose the young to as many different experiences and avenues for learning as we can, and give them options?  Shouldn’t we be finding out what their curiosities and current needs are, and wrapping their learning experience around what we discover about each child?

And in even further irony, Gates' own company, Microsoft, has just dropped its “stack ranking” employee evaluation and compensation system—the type of system he’s been pushing for teachers—because of its total ineffectiveness.  So much for Gates and his private sector “business model.”

I’m not saying that it’s not important for students to develop basic communication and other skills. But how do we keep their attention as they do so?  Is it through ever-tougher standards for school subjects, or is it through standards that say what kind of people we want students to become? I believe it’s the latter.

Using state standards as the basis for mass testing is a huge drawback.  As education guru Diane Ravitch said in a recent online post, The more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer.”

A friend of mine suggests we should start by doing such simple things as asking students, “If you’re wearing socks, where did they come from?  How were they made?  Who made them? Why?”  He argues that tying learning to that which is immediate and real captures students’ natural curiosities.


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Similarly, we could say, “Here you are in a school. Why is it here instead of someplace else?  Who built it? What were their reasons?  What other questions can you think to ask about schools, and how can you find the answers?” And so on.

There are endless possibilities. Getting “real” requires sensitivity and tact, but if it’s on a child’s mind that he or she doesn’t have socks, or that what matters most is getting to school safely, or having enough to eat, or being able to hear the teacher or see the chalkboard, then standards that fail to speak to such matters are likely to be meaningless.

Those who think that inching subject-matter standards ever higher is the key to a quality education simply don’t get it.  They’re concentrating on the wrong issues and the wrong processes.  Until we get our priorities in order, higher standards will be nothing more than a distraction. Add in the emphasis on mass testing and the situation gets even worse. Everything of importance that can be learned from current testing regimens could be learned at far less expense and loss of instructional time by occasional random sampling.

Maybe H.L. Mencken said it best way back in 1924, when he satirized American education this way: "[The aim of public education is not] to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim . . . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States. . . . "

I don't deny that the Common Core, if used properly, could do some good.  But that’s IF it serves to cause greater faculty-wide collaboration (along with the time necessary for such collective sharing and planning), IF the imposed mass testing is greatly reduced and made more professionally appropriate, IF there is adequate investment in professional and organizational development, IF we recognize that focusing so much on math and reading doesn't mean other subjects can be ignored or eliminated, and IF appropriate attention is paid to the more basic causes of student underachievement, such as poverty and all that it leads to. 

And therein lies the rub.  Those pushing the Common Core do not demonstrate the necessary awareness of these other more basic needs.  Until that changes, we can expect little benefit from the standards themselves – no matter how academically lofty or appropriate they may be.

I sent an early draft of this piece to a newspaper columnist, who replied that while she wished what I wrote were true, she found it idealistic and a bit naive.  Years ago I probably would have agreed with her.  But after being deeply immersed in the education reform movement for  the 30 years since A Nation At Risk, I now believe that a devotion to higher standards as the education cure-all is about as naive and unrealistic as anything could be.

In the end, the current standards push, neglecting the basic “IF’s” I outlined previously, servesonly to keep the adults busy while the children suffer.  Want real education reform?  Imagine the consequences of adopting a single standard: Send the young on their way in love with learning.

Robert Barkley

Robert Barkley, Jr., retired Executive Director, Ohio Education Association, thirty-five year veteran of National Education Association and NEA affiliate staff work, author of many publications on education reform and labor/management. Email: rbarkle [at]

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