Todd Wedel, Academic Dean

Todd Wedel, Academic Dean

As we move from the metaphors (industry vs. organic) and messages (students as consumers and economic units vs. virtuous, wise humans) to how these form practical responses, I’d like to address a possible objection to my previous posts. In each, I highlight the differences in vision and philosophy; yet in the second, I did much to decry comparison and competition. So, someone might say, is it not ironic that you express your abhorrence of comparison by drawing a comparison?

Comparison is inevitable, not because of the fatalistic reason of living in a world of measures and metrics, but because we are creatures who know by analogy. We learn and grow and know and love by seeing the similarities and dissimilarities between and among what we encounter; our minds can only make distinctions when there are things to distinguish; our affections can only be trained when there are differing objects upon which to place our affection.

Comparison is death if it is for competition and to outdo the other, but competition may be life if it is to come to a better knowledge of reality, self, and God. I hope this examination of the Common Core and Expectations video has been and will be the latter. Thus, our first practical response to Common Core is to foster a right and true comparison.

As we see Common Core implemented, comparison will be inevitable. The danger here of deathly comparison is twofold; we must be cautious of comparison with both the failure and success of Common Core.

First, we must be cautious if we see Common Core failing in measuring up to its own measures. This comparison may be dangerous for a host of reasons, most obviously, in exulting over the downfall of another system, school, etc., we may tempt ourselves with pride, as though our own success, our own measures, belong to us. We must have the same humility as is commended to the Israelites, not to think that we go out into the world because of our righteousness, nor to think that whatever success we find is of us; we go out in the name and mission of our God, and it is He who leads us in triumphal procession by means of making us living sacrifices.

More insidiously, if we exult, we exult over the downfall not of a faceless institution or standards, but of the education of children, precious in the sight of their parents, their teachers, and ultimately, of our Lord. We would exult, ignoring the groans of teachers burdened and weighted, confused and mourning, ignoring the justified though often misplaced anger and pain of the students.

Subtly, we would be looking to exactly the same measures as Common Core holds as the standard of educational success, with our evaluation of Common Core ourselves by the Common Core testing standards on the surface merely confirming the failure. More insidiously, though, by adopting the Common Core assessments of itself as the absolute, we would be dangerously close to adopting the assessment of ourselves, and thus adopt the anthropology. We would laud our success not in cultivating students of wisdom and virtue in love, but in those who can perform according to standardized measures of a factory system. If we are not aware, cautious, and repentant, we will shift our pedagogy to align with our anthropology and become that which we decry.

We must be equally cautious, though, in the success of Common Core. First, not all Common Core standards are invalid or innately flawed; as I’ve emphasized elsewhere, many gifted and intelligent people put hours and effort into developing the standards. There will be areas where the standards are improvements on what has been offered in public schools in many locales. The temptation here is to decry everything as evil, or, when we do see valid and true measures and methods, to grow fearful of our own and whether we have “missed” out.

Second, most Common Core standards are based on some originally well-thought and well-developed educational framework. As an example (and as I had a parent recently do), many of the math standards look remarkably similar to those we’ve adopted and adapted in our transition to Singapore Math. The fear here is that we’ve become unknowing participants in the Common Core agenda; the reality, however, is more nuanced. The reason that the Common Core math standards resemble Singapore Math is that they are, in the broad and some of the specific measures, modeled on Singapore Math standards and progressions of concepts. So, in this, Common Core models on exemplary work.

The failure in the Common Core standards is in the why and how they were adopted. Common Core, as we’ve seen, is all about comparison and competition. Since students in Singapore consistently outperform students in the US in math, the solution must be to adopt their standards. However, this confuses the means with the ends. The reason the Singapore method and standards were developed, implemented, and framed as they are is not primarily for competition, but for competency. The competitive success is the byproduct, not the end value. In adopting the Singapore standards for the end of competition, the US will both fail to see why they were successful and fail to properly implement them. The how will be flawed.

Third (and most dangerously), because Common Core sets not only the metrics (routine intensive testing) but also the means, including both materials and methods (pedagogy), it is a closed system. If students are taught in one framework and evaluated in exactly the same framework, we should not be shocked to find that they will score well and highly. Their evaluation will bear out exactly what it has been designed to: whether they, factory producers, can repeat knowledge in a framework given and repeated. There will be the appearance of mastery without any necessity (and any way to measure) actual attainment.

As an example, I heard of a first grade teacher excited about some of the new standards. Her first grade class would be expected to recognize and discriminate given passages among the four major types of discourse: expository, narrative, descriptive, and persuasive. As a composition and language teaching, this is folly; what is being asked is a basic form of rhetorical analysis. However, I will not find it surprising at all if first graders score quite highly on their ability to perform this task. Imagine if I present students with specific, selected passages with some obvious cues to what each type is (a formula), then present them with selected passages with the same obvious cues and ask them to discriminate. I will not be at all surprised if they will get many of the answers correct.

The issue here is a difference between recall/recognition and understanding. What Common Core appears to be measuring is understanding, a highly developed cognitive skill (rhetorical analysis). What it is, in truth, measuring is the ability to recall a list of facts (an appropriately grammar-level activity) and recognize examples that contain those facts (an appropriately grammar-level activity). This singular (though there are a host of others) example illustrates the challenge facing us.

In a final post, I’ll address how knowing the dangers of faulty comparison leads us to accurate assessment and relation to Common Core.