GRAVES: Directives to teachers not so easy to implementThe Common Core standards are, you may remember, a set of content standards for English/language and Mathematics that have been adopted now by 46 of the 50 states. This is a major shift in educational policy.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
Frankly, I’m not so sure about writing this particular column for the newspaper. The subject is definitely important enough, in my opinion. It’s just that I’ve already written past columns on this topic, the national Common Core standards, and there is only so much the market or the reader will bear.
The Common Core standards are, you may remember, a set of content standards for English/language and Mathematics that have been adopted now by 46 of the 50 states. This is a major shift in educational policy for the United States which has always held to a federal model in which certain functions belong to the federal government (printing money, national defense, etc.) while others were reserved to the states, including education. The proponents of this change have threaded the federal needle by crafting a set of national standards and then permitting states to adopt them along with a promise to use a national test to measure student performance, saving each state significant expense in test development. What seems clear, however, is that what is now permissible with carrots will soon be mandatory with sticks. It is for this reason, among others, that I continue to object to the adoption of the Common Core even while I plan for their implementation in my district.
Interestingly, though, a new concern is just dawning on the proponents of the Common Core and it was stated very recently in Education Week by writer Stephen Sawchuk. He refers to it as a “sub rosa fear,” a realization, one they can barely whisper even to themselves, that perhaps the panacea they’ve been touting won’t quite do what they promised it would. It won’t, they worry, because setting standards is one thing, enforcing them quite another.
Apparently, the Common Core proponents are only now learning what school administrators learn their second day on the job: schools are “loosely coupled.” Before you jump to conclusions about the potentially bawdy nature of that phrase, loosely coupled in both organizational theory and school administration research refers to the fact that, unlike the situation which exists in, for example, an old-style manufacturing plant, a boss’ directive does not translate completely or quickly into employee compliance or outcome. There is an old saying that an elementary teacher is queen of her classroom (a saying initially developed when all elementary school teachers were women but easily updated with “an elementary teacher is the monarch of his or her classroom”) and no one else is going to have much say about what, when, why or how something is taught, regardless of memos, directives, policies, standards, nagging, or begging to the contrary. The nexus between the directives of the school and the delivery by the teacher is necessarily less than fully in synch.
This is true for a number of reasons — imperfect communications, human nature, etc. — but the most basic one is that teachers are professionals and inherent in that term is the ability to make important decisions about how to practice one’s craft. When you have a great teacher, this is actually better than a tightly coupled system because of the variability of any given classroom. When you don’t, it is worse.
But what happens when you attempt to set standards for the nation and you have a large and highly variable group of millions of teachers spread across a large country? Initially, the proponents of the Common Core didn’t say much about this because part of their argument to set national standards was that doing so wouldn’t interfere in state or local decision-making. This was nonsense from the beginning since it implied that the national standards would be meaningless. What they were hanging their hat on was the national test, a student assessment so tightly coupled with the standards that only states, schools and students who complied with the content standards could hope to do well on the test. But that was always a questionable self-assurance as test-standards connections are always less than fully joined. More concerning to the advocates, however, has been the recent move by the federal Department of Education to offer waivers to states from the requirements of NCLB, allowing them to create their own accountability models. As those models include criteria other than student scores on a national test, the weight of the Common Core standards begins to wane and the attention educators across the nation will give to them wanes also.
South Dakota, having adopted the Common Core, has set its own course for ensuring that the standards make their way into classrooms. It involves providing at least nine days of professional development for all K-12 instructors of math and English over the next 4-12 months. It is a rational model, providing both information on just what the standards are and how they differ from those under which we currently teach as well as enlightened argument for why this new is truly improved. This demonstrates a genuine understanding of the loosely coupled nature of schools. If teachers are not both trained in and convinced of the utility of the new standards, their impact will be akin to expectorating into the Pacific or issuing a stern memo from the office of the superintendent. Sure, it might feel good when you do it, but anyone who thinks they’ve thereby accomplished something is fooling exactly one person.