Common Core – It coulda been a contendah

Looking at what is happening with common core is yet another very discouraging instance of career bureaucrats taking what could have been a good thing, and undermining their own efforts by lacking the competence to roll out and manage a complex system.  This is no different than the results of “…a healthcare website” rolled out by bureaucrats who have never worked in IT, or “…a teacher evaluation system” implemented by bureaucrats who have no knowledge or experience in HR best practices, or any of the dozens of recent bureaucratic failures that have dominated the news.

Nine states have already rejected common core.  It is destined to fail, even the very good parts, because those who are responsible for its implementation are neither qualified nor experienced to handle a project anywhere close to this level of difficulty.  Sadly, the failure has very little to do, at all, with the actual content of common core!  Clearly there are valid discussions and differences of opinions about some of the content in common core.  But the point I am raising in this piece is that even if we somehow resolved every subjective common core question to everyone’s satisfaction, the rollout would still fail.  Common core is a huge project, easily comparable to the Obamacare rollout – and no matter what you think of the healthcare policy itself, love it or hate it, the technical rollout was another exercise in bureaucratic incompetence.  

Now, when it comes to common core, I will sound as though I am talking out of both sides of my mouth.  I strongly like the new math framework, even though I dread seeing it enter my high school classes.  For math, at least, it has the potential to be a truly exceptional upgrade to teaching – it goes back to the idea of having students understand math, rather than remember steps.  In truth, the most successful math teachers already use such an approach, despite all the system does to try to dumb down instruction so that “everybody passes.”

Yet many of our most successful teachers, even us curmudgeonly math types, are strongly against the new core for three reasons.  We are highly concerned that what could (and should!) have been a big step forward in math education has been so mishandled that it will be just another major failure of a poorly implemented bureaucratic mandate.   Nine states have already rejected common core, and there is significant growing controversy and opposition in many other school districts.

The main reasons for failure are not content – it’s lack of management and planning.

One reason is the typical ineptitude by the career bureaucrats in DoE cubicles that once again produced a poorly thought-out implementation and rollout of a new mandate.  This year, standardized math test for sophomores in high school will have a lot of content based upon the new approach to math – even though those students have just started to see the very different learning approach in their classes.  A sensible and professional implementation and rollout would have been phased over 3-4 years —  starting the content in elementary school, expand it in middle school, and be ready for high school testing when those students had experienced the needed lead-in to the new approach.  Many teachers and administrators fear a major drop off in standardized test scores this year (with the resulting deadly school sanctions and staff firings) because students will not be ready for the new style of questions after just a few months of working with them.  Personally, I expect a bloodbath in math scores, unless state DoEs do what Massachusetts has done in the past – hide the failures by quietly lowering the passing requirement for the year’s test when they don’t want parents and legislators to see that too many children are failing under their watch.

The second problem is both the major cost, and lack, of materials and textbooks.  Schools are being forced to purchase new books consistent with the new common core, yet many of the “new and improved” common core text books are little more than quick-and-dirty reworks of existing texts by publishers rushing to capitalize on new sales possibilities. Even a wannabe author like me knows that it takes time and a lot of effort to design a new textbook based upon a significant change in approach – plus all the related lessons, homework, projects, etc.  Many of these new books are so weak that they will have to be scrapped and replaced (at even more cost) down the line.  Meanwhile, school budgets have to prepare for the significant indirect expense for the rollout of a new common core – new testing materials, preparation of curricula, and replacement text books all place a very large financial burden on high schools.

Third, as usual, the bureaucratic approach to rolling out a new program the scope of common core relied on classroom teachers to pick up the pieces and make it work.  I spent many days, pulled from my classroom, as my math department struggled to prepare for common core.  Every school has had to divert weeks of teacher time to try to create new curricula for all the courses – because the career bureaucrats in state and federal DoEs did not bother to include such materials in their rollout plans.

A laundry list of core standards, no matter how good, is not a curriculum.

Finally, I recognize that there are very controversial content issues in some subjects (History, English and Biology seem to be the most visible) where there are deep, genuine concerns by many parents and teachers about some topics and how they are covered.  While I might have a personal opinion on a few of those issues, luckily none of them impact math – both right and left wing voices seem to still agree that 2 + 2 = 4.   Those content issues are for a different discussion.

And none of the subjective issues impacts the REAL reason why common core “…coulda been a contendah,” but never had the chance.  Even a “perfect” common core needs professional management planning and to succeed.



This entry was posted in Common core, Education, High schools, Public Education, Teachers, Urban High Schools and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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