Do Common Core Advocates Lack Historical Context?

“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Winston Churchill

How can the creators and advocates of the Common Core rationalize locking the profession into years more of high stakes testing, complete with the attendant bullet list of shame we now live with? Are they worried about losing federal dollars? Maybe they rationalize that some discomfort in the early years is an acceptable price to pay for a new paradigm of education – you know, breaking a few eggs to make an omelet and all that.

But from the start the founders of the Common Core and their evangelists have been enthralled with the TEST. The test is simply what they are about. If you doubt that, remind yourself what the A in PARCC stands for. Then take a few seconds and look at PARCC’s homepage. Check out the banner quote: “The Next Generation…Of Assessment.” The ellipsis is in the original, as if saying, “Wait for it … Wait for it…” By all means, check out all the smiling students and teachers so happy with their new test.

What they don’t want you to check out is what I see first hand: Families of crying children, with upset stomachs or insomnia, who longer want to go to school because of the test.

I can hear Core partisans saying, “Nooooo, we were never about the test. We’re about deep and consistent standards for everyone, so that a Fighting Colt from Silver City, New Mexico is as prepared for college and career as a Mighty Mule from Muleshoe, Texas!” (More on that below.) But their actions betray that possible rebuttal. When Arizona released a request for proposals (RFP) many Common Core advocates didn’t understand and expressed disbelief we were dropping PARCC and the Common Core. They were only appeased when they learned that the RFP just meant we were taking competitive bids to see which company Arizona would buy its test from. (We settled on the American Institutes for Research over PARCC. At least the kids on their assessment page aren’t smiling.)

And by the way, if they’re not all about the TEST, why do so many Common Core advocates disparage families who want to opt out?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and a possible explanation has occurred to me. Maybe the Core’s creators and its advocates have little, if any, professional memory of teaching before NCLB and thus lack historical perspective. After all, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, and passing Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test became a high school graduation requirement in 2006. That means any teacher with fewer than fifteen years’ experience has taught their entire career with test results hanging over their heads like a guillotine; the consequence of which may be that they can not conceive of education without high stakes testing.

So when looking for a solution to the the mind-numbing teaching and learning that NCLB’s simplistic A, B, C, D standardized tests produced, the only alternative reformers could conceive of was a ridiculously hard open-response standardized test.

In contrast to all that, teachers with a longer professional memory can imagine other possibilities because we’ve lived them. For example, I had been teaching fourteen years when NCLB passed. In those years we would take a few days each spring to administer a standardized test. I think it was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (the same one I took growing up in the 1960s). And that was pretty much that. It was all pretty innocuous. Our principal cared how our kids did, but we were evaluated on our teaching, not the students’ test scores. And we in turn evaluated our students on how they did on classroom work. Although we had a curriculum to follow, we were free, even encouraged, to experiment in our teaching, observe others, be creative, and challenge our students to seek a deep understanding of our content.

And yet, there were problems in public education. Colleges and employers weren’t happy with our graduates’ deficiencies. Marginal populations weren’t always well-served. There was wide-spread feeling that schools weren’t doing their jobs well and needed to be held accountable.

But to those, mentioned above, who say they’re not about the test but about standards and consistency across the states: I don’t remember any stakeholders – universities, employers, teachers, students, and the rest – saying that the standards were too low or too inconsistent. The complaint was that kids weren’t being prepared for their next step. (And I sure don’t remember teachers complaining about scripted curricula or the loss of music, art, and recess, like we do now – but that’s another story.)

In that context NCLB became federal law with nearly 100% support from both parties. The law intended to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable so that every student would show a year of academic growth after a year of schooling. It took about a decade for it to become obvious, but now nearly everyone agrees that NCLB was poison.

So something had to be done to cure the NCLB pathologies, and now we have Common Core assessments. Lucky us. Bets on whether any of NCLB’s problems will be cured by the Core? Care to double down on the development of multiple secondary effects? Want to bet your whole stack of chips on whether music, art, and recess will return any time soon?

In view of all that, here’s a immodest plea to whoever leads us to the next paradigm of education: Next time, look a little farther back before you start. Then maybe you’ll be able to see a little farther forward when predicting the consequences of your proposals.



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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