Muddled thought behind Common Core is its undoing

There is a saying that goes, “A muddled sentence reflects a muddled thought.” When a messy sentence doesn’t work for the reader, most times it can’t be fixed by grammar corrections or word selection. You have to clarify the thought behind it and start over.

The principle expressed in that saying seems to be very much on display in the Common Core issue. Facing discontent and dissatisfaction from teachers, parents, and the general public, states are moving to drop or distance themselves from Common Core with roughly the same velocity as they had adopted them. About 20 states have already done so.

The latest to sever its ties to Common Core is Massachusetts, which announced last week that it was dropping the nationwide tests and would instead use exams that it would develop on its own.

Massachusetts’ decision delivered a knockout blow to any hopes that the Common Core dustup would settle down and a national acceptance would emerge. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been a leader in education and its students have consistently placed at or near the top of state rankings.

The key to understanding what went wrong in Common Core is in the relationship between a thought and a written sentence — and an important clue can be found in why it couldn’t be fixed. The thought behind Common Core wasn’t clear. The system couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a testing system or a teaching methodology system. Was it supposed to assist teachers or zombify them under their new master, an all-encompassing system?

While there was, generally, a bipartisan consensus behind the development of Common Core, it concealed a dog’s breakfast of disagreements about fundamental issues. Even today there are major differences in interpretation of what the test scores actually mean. Partly as a result of these disagreements, Common Core morphed from a diagnostic testing system into a full blown curriculum revision and development project.

A similar fate befell the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. It had begun as a response to employer complaints that incoming workers with high school diplomas could not add or subtract, could not read, and could not be relied on to take down a telephone message accurately and legibly. Like Common Core, though, it morphed into a system that attempted to solve all our educational problems. And like Common Core, it couldn’t be fixed when it failed to maintain enough political or public support.

Starting over will not be easy for Massachusetts or for any state. And if the new system developers allow the enormity and complexity of our educational problems to expand their fundamental goals we will be writing the same kind of obituaries for their work a few years from now.

Our country is going through a trying time, and at least some of our education system disappointments are related to the fallout from that. There is little that a packaged educational system can do, for example, to overcome an acute lack of motivation. Sometimes a remarkable individual teacher can change students’ attitudes towards learning, and about life, but not as often as we would hope. It is especially difficult when student’s life at home and outside the classroom generally is reinforcing many self-destructive forms of behavior and undermining any sense of purpose.

It is important, even crucial, that we address and solve this problem. Our education system is where our future is forged, and as a country we cannot afford — economically, politically, or socially — the growth of a population sub-set defined by educational deficiencies and lack of purpose. That would ultimately destroy not just their future but our nation’s as well.

Education is an integral part of the American dream. Economics is a part of that dream, too, but it is not the whole and cannot be allowed to be the most important part of it. And as we are learning to our dismay, the lure of increased earnings makes a poor, ultimately corrosive source of motivation for education. On the other hand, our curiosity and the drive to do things better, smarter, is a part our human nature and their motivating power should be recognized in education, much as it is becoming so in the workplace. Much the same is true of the wish to make things better in our world, and we should not ignore that either.

No system of standardized tests or educational standards will make our K-12 system work better unless we possess a belief in them and have the will to back their enforcement. With any luck, we will remember this as Common Core approaches the end of its tenure. We’ll save a lot of time, money, and grief if we do.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.

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