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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

A man walks by Pfizer headquarters, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in New York. Pfizer will spend about $43 billion to buy Seagen and broaden its reach into cancer treatments, the pharmaceutical giant said Monday, March 13, 2023. (AP Photo / Mark Lennihan, File)
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to acquire Bothell-based Seagen

Pfizer announced Monday it plans to acquire Seagen in an all-cash deal for $43 billion.

Lacie Marsh-Carroll stirs wax before pouring candles in her garage at her home on March 17, 2018 in Lake Stevens. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)
Women business owners in Snohomish, Island counties make their mark

In honor of Women’s History Month, we spotlight three local business owners.

Edmonds International Women’s Day takes place Saturday

The Edmonds gathering celebrates women and diversity with this year’s theme, “EmbraceEquity.”

Owner and CEO Lacie Carroll holds a “Warr;or” candle at the Malicious Women Candle Co workspace in Snohomish, Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. The business is women run and owned. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Malicious Women Co: She turned Crock-Pot candles into a sassy venture

Lacie Marsh-Carroll is rekindling her Snohomish candle company with new designs and products.

Kelly Matthews, 36, left, Tonka, 6, center, and Nichole Matthews, 36, pose for a photo in their home in Lynnwood, Washington on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.  The twin sisters work as freelance comic book artists and illustrators. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Drawing interest: Twin sisters never gave up on making their mark

Lynnwood sisters, Kelly and Nichole Matthews, got their big break a decade ago and now draw comics full time.

Willow Mietus, 50, poses for a photo at her home in Coupeville, Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Mietus bought a former Frito-Lay truck to sell her dyed yarn out of. She calls it "The Wool Wagon." (Annie Barker / The Herald)
The Wool Wagon to hit the streets of Whidbey Island

A self-described “professional yarn temptress” from Coupeville is setting up shop in a modified truck.

IonQ will open a new quantum computing manufacturing and research center at 3755 Monte Villa Parkway in Bothell. (Photo courtesy of IonQ)
Quantum computing firm IonQ to open Bothell R&D center

IonQ says quantum computing systems are key to addressing climate change, energy and transportation.

Nathanael Engen, founder of Black Forest Mushrooms, sits in the lobby of Think Tank Cowork with his 9-year-old dog, Bruce Wayne, on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Growing green mushrooms in downtown Everett

The founder of Black Forest Mushrooms plans to grow gourmet mushrooms locally, reducing their carbon footprint.

Barb Lamoureux, 78, poses for a photo at her office at 1904 Wetmore Ave in Everett, Washington on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Lamoureux, who founded Lamoureux Real Estate in 2004, is retiring after 33 years. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Barb Lamoureux, ‘North Everett’s Real Estate Agent’ retires

A longtime supporter of Housing Hope, Lamoureux helped launch the Windermere Foundation Golf Tournament.

AGC Biologics in Bothell to produce new diabetes treatment

The contract drug manufacturer paired with drug developer Provention Bio to bring the new therapy to market.

Everett Memorial Stadium and Funko Field on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Drive to build new AquaSox ballpark gets $7.4M boost from state

The proposed Senate capital budget contains critical seed money for the city-led project likely to get matched by the House.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Dumpko? $30M worth of Funko Pop! collectibles destined for landfill

The Everett toy maker has too much inventory, making it cheaper to toss the figurines than sell them.