Straight Up, Between The Lines

Read carefully between the lines in Rick Hess’ recent blog post, “Can the Common Core Coalition Keeps [sic] Its Finlandophiles in Check?"

Predicting a “fifty-fifty chance that the Common Core effort will dissolve into an ideological clash," Hess writes that in “one short document, the Shankerites managed to do much to undermine the loose confederation that had supported the Common Core." He also lumps a broad spectrum of signatories into one supposedly errant educational faction. People such as former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Reagan appointee Checker Finn, George H.W. Bush appointee Charlie Kolb, George W. Bush appointee Susan B. Neuman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kate Walsh — all are labeled as being “a slew of left-leaning academics and consultants, dotted with my pal Checker Finn and a few long-retired Republican governors”—and the whole crew is charged with being “Finlandophiles." God forbid.

What’s going on here? What have we wrought with the Albert Shanker Institute’s "A Call for Common Content?"

I think Hess is doing more than cooking up a soup of crocodile tears and polemics. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will take education in this country, but he's not willing to take a clear position either way. Given his dilemma, attacking a sound strategy for implementing the standards seems like little more than undermining them without the political risk of having to register a truly “straight up” objection. And this is not the first time he has attempted to evoke tensions among potential supporters of the Common Core standards. I cannot help but suspect that he has made up his mind, but can't quite bring himself to say so.

Let’s look more closely at his diatribe—and I speak for myself here, not as the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute or a representative of any of the signatories. If this “one short document” could really do so much damage to what Hess describes as the “mile-wide, inch-deep coalition” that supports the Common Core standards, then what did their commitment really amount to anyway? An inch isn’t much.

Hess seems almost to yearn for a split in the ranks, noting that “key Hill Republicans, like House K-12 Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter and Senate HELP Committee member Rand Paul, haven’t yet had an opportunity to really focus in on the degree to which the Common Core effort has been pushed and funded by the U.S. Department of Education." He predicts “substantial tensions between Hill Republicans and administration supporters of Common Core.” Is this just a cup of wishful thinking that he adds to the broth? I believe the reason the Shanker Institute’s statement—which cannot be twisted into support for a national curriculum, no matter how hard its detractors try—got (and is still amassing) such wide bipartisan support is simple. Many serious people are tired of watching state standards be written and revised, time after time, but never really implemented. They are tired of reading that the states’ standardized tests—which only dimly reflect the standards—have become the default curriculum in district after district across the country. And they are tired of learning that students’ steady gains on these dumbed-down tests are a mere mirage—not correlated in any way with states’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a national, random sample assessment). Probably they hope the Common Core State Standards will mark a new beginning for American education, provided they can be implemented. I’ll repeat that—provided they can be implemented.

The standards change little if they do not result in the creation of high-quality curricula (and, to be clear, that means more than one curriculum) to guide teachers in how to help students meet them. Without such curricula, we will once again have standards that float somewhere above schooling in an idealistic cloud, while teachers and school leaders are forced to muddle through on the ground, without the resources that they need to improve teaching and learning at scale.

To give credit where credit is due, this is something the Finns seemed to have learned. After years of lackluster performance on international comparisons of educational performance, they have been at or near the top on the OECD’s PISA assessments since 2000 (see here here, here, here, and here).

So, why does Hess never explain what is wrong with Finland? It could be that they have a national education system and a national curriculum, but then again, the entire country isn’t even the size of Montana. Maybe it’s because their political system is a social democracy? Too cold? I’m sure that there are a number of things wrong with Finland, but never having been there, that’s just a guess. Certainly, there was nothing in the Shanker Institute statement to suggest that we just replicate their system. But we did suggest that they are one of the high-achieving nations worth looking at.

If Rick Hess had attended the U.S. Department of Education’s recent international summit on teaching (cosponsored by the OECD, Education International, the NEA, the AFT, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Asia Society and public broadcaster WNET), he would realize how much is to be learned from the experiences—both good and bad—of the world’s best-performing educational systems. Indeed, the leaders of those systems actually think about education in terms of the need for a coherent system—not, American-style, as a collection of disconnected fragments.

So, let’s get serious. If all the folks who say they support the Common Core State Standards didn’t realize that real teachers in real schools would need good matching curricula, then they just don’t know much about how schools actually work. Too many were blind to this in the early 1990’s when the standards movement began. Since then, we’ve made some progress. We should be careful not to  make the same mistakes again.


I would go further and say that: The standards change little if they do not result in the creation of high-quality curricula, textbooks, instruction, assessments, and, above all, the preparation and continuing professional development of content knowledge of teachers. [The Common Core Math standards for Grades 1-8 are higher than the current Math standards required by licensing exams for teachers in many states.]

I would be happier if the Call had not mentioned Finland and just said: In nations with core curriculum standards, such as Singapore, and South Korea, this systemic approach — coupled with equitable resources and strong teacher training — has resulted in both very high average achievement and a diminishing gap between high- and low-achieving students.

An answer to the question: What is wrong with Finland? may be found in:
This article notes that the number of Grade 9 Finns, who could calculate the product: (1/6) x (1/2) dropped in half from 56% in 1981 to 28% in 2003.
(Not that barely half of Grade 9 students being able to multiply fraction was something to brag about.)
(I suspect that this is not what Hess had in mind.)


Impracticality of part of Recommendations #4 of “Call for Common Content”.

Recommendations #4 includes: “If the curriculum guide calls for the structure and movement of the solar system to be learned in the fourth grade, ... But some teachers may choose to have students spend a week building scale models of the solar system”

Suggestion. It would be good to replace the last part with: But some teachers may choose to have students spend an hour building -- models of the solar system as an art project.

Big problem: Scale models of our solar system are not practical! (I do favor students drawing scale models when practical and when pedagogically useful.)
Suppose the class tries to represent Mercury by a small pinhead, with a scaled diameter of 1 mm.
The diameter of Mercury is about 3000 miles; so the scale is 1mm for each 3000 miles.
The distance from Neptune to the Sun is about 2800 million miles. Then the scaled distance from Neptune to the Sun will be [(2800 million miles)/ 3000 miles] mm, which is a little less than 1000m = 1 Km.
So diameter of Neptune’s orbit would be scaled at almost 2 Km, which is more than a mile across.

Spending a full week on the model would be an inefficient use of class time, with much busy work.

Building a model of the solar system does not require analytical reasoning. Good science lessons include analytical reasoning. “Trivial pursuit” science lessons avoid analytical reasoning. So building a model of the solar system is “Trivial pursuit” science or an art project.


"the entire country isn’t even the size of Montana."

...and the entire state of New York isn't even half of the size of Finland. For the record, the population of Montana is 1.0 million and that of Finland is 5.4 million. The area of Montana is about 15 % larger.