I said this phrase, standards not standardization, in a conversation with the ever thoughtful, Jose Vilson… and he has brought it up with me a few times … which makes me think that I need to write through my thoughts on this and will then be leading a conversation on this same topic at Educon 2.6 next month. These are ideas in progress, trying to work through why I bristle at the mention of new standards as a key factor in ‘fixing’ American education.
Standards are developed to provide structure to the ‘what’ of what we teach. Standardization focuses on the ‘how’ of the ‘what’. One can have standards, one can teach with standards without being in a lock step trudge with every other teacher of math or ELA, on the same page, on the same day… crippling the ability of the teacher to practice their craft and for the students to direct the path of their own learning. This approach overlays more industrialization in an era when we need to move into a new metaphor/analogy/allegory for the educational experience.
At the core, I am a teacher. I consider my ‘art’ to be the ability to create a unit that compellingly invites students to learn. On the best day, I can help to draw them into a concept, into a moment of history, into the narrative that will allow them to make meaning, create clever new ways to see an event… evidence their learning in ways that show off not only what they know, but what they can do with what they know. It’s not going to be enough to follow the pacing guide. It’s not enough to get the kids to ‘good enough’. We need to come to terms with the fact that this ‘thing’ we are trying to fix isn’t any more broken than any other institution retooling for modernity. And the ‘fix’ isn’t permanent… it never will be, there is no done… again. We are in the thick of it, finding the path where we do the best we can with what we have, then reflect, retool, improve, refine, rethink and then we do it over and over and over. It is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.
With that in mind, the reason that the Common Core is so hard for me to talk about is that I believe it is the WRONG conversation. It assumes that the ‘what’ of teaching and learning was inadequate, which has then led to American mediocrity. And now that the standards are common… if we can juuuuust standardize the ‘how’, all of educations’ ills will be ‘solved’. No static list of learning objectives coupled with standardized methods is going to EVER get us moving in the direction we need to be moving. We crave uniqueness, a way to express our style…its why there are different car companies, and authors and art. There are fundamentals that make up what a car is, what literature is, what art is – but it is up to the artisan, the engineer, the author to apply their craft. Teachers are no different. I can tolerate that there are common standards, but I can’t seem to tolerate that it then tacitly means that the art of my craft needs to be standardized, boiled down to mediocrity, so as to guarantee outcomes. I do things differently. I can get to the standards in a way that may not be the same as everyone else, it does not make it greater or lesser than, but it makes it authentic to me and the learners in my charge. This matters and it matters a ton.
Teachers are being hurried and pressured to teach more of the ‘what’ and stay to the pacing guide and re-teach and intervene and differentiate and challenge in an environment that infuses creativity and innovation while getting them college and career ready (what else am I forgetting). Does anyone really think they have ‘the way’ to make ‘it’ (read… higher test scores, better outcomes on assessments) happen for all schools across America? We need a toolbox, no check that, we need truck with the bed lined with toolboxes from which to help untangle the academic puzzles that students bring us every day. We need to be able to use that same toolbox to provide engaging academic puzzles for kids. We need to be able then use our expertise to grab the right series of tools for the task at hand. We are artisans, not assembly line workers.
If you want to believe that the Common Core is going to save American education, by all means go on, but you will soon realize that we don’t just need quality ingredients to have a good meal, we also need talented cooks.