06/18/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

The Complicated Promise of the Common Core

I had a friend who was torpedoed three times in the Atlantic Ocean, twice before the United States entered World War II. During the McCarthy era, he was condemned as a "premature anti-fascist." Today, when data-driven "reformers" seek to impose litmus tests on teachers, requiring us to believe in the same test prep philosophy, and forcing us to all be on the "same page" in delivering it, there is an obvious similarity between my friend and teachers who resist the teach-to-the-bubble-in-test. But the difference is much greater. Nobody has asked us to sacrifice our lives for the right to expose our students to critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and project based learning.

Teachers have a right to be leery of the new push for Common Core standards and assessments. There is no guarantee that, once again, "reformers" won't become impatient and turn the technology to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a first step toward real educational equity. So, teachers should welcome the relatively small risk that Common Core entails.

Last week, I attended a conference in Oklahoma City, Vision 2020, which focused largely on Common Core. To borrow a phrase from my old friend's era, last week I saw the future and it might work. I heard politicians, educators, and policy experts funded, in part, by the Gates Foundation as they condemned the bubble-in outrages the last decade. They then outlined a vision where all students learn 21st century skills for mastery, as opposed to the rushed, soul-killing rote instruction that has been imposed in the name of "reform."

To explain my joy when I read Oklahoma's Common Core Standards, I must recount the worst testing outrage that I experienced. It occurred when our frightened administrators forced teachers to attach stakes to bi-weekly benchmark assessments, which previously had been diagnostic. I was supposed to cover a major standard, such as the New Deal or the Cold War every eight minutes, every hour of every day. I was supposed to prepare lesson plans documenting full coverage of world history standards. I was supposed to follow a scope and sequence and in one day cover lessons such as:

Standard 16.4, Examine the rise of nationalism, the causes and effects of World War II (eg Holocaust, economic and military shifts since 1945, the founding of the United Nations, and the political positioning of Europe, Africa, and Asia).

I was supposed to document my approach to teaching, evaluating, and reteaching, while keeping to the pacing schedule with one-day lessons such as:

Standard 7.2, Describe China under the Qin, Han, T'ang, and Sung Dynasties; the traditions, customs, beliefs, and significance of Buddhism; the impact of Confucianism and Taoism, and the construction of the Great Wall.

Because my subject was not subjected to end of instruction tests, I was able to successfully resist demands that I commit such educational malpractice. The English and Math department were not so lucky. They were forced to comply. Once benchmarks had stakes attached, failure rates soared to 80-90 percent in tested subjects. Within three months, our school lost 40 percent of its students, mostly to the streets.

It wasn't easy, but for nearly a decade I was able to resist pressure to rush through standards in a skin-deep way. I used every political skill I had to protect my right to pare down standards to a doable number. Compromises were made, and we mostly studied Asian, African, and Latin American history within the context of modern history. It drove some administrators crazy, but my students were thus able to learn for mastery about the transition from colonialism to nationalism, and how the legacy of that bloody story helps explain genocide in Rwanda, as well as today's wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. My kids were able to compare the stories of colonialism in South Africa and India as portrayed by Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom and Gandhi. In contrast to other sophomores who never got to the 20th century and thus lost the chance to study the Mexican Revolution, my kids had time to study Cesar Chavez within the context of both the American civil rights movement and Latin American history.

I must emphasize that the pressure I faced when defending the rights of my students to study history in an engaging manner was nothing in comparison to the challenges faced by so many people who have sacrificed their lives in the defense of liberty. But, you can imagine what I felt when reading the new Common Core Standards. They have been reduced from 17 pages to two. The new standards are nearly identical to the standards that I fought for and taught.

In other words, I was a premature Common Core teacher. In two years, all Oklahoma students supposedly will be taught the same curriculum that drove my administrators up the wall.

Of course, my premature Common Core colleagues who are still in the classroom will face a dilemma that is even more complicated than what I negotiated. Next year, they will be provided professional development on better questioning strategies for nurturing higher order thinking. But, their students will also be subject to the primitive old bubble-in high stakes tests. Will teachers be allowed to teach with the Common Core methods that they are being taught, or will they be forced to impose the same old diet of basic skills instruction? Will they be required to wait until Common Core assessments are in effect before abandoning their old curriculum pacing guide which requires them to rush, skin-deep through an impossible number of standards? And, when Common Core is implemented, will teachers be allowed to teach it in the way it was designed to be taught or will a new form of teach-to-the-assessment regime be imposed?

Common Core will be frightening but it must be viewed in context. If we teachers see ourselves as participant of the civil rights movement of the 21st century, then we should accept some risks, and nobody is forcing us to accept the mortal dangers that others have risked for our freedom. We should keep our eyes on the prize and remember the way that Core Knowledge's Robert Pondiscio phrases the issue. We must take some risks for a reform that "restores art, music, history and literature to the curriculum." (Emphasis is Pondiscio's)