12/07/2012 02:11 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

How to Save Common Core

Education Week's special report on the Common Core provides detailed analyses of the research that informs this new curriculum. "Rethinking Literacy" is a reminder of how tragic it will be if Common Core is stillborn. Unfortunately, the same issue reports on a major study conducted by a "who's who" of scholars, "Today's Tests Are Seen as Bar to Better Assessment," which casts doubt on the future of Common Core.

It would be hard to say what was the most impressive aspect of Ed Week's coverage. It describes efforts to bring back writing and multidisciplinary instruction. Its accounts of recent research on reading instruction were a reminder of the true excellence which comes from American scholarship. It would be such a joy for teachers to work with these researchers in order to undo the damage done by our bubble-in fetish known as "reform."

But, we must deal with the mixed messages that Education Week recounts. Because a generation of reformers misunderstood the difference between formative and summative assessments, explains one scholar, and their "misbeliefs" are "actually fostering worse and worse tests." And because teachers are held accountable to those tests, "the way math and reading are taught are disabling because they are taught for recognition and taught for memorization, and even comprehension is being postponed."

If reformers want Common Core and the work of the social scientists who have developed better pedagogies to survive, they must heed the wisdom of the Gordon Commission. Since 2011, this blue ribbon panel of experts has studied tests as they are actually implemented, and the harm they have done to instruction. "With only few exceptions," the commission concludes, current tests "systematically overrepresent basic skills and knowledge and omit the complex knowledge and reasoning we are seeking for college and career readiness."

"Shifting Paradigms: Beyond the Abstract" explains:

Our country has been trying to build a standards-based accountability system as a foundation for a more equitable and higher-achieving education system. In practice, however, we have created a test-based accountability system that does not reflect the standards we aimed for at the beginning of the 1990s, much less today's fewer, clearer, higher Common Core Standards.

The commission is not interested in perpetuating the blame game. It acknowledges that nobody intended "a testing bind" that produced "those teaching-to-the-test regimes." Ironically, the Gordon Commission finds:

The effects are greatest in the poorest schools. The nation's current approach to raising achievement and increasing equity in the education system is having an effect opposite from the intended one. It is trapping poor children in a basic skills teaching program that gives them little chance to acquire the deeper knowledge and abilities we seek for everyone.

The commission calls for a system that "would be educative for those who use it. It would not just tell us how well students, teachers, and schools are performing, but also teach teachers how to teach, teach students how to learn, and teach education organizations how to develop teaching expertise." In other words, it seeks an end to mixed messages. If our goal is teaching and learning for mastery, we cannot afford primitive test-driven accountability systems that encourage the opposite.

But, time is running out. "Reformers" seem to think that they can continue to force systems to teach to the lowest common denominator, and then order them to abruptly switch gears. In 2014, presumably, teachers will instantly teach in an engaging and challenging manner. "Reformers" must choose between their value-added models and top down micromanaging of "innovations" and their desire to teach for college and career readiness. If advocates for Common Core want their system to have a chance of being properly implemented, they must quickly join with teachers, unions and education experts and demand an end to the bubble-in mania of the last generation and the use to primitive standardized tests to punish educators.