09/25/2014 06:46 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Common Core Revisited

On September 9, I attended the NPR-syndicated Intelligence Squared debate, "Should Schools Embrace the Common Core?" Although it has been reported that close to 80 percent of Americans now oppose the Common Core Standards, the initial poll of the live audience showed that 50 percent of the audience was for, 13 percent against, and 37 percent undecided. So one obvious question is: How much of the audience was made up of people who had some skin in the Common Core game?

The protagonists were Carmel Martin, who worked with Arne Duncan when the standards were adopted by about 45 states and Michael Petrilli, who is executive editor of Education Next, an online journal. Arguing against the motion were Carol Burris an outspoken and outstanding New York high school principal and Frederick Hess, resident scholar and director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Petrilli defined the problem that the Common Core Standards address: "It's not that schools are failing, it's that our schools, by and large, are mediocre when compared to schools overseas. They're in the middle of the pack. And it's not just our demographics. It's not just because we have a lot of childhood poverty, though we do. Our rich kids are in the middle of the pack compared to other rich kids around the world."

If you read the Common Core Standards, they describe the behavior you expect from an educated person, at various stages in their schooling, who can read for meaning and can articulate through written and spoken language the concepts under consideration. Nothing wrong with that. The problem comes with the assessments. How do you measure measuring up to standards without introducing standardization into learning? The stakes attached to the assessments have thrown a monkey wrench into a relatively benign description of what should be the outcomes of 12 years of schooling. The fixation on testing, the misconception that standardized tests can inform instruction, and the notion that ALL children can achieve these goals regardless of poverty, disabilities, and English as a second language has produced a growing rebellion against the Common Core Standards as manifested by many organizing and refusing to take the tests. I don't blame them.

So what should we do? Veteran teachers smile and say weather the storm. Wait four years and there will be a whole new set of standards. Excellent teachers ignore the standards and teach well, as they always have. Textbook publishers welcome the four-year cycle so they can simply repackage the mediocre product they've always produced with new packaging that makes it seem current. The test creators foist their half-baked assessment tests on school districts across the nation, collecting lucrative contracts. Parents wring their hands and the issue comes up over and over again for debate. The spirit of the times is to throw out the Common Core Standards and start over. In fact, "start over" seems to be the mantra for closing public schools en masse, increasing the number of charter schools, wholesale firing of experienced teachers, staffing the most difficult urban classrooms with bright college students after only 5 weeks of training, and, perhaps most egregious of all, omitting the expertise and insights of the most effective in-the-trenches classroom teachers. Sadly, education has been so undermined by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, that top educators are leaving the profession in droves and young teachers, who need the jobs, throw up their hands and say, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it." They would rather have a script -- one that produces standardized learning -- than learn to trust their own judgment and produce creative, competent learners.

The two antagonists in the debate spent a lot of time pointing out how disruptive the testing was and, as a result, how unworkable the standards. Carol Burris summed up by drawing an analogy between the CCSS and a car she had purchased that proved to be a lemon. I felt her argument was weak. Others must have as well because at the end there was 67 percent pro, 27 percent against and 6 percent still undecided. The "pros" were declared the winners since they had changed more minds.

There will always be a lot to criticize about education. We will never rid the system of dead-wood teachers, short-sighted administrators, and negligent parents. But there is a huge body of literature on what the best practices are and there is a wealth of high-quality instructional material out there, if only teachers had more time to find it. Why don't we just declare a moratorium on testing for a few years, spend the freed-up money on support and professional development for teachers and wonderful books for children in all disciplines, and then spring a test on everyone without test prep to see what they've learned? We just might be surprised and pleased by the outcome.