James Joyner points us to a Washington Post article on how Bill Gates somewhat single-handedly pulled off a dramatic restructuring of American public education, via promoting the Common Core standards. There is much that is fascinating here, including the fact that a billionaire with a plan can get things done in our fractured Republic a lot more easily than our actual governments (plural because education is still largely a local matter) ever could. Apparently, Gates got a pitch in 2008 from a pair of education reformers who wanted to see uniform standards for US schools. Gates thought about it, then jumped in with two feet (and a vast philanthropic and lobbying apparatus). Within two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core Standards. The idea enjoyed bipartisan support; only quite recently, when members of the Tea Party realized that all this happened under Obama’s watch, have Republicans taken up the fight against it.
Personally, I’m completely in favor of national curricula and standards. Indeed, I’d like to go much further, and nationalize the schools, so that public spending on students in rural Louisiana is just as high as that in wealthy suburbs in the Northeast. I’m also not dead set against swift action by small groups of people who are willing to get things done, rather than sit around for decades trading white papers and town hall meetings. (I even helped a bit with such non-democratic action myself, and suffered the attendant abuse with stoic calm.)
What I don’t know, since I simply am completely unfamiliar with the details, is whether the actual Common Core initiative (as opposed to the general idea of a common curriculum) is a good idea. I know that some people are very much against it — so much so that it’s difficult to find actual information about it, since emotions run very high, and you are more likely to find either rampant boosterism or strident criticism. Of course you can look up what the standards are, both in English Language Arts and in Mathematics (there don’t seem to be standards for science, history, or social studies). But what you read is so vague as to be pretty useless. For example, the winningly-named “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1” standard reads
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
That sounds like a good idea! But doesn’t translate unambiguously into something teachable. The devil is in the implementation.
So — anyone have any informed ideas about how it works in practice, and whether it’s helpful and realistic? (Early results seem to be mildly promising.) I worry from skimming some of the information that there seems to be an enormous emphasis on “assessment,” which presumably translates into standardized testing. I recognize the value of such testing in the right context, but also have the feeling that it’s already way overdone (in part because of No Child Left Behind), and the Common Core just adds another layer of requirements. I’d rather have students and schools spend more time on teaching and less time on testing, all else being equal.