In a recent very long speech to the Modern Language Association, Diane Ravitch brings together virtually every argument I’ve ever heard about the Common Core – excoriating the bad guys with great rhetorical flair – but then arrives at a surprising conclusion. Though she does catalogue all the critiques, when she gets past the political arguments, she actually has little bad to say about the standards themselves. She says, essentially, that there are controversies out there over whether the standards are “developmentally appropriate” and whether there is too much non-fiction. But, to my ear, she seems to report on those controversies without really owning them. After all that, Dr. Ravitch concludes with a surprisingly positive and practical recommendation:
We must then curb the misuse of the Common Core standards: Those who like them should use them, but they should be revised continually to adjust to reality.
Now this is something everyone who cares about public education can get behind (though not the privatizers and tea partiers for whom the Common Core is merely one front in the anti-government crusade). This is great stuff, the stuff of compromise on the Common Core itself. Florida is modifying the standards now. In NH and other states, teachers, principals, curriculum directors and school districts do this every day. It’s exciting, really, to see it happening. The new standards are, after all, not some kind of holy grail. They are similar to the best standards that states like MA, CA and VA had developed and are a material step forward for states with less good standards. The details will forever be debatable but the standards are still a good marker around which to organize our educational efforts. And we can’t do without them. But the real action is still in the teaching and how teachers and administrators collaborate to improve learning. Look at these kindergarten teachers talking about how they use the Common Core in a context of play in their classrooms. They are passionate not so much about the Common Core as about their teaching and their students. George Shea, principal of the New Franklin school in Portsmouth, spoke for many educators I’ve talked to when he made a similar point to me the other day, saying, “What’s the big deal about these new standards? They’re a logical improvement to our previous standards. Why are they so controversial?” The debate about the standards has not been a good use of educators’ or policy makers’ time. But maybe Ravitch is summing it all up to help everyone move on. Move on to, among other things, the debate over testing. That’s what she sees as the real problem:
Most objections to the standards are caused by the testing. The tests are too long, and many students give up; the passing marks on the tests were set so high as to create failure……Stop the testing. Stop the rating and ranking. Do not use them to give privilege to those who pass them or to deny the diploma necessary for a decent life. Remove the high-stakes that policymakers intend to attach to them. Use them to enrich instruction, but not to standardize it.
That is another proposition that many parents and educators could get behind. While some people seem to go off the deep end and advocate for ending testing altogether – whatever that would mean – Dr. Ravitch’s position is much more like that of thoughtful commentators like Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun: Less testing, more sampling, less use of testing for accountability, more for improvement. Unlike the Common Core debate, that’s a debate that needs to happen. Diane Ravitch’s speech to the Modern Language Association could be a turning point in the Common Core debate.