"Unfortunately, it is a universal human truth that
the list of accomplishments and abilities
that an individual possesses
will always be much shorter than the corresponding list
-Dr. Joseph Ganem
A New Incarnation of an Outmoded Way of Thinking
By Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.
In the apparently endless cycle of school reforms a new one is taking hold -The Common Core. It arrives with all the attributes of reforms of the past in that it is:
- Well-intentioned - I've attended informational meetings hosted by my county school superintendent with the state school superintendent, along with representatives of parent and teacher groups, all answering questions. I can attest to the sincerity of their beliefs in the advantages of the Common Core and their desire to do what is best for children.
- Intentionally disruptive - Teachers in my home state of Maryland, a state that has adopted the Common Core, are severely stressed as they alter their curricula and practices to conform to the new standards, and to the new expectations for how their job performances will be assessed. The teachers union in Baltimore County has filed a grievance protesting the additional uncompensated hours being required of teachers in order to adopt the new standards.
- Arousing suspicions of nefarious motives - I was present at a meeting where a parent was forcibly removed and arrested for disruptive behavior. He insisted the Common Core was actually lowering standards. The video of the arrest, shot just a few feet from where I sat, went viral the next day and aroused the ire of right-wing pundits who saw it as another example of federal overreach into local education policy.
- Surrounded by misinformation - Actually the Common Core is not a federal initiative or requirement. It originated from the states and states voluntarily decide whether or not to adopt the standards.
Despite these predictable issues that come with any new program, it remains an open question as to whether the Common Core represents an effective change in educational practices. Like most, I would like to believe that it does. However, I am deeply skeptical, because in my view the Common Core represents the latest incarnation of an old, and outmoded way of thinking about education.
After a lifetime spent in education, the one aspect of the enterprise that disturbs me the most
is the focus on correcting deficiencies, rather than the effecting of individual development.
The Common Core, with its emphasis on "standards" is, like its predecessors, what I call a "deficiency-based" model for education.
helping a lagging student catch up
is as satisfying
as helping a gifted student excel."
The effort put into developing the Common Core has been in listing and agreeing upon a standard body of knowledge and skills that all students should possess. A student lacking in one of the attributes from the list is deemed deficient and needs to be brought up to the standard.
The focus on deficiencies permeates all levels of education from kindergarten to high school
to college and up to the highest levels in academia at which university faculty are evaluated
on their job performances. At all levels of assessment, checklists are brought out and omissions noted. The significance of accomplishments is always second in consideration
to gaps on the list. Unfortunately, it is a universal human truth that the list of accomplishments and abilities that an individual possesses, will always be much shorter than the corresponding list of what that same individual lacks. Education when framed in this manner becomes
a futile undertaking.
I believe that this way of thinking about education arises from the past manufacturing-based economy when the purpose of schools was to prepare the next generation of factory and office workers. Like the interchangeable parts assembled into products, the workers also needed to be interchangeable. Educational standards mirrored part and product specifications. A high school graduate had to fit into a "slot" in the company in the same way that each part had
to fit in place on the assembly line. Expressions such as "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole" have their origin in this economic past.
who arrive in school
exceeding the Common Core standards . . .
However, economic realities of the 21st century render both the factory and the factory model of education obsolete. Education needs to re-focus on promoting the development of the individual over the course of a lifetime. Teaching should not be about correcting deficiencies
in relation to a standard; it should be about effecting change in relation to a student's present abilities. To illustrate the distinction I am making, consider an experience I had in middle school physical education.
on promoting the development of the individual
over the course of a lifetime.
I enjoyed gym class very much, especially participating in the sports and games. However, when the six-week winter unit on gymnastics took place, I found that I lacked the upper body strength needed to use many of the apparatuses. I could not do the required routines on the parallel bars, rings, or vault, because I could not lift myself with my arms. Since I couldn't use the apparatuses, I instead spent the time doing upper body exercises and increasing my strength. At the end of the unit, when our coach brought out his checklist of required moves
that each student should be able to perform on each apparatus, I still couldn't do most of
them. However, I had a noticeable gain in upper body strength from my workouts - a change that the coach noted out loud to the class. He said that in comparison to the other students,
I had increased my overall strength and physical ability the most during those six weeks.
The fact is there are many students in the school system for which meeting Common Core standards will be about as futile as me lifting myself up with my arms on the rings hovering
over the gym floor. But, these students benefit immensely from school because they learn
a great deal. They and their teachers should not be deemed failures because that learning
falls short of the standards. There are students at the other end of spectrum who arrive in school already exceeding the Common Core standards, in the same manner as a natural athlete exuding strength and grace on the gym floor without weeks of training. They and
their teachers should not be deemed successes by their mere presence. These gifted
students should be challenged to perform better.
Actually all students should be challenged to perform better no matter where their abilities
fall in relation to the Common Core standards. The failure of deficiency-based education models, like the Common Core, to recognize the diversity of human experiences and abilities that students bring into school is I believe a deficiency in our entire approach to education. However, while this flawed approach to education has persisted for a very long time, it is a
flaw that we can no longer afford. The 21st century world we live in is changing too fast.
Human life spans are now vastly exceeding the lifetimes of established companies,
institutions, and technologies. As a result, it is impossible for an education system to
provide students with a knowledge and skill base sufficient for a meaningful and productive adult life. A rethinking of education is needed that focuses on the change that each student undergoes in the learning process. Not only will "change-centered" education be more productive and satisfying for teachers and students, it will better prepare students for a
lifetime of learning and continuous improvement that is now necessary to cope with our
rapidly changing world.
A student lacking in one of the attributes from the list is deemed deficient
and needs to be brought up to the standard.
The good news is that teachers enjoy effecting positive change in a student, no matter what level that student is at initially. For a teacher, helping a lagging student catch up is as satisfying as helping a gifted student excel. Job satisfaction for teachers is in effecting a change in ability for every student in their charge. Teachers want what is best for each student and recognize that the "what" is as varied as the students.
The bad news is that education policy makers are mired in past ways of thinking even as the future accelerates towards us. The Common Core, by all appearances, remains a model for education from the past that seeks to enumerate and correct student deficiencies. We need a new model for education that aligns with the rapidly changing world of the future - one that seeks to instill in each student a commitment to continuous improvement over the course of a lifetime.